DETROIT (TheStreet) --Buick, an archetypal American brand that a hundred years ago was the country's leading automaker, hasn't done so well stateside. Last year it sold just 102,306 cars in the U.S. The industry total was about 10.4 million.
But who cares? In China, Buick sold 447,011 cars last year, more than four times its U.S. volume, and China sales rose 60%. Buick accounted for 25% of
sales in China, the world's largest auto market. After Volkswagen, it is the country's number two brand, with a 3.3 % share.
So even though Buick had just over half the sales of defunct line Pontiac, and even though folks have questioned Buick's continued existence for a decade, the brand isn't going anywhere. "They keep Buick because of China," said IHS Global Insight analyst John Wolkonowicz. "If you have one of the top brands in one of the major markets in the world, you keep it."
Buick benefits from synergies with China, where "we have aggressive plans to grow the brand," said Buick Marketing Director Craig Bierley. "Development and engineering work are shared between the two countries and Europe."
Wolkonowicz added, "the Chinese are a lot more like us than the Europeans are. Like Americans, they like bigger cars, and they like them on the expressive side."
GM is working intently to bring a new expressiveness to Buick. "GM already has under its belt the successful turnaround of what I call a 'geezer brand,'" Wolkonowicz said. "They turned around Cadillac. Now, they feel confident they can do the same thing with Buick."
At the New York Auto Show this week, Buick is featuring the Regal (pictured above), a mid-sized sedan that marks one of the first truly global cars. Introduced as an Opel in Europe, it is also a big seller in China. During its first year, the Regal will be built in Germany and shipped to the U.S.. Production next year will take place in Kenosha, Wis.
The full-sized LaCrosse, launched last year, is based on the Regal's architecture but is seven inches longer. "The LaCrosse is our premium flagship car, the Regal is much sportier," Bierley said. "A lot of the design work was done in China where there is a great premium on rear seat accommodations because, in many cases, the owner rides in the back seat with a chauffeur."
Buick also continues to sell the Lucerne, but it has been largely replaced by the LaCrosse. The Enclave, a premium mid-sized crossover, is made in Lansing, Mich., but is exported in increasing numbers to China. Buick is also developing a compact car based on a Chinese model.
Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com, said GM has ramped up the marketing of Buick. "They have probably done more aggressive work on their image in the last three years than they did in the previous 20," Brauer said, adding that the new Buick lineup justifies the expense.
"Lacrosse and Enclave were quantum steps forward and Regal also looks to be a step in the right direction -- it might be the first Buick in a long time that is fun to drive," he said. "These cars all target a younger, more affluent vibrant audience, rather than living on old people."
In an industry where the past is never forgotten, Buick reeks of history.
2003 Park Avenue Ultra
Founded in 1902, Buick is the second oldest U.S. car brand after Cadillac. Buick quickly became the country's best-selling line, and owner William Durant used the proceeds to start a new company, which he called General Motors. "Buick is the cornerstone of GM," Wolkonowicz said. "Billy Durant ran it into bankruptcy and the creditors took it over, but later he started another company, called it Chevrolet, and starting swapping stock. He owned GM again by 1916."
Buick has always been positioned as a high-end car, comfortable but not as luxurious as Cadillac. In the 1930s, it also became more stylish. "Our parents connected with it and they bought it until they died," Wolkonowicz said. Sales peaked in 1984, but even in the 1990s Buick sold 800,000 cars a year. Afterwards Buick models floundered while other carmakers came to dominate its markets.
2005 Buick LeSabre Celebration Edition
Talk of shutting Buick down became widespread. Around 2000, Auto consultant Joe Phillippi, then a UBS auto analyst, discussed the brand with GM CFO John Devine. "The base was getting older, the average age was about 67, and the view internally was 'our buyers are buying their last car,'" Phillippi said. "I said to Devine, 'You spend billions on this business, what if it doesn't work?' And he looked at me, and in all candor, he said 'Well, then we'll shut it down.'"
But in 2001 Devine's friend Bob Lutz joined GM as head of product development. "Under the Lutz regime they made a decision they were going to turn Buick into a premium brand and target vehicles like the Lexus ES350," Phillippi said. "The market was rapidly aging out, and they knew they needed to do something dramatic. So far, it has worked."
In some ways, Buick is similar to
Mercury, a low-sales brand that nevertheless provides value to its parent. In 2009, Mercury sold just 93,000 vehicles -- 9,000 fewer than Buick -- while defunct Pontiac sold 178,000. But Ford
keeps Mercury in order to buttress its distribution structure, which pairs Mercury with Lincoln.
"It's a very good compliment to Lincoln," said CEO Alan Mulally, in an interview.
2010 Buick Enclave CXL
Edmunds.com's Brauer said Buick is in a better position than Mercury.
"Mercury's curse is that it's such a blatant Ford rebadge," he said. "Buick does not have an easy image to change, but it is in a better place than Mercury, because it doesn't come off as a rebadged Chevy."
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.