Buick: As Chicago goes, so goes the nation
From Automotive News:
Buick: As Chicago goes, so goes the nation
Once the heartland was a GM gold mine; nowadays, China is
April 14, 2008 - 12:01 am ET
How bad are Buick sales?
Nationwide, Buick sales plummeted 24.1 percent in March compared with the previous March. Just 12,317 retail and fleet vehicles were sold. It was a dismal month for a brand that has three solid products: the LaCrosse, Lucerne and Enclave. In fact, that's all it has — three vehicles. That's hardly a product line.
A quick snapshot of what used to be fertile ground for Buick reveals the depth of the sales problem.
Northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana for decades had been a gold mine for General Motors. Many years last century, the Chicago area was one of the biggest retail markets for Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick.
But as GM stumbled, sales of Buick, Olds and Pontiac fell — even in the heartland Chicago area market. What happened to Buick in the Chicago area shows why GM stitched the three brands together into the Pontiac-Buick-GMC channel.
How far has Buick slipped in the Chicago area?
Here's the shocker: The nearly five dozen Buick dealers in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana combined sold about 400 Buicks retail in March. That's about seven vehicles per dealer. That is an area in which some Buick dealers once counted retail sales of more than 150 cars a month.
The area is huge, stretching from the Wisconsin border on the north, the Illinois border plus northwest Indiana on the east, such Illinois cities as Tinley Park and South Holland to the south, and Aurora and Elgin to the west. The region has an estimated population of more than 10 million, and, for all purposes, the Buick brand is invisible to those who live there.
A dozen years ago, I stopped at what was then Bredemann Buick in Park Ridge, Ill., a suburb northwest of Chicago, and spent an hour or so talking with the staff.
That week the store delivered something like 16 new Buicks. The youngest buyer was 61; the oldest was 92, and he bought a new Buick every other year. It didn't take a Rhodes Scholar to know that Buick's product line had to be reinvented to attract younger buyers.
Only 3 lines left
Since then, Buick's dealers have suffered for several reasons:
-- GM's indecision over a Park Avenue replacement ended with some disgruntled Park Avenue owners leaving the brand when a replacement never materialized. Few wanted to step down to a LeSabre or, later, a Lucerne.
-- The entry-level Skylark and flagship Riviera are gone. Neither was replaced.
-- The Regal and Century are gone, both replaced by a single model, the slow-selling LaCrosse sedan.
-- The LeSabre was renamed Lucerne when the redesigned model debuted, but it has never come close to LeSabre sales.
-- The Rendezvous was merely a better-looking Pontiac Aztek, but certainly no Lexus. It's gone.
-- The Rainier was a credible SUV, but it came to the market as the SUV craze was weakening. It's gone, replaced by the stylish Enclave crossover.
-- The Buick Terraza minivan was little more than a reskinned Chevrolet Uplander, and the Uplander is nothing to brag about. The Terraza is gone.
Judging from the remaining count of three vehicle lines, it's no surprise that Buick's sales are in the Dumpster.
When GM pulled the plug on Oldsmobile in December 2000, that brand ended up with 289,172 sales for the year. Buick's U.S. sales totaled 404,612 that year.
But Buick's fortunes have fallen considerably since then. Last year, Buick sold 185,791 vehicles across the United States, a 22.8 percent decline from the previous year. For the first quarter of this year, Buick sold 37,834 vehicles nationally, down 12.7 percent from the year-earlier quarter.
If you multiply first-quarter sales by four — figuring a weak economy this year — that could be about 151,000 Buicks nationwide this year.
Unlike Oldsmobile, the Buick brand likely will not disappear. The booming China market and Buick's promising future there are the sole reasons for the brand's U.S. existence today. Last year, 332,115 Buick vehicles were sold in China, a 9.2 percent increase over the previous year.
More from China
The redesigned front-drive 2010 LaCrosse will debut later this year and will be sold in China and North America. GM's China operations had a big role in creating that sedan, and China is likely to have a bigger role in future Buick vehicles, I'm told. Buick's Invicta concept, which shows the styling direction for the brand, will be unveiled next week at the Beijing motor show.
But Buick's U.S. dealers need more than the redesigned LaCrosse sedan, which is due next year. They need a production version of the beautiful Riviera coupe concept that debuted in China last year, something sporty with a LaCrosse price to draw buyers to the showroom. And they need it soon.
Single-point Buick dealers who are holding out, refusing to add Pontiac and GMC franchises or to give up the Buick franchise, must reassess the market.
I feel sorry for Buick dealers in the United States who think that the glory days will return and that they'll again be retailing 100 or more cars a month. It isn't going to happen — not even in Chicagoland.