"The dealers who are engaged and buying into the direction of the brand are having major success," says Mike Bowsher, who owns two Buick-GMC stores in the Atlanta area and one in Orlando.
The 109-year-old Buick brand was saved from the chopping block during GM's restructuring because of its strong sales in China, the world's largest auto market. Selling virtually the same vehicles across continents drives down development costs. Last year Buick was the No. 5 brand in China, selling 645,829 units -- nearly four times as many as it sells in the United States.
While it's the smallest of GM's four brands in the United States, Buick helps GM attract new buyers: Forty-one percent of Buick buyers in 2011 came from non-GM brands, up from 29 percent in 2007, GM says.
Bowsher, co-chairman of the Buick-GMC National Dealer Council, is among many dealers surprised by Buick's lost momentum. He says his stores' Buick sales were up 46 percent for the year through April.
In addition to the drop in fleet sales, GM managers point to the recent phasing out of the aging Buick Lucerne. But those lost units largely have been offset by the new Buick Verano, the brand's first small car since the early 1990s, which was launched in December.
Swapping those cars should help Buick's nagging image as a retirees' brand. With its four-speed transmission and cavernous trunk, the Lucerne was the final holdout of old-school Buick. The Verano, which is based on the Opel Astra, is aimed at younger buyers looking for their first taste of luxury.
Dealers cite two major drags on Buick sales:
1. Brand perception.
A stodgy image still clings to the brand even as Buick rolls out European-derived cars with sleek, taut designs such as the Regal, which is a cousin of the Opel Insignia. It is built in Osh-awa, Ontario.
In its April car-buying issue, Consumer Reports rated the Regal higher than the Volvo S60 and Audi A4 among compact sport sedans. The Enclave ranked sixth out of 22 luxury SUVs. Both got low marks for reliability, though, which is a nagging problem, according to the magazine.
"I fight the good fight every day about perception," says Steve Cappellino, a Buick-GMC dealer near Buffalo, N.Y. "I'll tell someone I'm a Buick dealer and they'll say, 'Oh, my dad owned one,' or, 'My grandfather had three.'"
Despite GM's efforts to position Buick against import luxury brands such as Acura and Infiniti, research shows that consumers lump Buick with brands such as Ford and Toyota. In April, those were the two most-shopped brands by consumers who also were considering a Buick, according to Edmunds.com.
2. Leasing strategy.
Cappellino echoes the sentiment of many Buick dealers: The trick is persuading would-be buyers to get behind the wheel to dispel the old-fogey image. They hope a new lease program will help.
In March, GM rolled out a 24-month lease deal, dubbed Experience Buick, that includes routine maintenance, satellite radio and OnStar.
Since then, Cappellino says showroom traffic has been the strongest of the year. But it hasn't yet reversed Buick's monthly sales declines.
Sweeney says the program has helped push Buick's nationwide lease penetration up to 30 percent. He expects it to climb even higher.
Until the new lease plan, Buick's lease penetration hovered around 15 percent. That's below the industry average of around 22 percent and far lower than the brands Buick is targeting, such as Acura, Lincoln and Infiniti, whose lease penetrations range from 35 percent to higher than half of sales.
Leasing virtually dried up for GM dealers during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Buick-GMC dealers had been stuck trying to sell Buicks with monthly lease payments that were higher than rivals' in the entry-luxury category, where competitive lease payments are crucial for success. That was especially painful in lease-heavy markets such as the Northeast, where lease rates can exceed 40 percent for sedans.
Now Buick is advertising a 24-month lease on an Enclave for no money down and $433 per month, including the maintenance, satellite radio and OnStar. That's $20 cheaper than a 39-month lease with no freebies that Buick had offered before.
In contrast, buyers can get a 36-month lease on an Acura MDX SUV for $449 per month plus $2,999 down.