Buick: A Modern Renaissance Story

By Lesley Wimbush
December 29, 2017 Updated: December 30, 2017    

Over the last decade, Buick has managed to reinvent itself—from coming perilously close to being one of the brands GM would discontinue during the economic downturn, to the global success it is today.  Buick is enjoying a renaissance of sorts—thanks to a fresh new image and its popularity in the world’s biggest market.

With nearly 1.4 billion people, China has the world’s largest population, and thanks to its strong labour force and enormous export output, has managed to transform itself into the dominating world marketplace.

More than 1.1 million Buicks were sold in China last year—approximately 80 percent of the brand’s global sales.  Chinese buyers favour Buick over Audi, BMW, Mercedes Benz, and Honda. Their nostalgic brand loyalty is largely due to its popularity with China’s ruling nobility; Emperor Sun Yat Sen, sometimes referred to as the founding father of modern-day China, owned a Buick. The first cars ever to enter the Forbidden City in Beijing belonged to Emperor Pu Yi.

Thanks to its success in China, Buick has not only gained more resources for research and development, it’s had to ramp up its level of quality and styling to compete in such a highly competitive market.  Buick’s had to re-invent itself as a modern, progressive brand, for a younger and more diverse demographic.  Certainly it’s working with younger buyers in China, to whom a Buick is a quiet symbol of respectable success.

Asia’s influence can be felt here in Canada, with the arrival of fresh new models, and an increase in premium features and technology.  Buick sales were up 14.8 percent here in Canada last year, largely due to the popularity of crossovers.  Encore, Buick’s entry into the explosive compact crossover segment, is their top selling model in Canada and sold over 70,000 units in China last year.  It’s an enormous about-face for this domestic brand, which once relied on stodgy sedans targeting an older and predominantly male buyer.

We recently spoke with Michael MacPhee, brand director of Buick Canada, on their change in perspective, and the part it has played in Buick’s renaissance. “Buick specifically is our largest brand in the world’s largest market and that’s how we look at Buick now, taking the leadership position for General Motors in the Chinese market.  Having the global scale that Buick has is extremely important to us, it allows us to launch with a cadence that best represents the brand.”

Michael MacPhee (Buick Canada)

Mr. MacPhee points to China’s demand for a longer wheelbase and increased rear seat room out of respect for their passengers, often elders, has influenced our market. “will play out best in the Canadian market when you look at vehicles like the Envision. That vehicle, compared to its competitive set, has the best in class rear seat legroom. And the sliding second row.  Vehicles like Regal, having more rear legroom than the vehicle it replaced, and the Lacrosse”

Part-way through last year, the Envision, the first-ever Chinese-built Buick was introduced to our market.  Since then, sales have nearly tripled. Mr. MacPhee said that Buick has been a pioneer at looking at China as a manufacturing location.” Envision is made in China and it’s really interesting in that the people, the plant, and the product that comes out of it has truly been world class.”

“But it’s also changed the way we think about the company.  If we’re looking to make sure we can be as relevant and in the right places for the Chinese consumer; making sure that our website is fully integrated and can be fully displayed in simplified text for example. Making sure that for new Canadians, especially in the Chinese marketplace that we’re developing the content and the user experience around a best in class ownership. (Android Auto and Apple CarPlay have been developed for use in multi-languages) That’s been important for us not only in how we think about the consumer, but how we work as a company and what we employ for our best practices as an organization.”

Buick Envision (Buick Canada)

The forward thinking even extends to how they work. Buick’s gone through an overall metamorphosis even within its own walls. Once a typical corporate environment divided by a grid work of solitary cubicles, Buick’s marketing and development team can now generate new ideas in a fresh, wide open space that encourages collaboration.

Mr. MacPhee credits that open and progressive teamwork for the brand’s metamorphosis. “Other things that are unique about Buick, when we look at our brand teams and specifically what’s different, and the perspective that we bring—our team for Buick is younger and diverse, and this is rare for the industry, is made up more of females than males.  And that’s a surprise for a lot of people. Many of the Buick designers—they’re women. They’re doing an amazing job to develop the brand. People generally think “auto industry… guys” and it’s shattering all those perceptions about old, stodgy brands and making sure that we’re progressive, and modern as an organization”

Encore, Buick’s number one seller here, has done a lot for the brand’s image and Mr. MacPhee credits the compact crossover as “exemplifying the modern and contemporary. It’s our entry point into a younger, more affluent buyer in the key cities. It also significantly skews our mix from a male-focused brand of the past, to an innovative, modern brand (targeting) much more females.  Women are a much higher percentage of our purchasers with Encore and younger women, 35 years old. Great maneoverability anywhere across the world where parking is difficult. Where it pays off the best in Canada is in the Toronto/Montreal/ Vancouver market, It’s been a great conquest vehicle and getting rid of perceptions of the past. ”

Buick Encore (Buick Canada)

Buick’s had great success with their portfolio of SUVs and has recently introduced a new “Avenir” trim line that pays homage to the elegant concept vehicle of the same name. Currently available on the Enclave, the Avenir trim is “the ultimate expression of Buick, designed to elevate the brand” according to Mr. MacPhee. “Things like the black ice grille, the pearl-nickle exclusive 20-inch wheels and inside, a much different delivery in terms of personal luxury. Exclusive chestnut brown leather, it’s designed so that it rewards at a personal level for the owners.” Mr. MacPhee describes the Avenir as “upper end, but attainable luxury” that’s resonating with customers, in fact it represents more than 50 percent of Enclave sales.  It’s being developed as a sub-brand with exclusive design treatments, and will soon be introduced on the Lacrosse.

It’s no secret that the sedan segment is struggling, with the enormous popularity of crossovers. Many automakers have decreased their sedan production to concentrate on a crossover portfolio. But Mr. MacPhee says Buick remains committed to the sedan market— “we feel we’ve got the right strategy with Buick in Canada. When we look at Regal and Lacrosse, we’ve got great momentum. We’re up 25 percent combined and Buick is one of the fastest growing brands in Canada, significantly outpacing the industry. ”

The recently launched 6th generation Regal comes in two flavours; the Sportback and the TourX wagon. While the TourX wagon is being marketed as a global vehicle, Canada will only be getting the Sportback. That includes the performance-oriented Regal GS with 310 horsepower, dual-clutch automatic transmission, and available AWD. Enthusiasts may recall the Buick Regal Grand National GNX of the 1980s, a black sedan with supercar performance—however Mr. MacPhee is mum on whether we’ll ever see a commemorative version of this legendary badge. According to Mr. MacPhee, there are no plans for Buick to include the 1.6-litre diesel that is now available in other GM products such as the Chevrolet Equinox, Cruze, and Colorado.

Buick Regal (Buick Canada)

Like most automakers, General Motors is focusing on developing alternative energies and decreasing their reliance upon fossil fuels. Electrification will be increasingly important in markets, such as China, where strict inner-city emissions regulations will favour all-electric or hybrid vehicles with the ability to run on battery power alone within urban centres.  But Mr. MacPhee is reluctant to confirm on how that will affect Buick. “We have the LaCrosse Hybrid already, and at a corporate level we announced the zero emissions , zero crashes, and also zero congestion strategy (by 2023). We’re very committed to that goal across all of our brands but nothing further to announce at this time. ”

He’s equally noncommittal on the burgeoning development of artificial intelligence and autonomous driving currently sweeping the industry. “We don’t have anything to announce at this time, other than we’ve got a lot of ambitious goals for the brand globally for our organization and artificial intelligence and machine learning is definitely a component of that.”

Buick’s re-invention, an “encore” of sorts, has resulted in a fresh, modern, and comprehensive line-up of new vehicles.  Mr. MacPhee strongly advises readers to visit Buick’s display at the upcoming Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. “Make sure you check in with Buick. It is on a complete renaissance”.

Lesley Wimbush is an award-winning automotive writer and illustrator whose works have appeared in newspapers and magazines across North America.  She is a member of the jury for the North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY).