Detroit Auto Show: Buick looks to shed stodgy image with new ragtop

Buick releases first convertible since the Reatta in the '80s

General Motors is once again trying to breathe life into its Buick brand, this time with the Cascada convertible.

The sixth model in Buick's lineup, the Cascada was unveiled Sunday in advance of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The model is the latest effort in a decades-old quest to dispel the notion that Buick is a stodgy brand for old people. In the 1980s, for instance, Buick tried the short-lived Reatta two-seater and two hot-rodded Regals, the Grand National and T-type.

Many years later, GM still needs to lure younger and hipper buyers into the Buick dealerships, and the brand’s marketing team believes a near-luxury ragtop will siphon buyers of German sports cars or perhaps Ford Mustangs. When it goes on sale a year from now, the Cascada will be the first Buick drop top since the Reatta.

Essentially a rebadged Opel, built at a GM factory in Poland and already for sale in Europe, the Cascada comes on the heels of Buick’s success with the Encore crossover. The Encore, launched two years ago, has quickly become the brand’s third-best-selling vehicle. It helped lower the average age of Buick buyers to 59.

The move makes sense, said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific, an industry consulting firm.

The roomy, four-seat Cascada “is a vehicle that you can’t get at a Chevy or Cadillac dealership and will give the brand a bit of image polish,” Sullivan said. “People will ask about it and start talking about the brand.”

That’s just what GM wants.

Last year it launched a new television advertising campaign that featured people failing to realize their relatives’ or friends’ new cars are Buicks.

“It is cutting through the clutter,” said Brad Willingham, co-owner of Boulevard Buick/GMC in Signal Hill. “The idea of old people looking out a window and saying, ‘That’s not a Buick’ is funny.”

Willingham credits the campaign for a sales surge that made 2014 the best year for his dealership in almost two decades.

“We have had great products for years, but here in Southern California, we have not had a lot of people shopping for Buicks until this year,” he said.

Three of the five current Buick models are on Consumer Reports' recommended list.

GM isn’t looking for the Cascada to become a sudden sales hit like the Encore. Rather, it will sell in small volume but still bring attention to the brand.

“We wanted a halo car for the range that could act as a brand ambassador,” said Duncan Aldred, Buick’s vice president. “It will help redefine Buick for a lot of customers.”

A four-seater, the Cascada was designed to be a ragtop, which allowed GM engineers to start with a stiffer chassis to make up for the loss of rigidity in any car lacking a fixed roof. The architecture also creates a more natural profile and offers more storage space.

The roof, which has both sound and thermal insulation, automatically slides into the rear deck in just 17 seconds at speeds up to 31 miles per hour. The car looks long and lean, with a sculpted line along the length of its sides that fades as it approaches the rear deck.

The car is its own hot spot, coming equipped with its own 4G LTE line.

Under the hood, there’s a turbocharged 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine that produces 200 horsepower and 206 pound-feet. The direct injection engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Ample room for four will be an important selling point, because while the Cascada will be sporty, it’s not a sports car, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Automotive.

“People like the ability to bring other people along with them,” Brinley said.

With the top down, the Cascada will have about 10 cubic feet of cargo space. That’s about two thirds of the space offered in its Buick Regal sibling, a mid-sized family sedan also based on another Opel, the Insignia.

Buick has not released pricing or fuel economy estimates.

Dealers are looking forward to an additional model in the Buick lineup.

“Any dealer in California is going be really excited about it,” Willingham said. “Convertibles do well on the West Coast, and anything Buick can do to expand the line is terrific.”

Outside of the sunshine states, the car is a gamble for the brand. Convertibles accounted for fewer than 1% of the 16.5 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year.

Ford’s Mustang was the top-selling drop-top through the first 11 months of 2014, with sales of 13,318 units, according to IHS Automotive. Chevrolet’s Camaro convertible trailed by about 1,000 cars sold. The Volkswagen Beetle was in third place, followed by the Chevrolet Corvette, BMW 4-Series and Mercedes E-Class.

A convertible can be seen as a frivolous purchase, and they don’t sell well when money is tight, Brinley said.

Buick might benefit from being on the right side of the economic cycle. The economy is improving and Chrysler and Toyota abandoned the space during leaner years, leaving room for a four-seater priced lower than a BMW 3-Series, less aggressive than a Mustang or Camaro, and more mature than a Beetle, Brinley said.

Buick could sell about 10,000 annually, which would put it in the upper end of the ragtop market, Brinley said.

Even without a sporty image, Buick is on the upswing. The brand sold almost 229,000 vehicles in the U.S. last year, a 11.4% gain that beat the industry's 5.9% growth. The big seven-seat Enclave sport-utility vehicle was Buick’s best seller, followed by the large LaCrosse sedan and then the Encore.

Also Sunday, Buick showed off the Avenir – French for "future" – concept vehicle, a sleek design for a potential flagship luxury sedan that spells out the brand's future design language.

“Avenir embodies Buick design, which centers on effortless beauty and presence without pretense,” said Ed Welburn, vice president of General Motors Global Design. “It demonstrates the growing international reach of Buick and offers an exciting vision of where it can go.”

Buick’s U.S. sales results pale in comparison to what the brand does in China. Buick sales in China increased 13.5% last year to a record 919,518 vehicles. Buick’s sales in China are big enough to make it GM’s second-biggest global brand, trailing only Chevrolet.

The sales in China are critical for Buick’s success in the U.S., Aldred said.

“When you are selling that amount of vehicles profitably, it ensures you get investment in future models and the marketing money you need,” he said.

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