Buick sales surge as its buyers get younger

Remember the “This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile” advertising campaign? It was such a flop, General Motors Co. couldn’t save the brand.

Buick resurgence: An article in Business on Thursday about General Motors Co.'s Buick brand said the price for the upcoming Regal turbocharged model had not been set, based on information from a GM spokeswoman. The company said later that the price had been set and would start at $29,495. —

The automaker’s history is riddled with dead brands that couldn’t attract enough younger buyers to stay alive. Pontiac was once GM’s sporty performance division. But the last Pontiac rolled off the assembly line in November. Saturn, the division designed to win over a younger generation of buyers, sputtered and is shutting down this year.

So why are GM executives so excited about Buick — the brand most likely to be left behind when mom and dad move to the senior living center?

Well, lately it’s been behaving very un-Buick like, attracting younger buyers and seeing sales soar in trend-setting regions such as California. It is the fastest growing major brand in the industry.

“Finally not every customer who comes into the showroom is using a walker or a cane,” said Ron Charron, chief operating officer of Boulevard Buick in Signal Hill.

Buick was once among the brands GM considered scrapping. But the automaker now says it plans to double the number of models under the Buick nameplate, adding a sporty Regal sedan, a smaller sport-utility vehicle and a compact similar to the upcoming Chevrolet Cruze.

GM is hoping the new Buick models will act as an automotive fountain of youth and attract more customers such as 48-year-old Frank Zuniga, a real estate broker from Hacienda Heights.

“When people think of Buick they think of the stereotype big boats, but they have really done some nice redesigns to compete with upper-end vehicles,” said Zuniga, who recently spent about $40,000 on a fully equipped LaCrosse.

“I was close to getting the Lexus, but when I looked at what the LaCrosse was offering it was pretty attractive. I think it will be a hot seller for a while,” Zuniga said.

The comparison to the Lexus is exactly what GM executives are gunning for. Much of their advertising pits the LaCrosse against the Lexus ES 350, the luxury brand’s entry-level sedan.

That’s one reason LaCrosse sale rose 336% in California to 528 vehicles in the first quarter while Lexus ES 350 sales have fallen 37% to 1,100, according to the California New Car Dealers Assn. Overall Buick sales in California have doubled from a year earlier.

Nationally, Buick sales surged more than 50% to 44,317 through the first four months of this year, a period when industry sales gained 16.7%, according to Autodata Corp. Buick also is outselling Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln luxury brand this year.

The brand expects to double its current level of sales over the next several years.

Just two vehicles account for Buick’s resurgence.

There’s the hot-selling LaCrosse sedan designed to compete in the $30,000-plus range.

“The Buick is a lot of car for not a lot of money compared to what other manufacturers are asking,” said Jonathan Zich, a “fiftysomething” facilities manager from Costa Mesa and recent LaCrosse buyer.

And then there is the Enclave, one of the larger crossover SUVs. It seats seven with room left over for groceries or overnight bags.

For now, Buick still sells the yacht-like Lucerne, but it accounted for only 19% of the division’s sales through the first quarter of this year and dealers aren’t sure how much longer the car might be offered.

There’s more ahead, said Brian Sweeney, Buick’s vice president of sales and service.

Later this month, Buick dealers will start selling the all-new Regal sedan. Smaller than the LaCrosse, it will be aimed at younger buyers of sports sedans and it is based on GM’s Opel Insignia that has done well in Europe.

The four-cylinder model will retail for about $27,000. A turbocharged version with 220horsepower will come out later this year. Its price has not been announced.

“We are looking for a sustained effort in markets where we have struggled previously,” Sweeney said.

Buick’s current vehicles cover only about 14% of the auto market. Expanding to six entries will give the brand about 45% of market coverage and make it more competitive with other nameplate, Sweeney said.

Charron, the Long Beach dealer, believes the sporty Regal will be particularly helpful in lowering the average age of a Buick buyer.

Already the age is starting to come down, said Jeff Schuster, an analyst at J.D. Power & Associates, the Westlake Village auto market research company.

Three years ago, the typical Buick buyer was 64 years old. Now that buyer is 61, and getting younger, Schuster said.

“These things don’t tend to move a lot, so a three-year decline is a big deal and it comes at a time when other brands have started to age,” he said.

The typical buyer of a Ford, he said, is now 50, up from 47 three years go. During that same period, the typical age of Lexus buyers has climbed a year to 52.

Several factors are helping the brand. Being a survivor helps. As GM has killed other nameplates it has had more time to focus on improving Buick’s models and doing a better job of marketing the vehicles, Schuster said.

“There is a much more modern and upscale look to the Buick lineup,” he said. The offerings are better.”

The brand’s popularity in China has sustained the business and probably kept it from the chopping block, Schuster noted. During the first quarter, Buick sold about four times as many vehicles in China than in the U.S. And finally, the vehicles have developed a good reputation for reliability. In J.D. Power’s ratings of three-year dependability, Buick tied with Lexus in third place. Each had 115 problems per 100 vehicles through the first three years of ownership, compared with an industry average of 155.

Charron is pleased with the changes at Buick. Sales at his dealership are up 85% this year and he thinks the Regal will juice business even more. People who think the LaCrosse is too big or too expensive will choose the Regal instead, while some Regal shoppers will trade up to the LaCrosse.

But what Charron is hoping for is a “halo” car that would make a statement about the changes underway at Buick.

“What we need is a cool convertible,” he said. “Many people still see Buick as an old person’s car, and a convertible would really change that perception.”