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Crubs & Fents Presents: Friends of Buick

Saturday August 19, 2006

 

One of the oldest brands that exists today, the name Buick can be said to be synonymous with automotive excellence; they could also be defined as being the quintessential American car.

With the current situation at GM, this brand of rich heritage has often been the target of a lot of flak and even put on the chopping block of many armchair CEOs throughout the world. Why would they, you ask? Well due to a certain product starvation, which many of GM’s less mainstream brands (Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Saturn), they have developped a less prestigeous image over the past couple of decades.

Today, Buick finds itself in a much better position. With all-around great product like the Lucerne and more coming down the pipeline, like the Enclave, it could be said that the brand is back. However, they now face a few challenges, mostly to change the public’s perception.

A certain group of Buick enthusiasts hopes to work on changing this though: this is their story and what they have to say.

Coinciding with Buick’s 103rd anniversary, Friends of Buick – a Michigan based organisation of Buick enthusiasts – has launched their website friendsofbuick.com on the 19th of May 2006.

The website, as well as the organisation that owns and maintains said website, focus on the study of Buick’s long 103-year history, rich heritage as well as the brand’s core values (ergonomics, grace, power and reassurance) and spirit.

Of course, the site is a work in progress and is in constant evolution; or as they put it: Much as Buick has through its history, we expect to continuously improve.

However, much more than a mere group of enthusiasts reminiscing about what used to be, they wish to promote the brand’s heritage and increase awareness of the brand’s rich heritage and the links that can be made between the Buicks of yore and the models that are on the lots as you’re reading this.

In general, the object of the website – and the organisation, to a degree – is to try and give the modern day Buick a clear definition and to clearly state what the brand is, what it stands for, etc. They wish to articulate the brand’s core attributes, its values, its virtues…

_________________________________________________
Q&A With Friends of Buick

1 – Crubs & Fents: Who is Friends of Buick?

 Friends of Buick: Friends of Buick is a Michigan-based organization of contributors who are passionate about the heritage and virtues of the 103-year-old Buick brand, the very basis for the founding of General Motors ninety-eight years ago.

We believe in touring cars long on a lineage of ergonomics; grace; power, and reassurance of ownership.

We are cheered by the thought that an automobile can be made to ride and handle well, with neither ungainly body control, nor unnecessary judder. A car, we feel, should both follow the road, and soften the road’s harsher aspects, all the while remaining linear in its demeanor. We believe that the modern Buick, with its honed multi-link suspensions and QuietTuned structure, has the formula.

We believe that true evolution means embracing the best of the past while moving ceaselessly toward the future.

Finally, we believe in the power of understatement; in quiet power that delivers smoothly and promptly when called upon, and in the celebration of romance in automotive design. Buick has been around for long enough to have witnessed, first hand, the mainstreaming and massproduction of the automobile. While the car itself has, as a whole, benefited from changes to make it more public-friendly, it has also been a challenge for manufacturers to hide the pedestrian qualities of mass production in sheetmetal; fit, and finish. We believe that the modern Buick does a superlative job of just that.

Our collective research is displayed at http://www.friendsofbuick.com. It is an evolving body of work, and we invite you to stay tuned as we explore the brand; its triumphs, and its challenges!We do hope that visitors enjoy reading our work – and that car enthusiasts, in particular, enjoy our discussion of the Buick’s attributes, the qualities that make us Buick enthusiasts.

We should emphasize here that Friends of Buick is neither affiliated with, nor endorsed by, General Motors Corporation.

2 – C&F: What would you say is the goal or mission over at the Friends of Buick organization?

FoB: The primary goal of our research is to promote the heritage of the Buick brand in a manner that is appropriate for a 103-year-old brand, and to do so in a way that (hopefully) seems relevant in 2006.

Studying Buick history since 1903, one observes four consistent attributes: ergonomics; grace; power, and reassurance.

We feel it important to market Buick referencing these four authentic attributes and thus, in addition to individual pages for each of Buick’s current models, we have also elucidated these attributes as Buick has applied them (and as they have applied to Buick) through history.

On the whole, though, we would submit that a clear definition of Buick’s perspective on the market – provided that it is both authentic and far-reaching – would not only crystallize Buick’s mission in today’s automotive marketplace, but also its position within the GM fold. This type of research is, we feel, vital in an era when approximately as much is spent to launch Toyota’s Camry as is to advertise Buicks for an entire year (between $150 million and $200 million).

Our corollary mission can be seen in our FAQ section on our About page, at http://www.friendsofbuick.com/about.html. We have delved considerably into the history of the Perception Gap.

We firmly believe that a perception gap – the general idea, and perpetuation thereof, that domestic vehicles are not the equivalent of their important counterparts in quality and reliability; performance, and technology – exists.

You might read more at the aforementioned link; here, let us summarize that while some of the perception gap is rooted in past reality, such roots are increasingly but a distant blur.

The Buick brand has been operating for more than six times as long as Lexus (for instance), and as such has endured a series of market and product upheavals. This history makes for some effective, meaningful imagery – but, inevitably, also for a series of missteps. The first gas crisis of 1973 – and the ensuing decade which culminated in yet another gas crisis – presented challenges that made the future look particularly bleak. Many a challenge was resolved, throughout the industry, with short-term solutions. These were trying times for a brand of largesse, of magnanimity and grand gesture.

On the other hand, neither the consumer nor the automotive industry is served by the continued projection of past mistakes upon today’s products – particularly when Buick has for fifteen years regularly ranked among the top in J.D. Power Initial Quality; Long-Term Dependability, and Sales Satisfaction surveys. J.D. Power also ranks the GM plants where Buicks are built among the highest-quality assembly plants in North America.

In many respects, the perception gap is inaccurate and based on questionable metrics. For instance, ride quality is a Buick strength, one which depends not only on body frequency over undulations but also on interior quietness. In both respects, a 3-link-rear Buick LaCrosse is the superior of Toyota’s 2-link-rear Camry/ Lexus ES350 (note that Camry/ ES350 use all-around MacPherson struts, and thus the most expedient rear suspension in the segment; no media outlet, to our knowledge, has made much of this). The question then remains: should the media seek a metric for ride quality, or should it continue to place cars on a skidpad, regardless of the fact that grip at a constant steering input and throttle has little bearing on real-world handling?

Similarly, one might have heard that the LaCrosse is based on a heavily-modified W-Body platform. This practice is not unusual; indeed, Toyota’s 2007 Camry has changed rather less in its underpinnings from the last-generation, versus a comparison between 2005 LaCrosse and 2004 Regal. Yet because the media lacks a term such as W-Body to measure Toyota’s rate of change, this aspect goes unreported.

Should you find this material of interest, our About page – http://www.friendsofbuick.com/about.html – may be worth a visit.

3 – C&F: In general, how satisfied are you with the direction fact that General Motors appears to be sending the brand in a whole direction?

FoB: In general, the current crop of Buick products has exhibited the type of continuous improvement for which the brand has long been known. In that sense, we believe that Beyond Precision is a fantastic, appropriate tag-line, and that it has been additionally supported by craftsmanship inside and out.We would add that, once Beyond Precision has permeated through the air-waves, it will be important to explain to the public what it means: i.e.: ergonomics – beyond precision; grace – beyond precision; power – beyond precision, and reassurance – beyond precision.

To further suggest what we mean here, we have subdivided Buick’s four key attributes:

Ergonomics (http://www.friendsofbuick.com/ergo.html)
• Interior Craftsmanship
• Interior Space
• Ergonomic Science
• Holistic Ergonomics
Grace (http://www.friendsofbuick.com/grace.html)
• Graceful Presence
• Timeless Grace
• Dynamic Grace
Power (http://www.friendsofbuick.com/power.html)
• by the Numbers
• by its Delivery
• by its Steadfastness
Reassurance (http://www.friendsofbuick.com/reassurance.html)
• Reassuring Reliability
• Reassuring Protection
• Reassuring Investment
Like any brand with premium aspirations, Buick must surpass its customers’ expectations, and must do so most in its core competencies.

Buick has proven that its brand is more elastic than perhaps was previously thought. The brand has, since 2001, offered Rendezvous (a crossover with one of the most capable all-wheel-drive systems on the market; i.e.: Buick Reassurance). The brand has, since 2003, offered Rainier (a midsize SUV that has often been found to be among the smoothest-riding and quietest in the class; i.e.: Buick Ergonomics, Buick Grace in demeanor).

Yet after more than 37 million Buicks produced since 1903, GM is focusing on leveraging Buick’s uniqueness for profitability, rather than for sheer volume.This will be done by moving Buick sales on-channel, realigning Buick within the Buick-Pontiac-GMC sales channel. As of January 1st, 2006, 1,676 GM dealerships sold vehicles from all three brands, up from 1,409 a year earlier. 60% of 2005 Buick sales were on-channel, with a target of 70% in 2006, and 80% for 2007.

While GMC focuses primarily on offroad ability, and Pontiac strives toward potent handling; aerodynamics, and (it is rumored) weight distribution, Buick is free to offer fluidity of design and demeanor: elegance and grace in appearance; craftsmanship, and ride quality, in other words. The preliminary results are encouraging. Last we checked, the Lucerne was vying for the bestselling full-size sedan on the market (much like its LeSabre predecessor), and boosting residual values has been a key point of this approach. Note that just 9.3% of Buick Lucerne sales in the first quarter of 2006 have been to fleet markets, and that Lucerne retail deliveries in February 2006 were more than twice the level of year-ago retail sales of LeSabre.

4 – C&F: Which approach would you take to try and lower the median age of Buick owners? What do you think is being done to attract younger buyers? 

FoB: Although we do not view lowering the median age of Buick owners as a primary goal, in and of itself, we would like to see reviews and analyses turn their focus to the Buick product itself, rather than to the age – or even the staunch loyalty – of the owners (perceived or otherwise). We do thus believe that a halo car is necessary to highlight, with the requisite glow, the virtue and relevance of the modern Buick brand.

Buick has a history of both horsepower and timelessness. To elucidate the horsepower point – remember that the Grand National/ Grand National GNX of the mid-80s were the fastest American production cars in their respective years; that the 1970 Buick GS455 Stage 1 has been ranked as one of the top-three fastest muscle cars of all time; that a 1958 Buick packed as much as three hundred horsepower, and that – in 1953 – Buick’s 8.5:1 compression ratio was the highest in all of Detroit.

Horsepower is exceedingly relevant in today’s enthusiast market, while timelessness is an important cornerstone in an era that can often alienate those who prefer positive change to change simply for the sake of it.

Combine the two, and we see great potential in the 2004 Buick Velite Concept. Let’s suppose that the 2009 Camaro were to lose its independent rear suspension – except in SS form. The Velite could easily share Camaro’s platform, with SS independent rear, in both coupé and roadster form. What powertrain might be used is as yet unclear, but the Velite Concept’s 3.6-liter twinturbo could no doubt be massaged into something worthy of the famed Grand National/ GNX label. Buick was the first domestic automaker to adopt turbocharging to any great degree, and spent much of the ‘90s supercharging its cars.

In the meantime: the Rendezvous crossover, as launched in early 2001 when crossovers were still an emerging category, did much to attract a younger buyer. We are confident that the 2008 Enclave, shown at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, will do the same. This category of vehicle has long demonstrated its appeal with empty-nesters. While we do not consider lowering the median age of the Buick buyer a goal in and of itself, we do recognize that a company which appeals to a younger market is recognized is being more adept at adapting to changing customer needs. Yet, strange as it may seem, the management of Buick is made up of fairly young people. In our experience, Buick’s people have also been real car enthusiasts, something perhaps unexpected for a brand making cars sold mostly to people older than themselves.

We would wager that Buick’s people are not paralyzed by tradition, or unable to see the defects of the products they make. They realize, it would seem, that they cannot respect their heritage unless they keep developing their cars relentlessly. In our experience, they are both conscious of possible improvement, and open to fair criticism.

5 – C&F: What changes would you like to see in the way things are run over at Buick Motor Division?

FoB: In quality, Buick is superlative. We’d also disagree with the idea (which occasionally surfaces) that Buick needs to change its fundamental approach. The modern Buick is fluid and supple, with accurate steering and chassis that generate respectable cornering forces in a progressive, linear fashion that enables the driver to easily stay within the car’s limits – which in turn translates to high average speeds in covering miles. How can one enjoy performance if the car’s next move is unpredictable? We’d add that neither comparable Acura nor correspondent Lexus can match Buick’s ride quality, an attribute for which the marque has long been known, and the comfortable car is a category that has enjoyed steady support and interest. In marketing savvy; perceived valve, and pure automotive showmanship, however, more could certainly be done.

GM Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz has done a fantastic job of enabling, across General Motors, people who possess an inherent understanding of the difference between a good car – one which meets its target audience’s surveyed needs – and a great one. Creativity and expression will, we anticipate, manifest themselves in greater degrees across Buick (see the 2008 Enclave), and we fully expect GM Communications to be at the forefront of this, streamlining its efforts with GM/Buick Engineering. Thus would Communications highlight Engineering’s achievements and, moreover, Communications would distill these achievements into relevant points for Buick Marketing.

We have prepared several volumes of more detailed ideas and suggestions on ways to do this; however, they are not yet ready for release. We will be sure to keep you up-to-date on this matter.

In general, however, we believe that ergonomics; grace; power, and reassurance are the aspects that should drive Buick product development and marketing in the future. In rediscovering its consistency in providing these aspects, Buick as an organization will find its confidence in a heritage of powerful, refined vehicles with a hint of mystery, and of interiors with warmth, and exteriors with class, whose impact never quite overshadows their maturity.

The Buick Owner Center at http://www.buick.com/ownersaccepts the registrations of Buicks from 2006 through 1993! This type of reassurance is the mark of a brand with a storied history of premium intent, and it should be built upon.

6 – C&F: Do you think market changes due to rising gas prices and a new focus on fuel efficiency will have an impact on the Buick brand?

FoB: Any automaker that wishes to cater to the needs of tomorrow’s consumer must factor costs of ownership into its product development. In changing times, we as Buick enthusiasts can be heartened that the Buick has always been a value proposition. This is a legacy of what Buick used to call product integrity. Today, all 2006 Buick cars meet or exceed an EPA-rated 25 mpg on the highway1, and the Buick LaCrosse – a midsize sedan capable of seating up to six passengers – attains 30 mpg with its 3.8-liter V6.

We do fear that widespread misunderstanding of overhead-valve technology among the opinion leaders in our media – and the inaccurate labeling of that technology as antiquated – will push Buick toward OHC. Buick is already the only premium brand to offer buyers a choice between OHV and OHC – and one should note that the choice is both welcome, and legitimate. The desire to attain peak horsepower and torque levels at more accessible points in the rev range does represent a legitimate driving style (and, as can be seen from LaCrosse’s numbers, it bodes well for fuel efficiency).

Moreover, when a car is as quiet and vibration-free as LaCrosse, points made about OHV refinement are effectively moot.

For the future, the focus on fuel efficiency will no doubt produce changes in weight; in design (to what extent Buick wishes to reduce frontal areas and improve coefficients-of-drag without reducing its inherent presence), and in packaging. We expect to see increased use of aluminum panels and aluminum subframes, while as driving enthusiasts we would welcome greater use of aluminum in reducing unsprung weight.

On the other hand, as Buick Rendezvous Chief Engineer Mark Reuss once explained, “compromises aren’t appropriate for Buick customers.”2 Cars like the Lucerne, which have undeniable road presence, nonetheless inherently nod at the need for efficiency: consider that fast-sloping 60-degree windshield, and the faster, 70-degree rear window angle to the deck lid. True efficiency is about the management of conflicting goals.

1 In general, all 2006 Buicks meet or exceed an EPA-rated 21 mpg on the highway
2 Automotive Industries, December 2000

7 – C&F: Tell me your opinion on where the brand stands today (in terms of styling/design philosophy, what the brand stands for, their place in the market, etc.) and where you think they’ll be in the next 10 years.

FoB: The four attributes for which Buick stands – ergonomics; grace; power, and reassurance – having been explored in earlier pieces of this Q & A, let us add here that Buick today is a brand of quiet attribute. This – we hope – makes work like ours all the more important. We would like to see more confidence within the Buick organization itself. Heritage such as Buick’s can be neither bought nor duplicated, and it can be referenced in a way that is relevant to the present.

Should Buick strive to do this, we envision products that are – like the 2008 Buick Enclave – more overt in their interpretation of Buick’s traditional attributes: Note, for instance, the return of the Buick ventiport (or porthole). It has its roots in 1948; it is among the most recognizable typological references in automobile design, and its return is – we hope – emblematic of Buick’s revitalization and resurgence.

Pride in quiet attribute will produce a more natural confidence – not arrogance, but confidence – in these attributes.This, combined with Buick’s on-channel retail targets (as noted earlier), will offer Buick a still more unique perspective on the market.

We predict that both the brand and the market will be better for it.

______________________________________________________

We at Crubs & Fents would like to thank the members of Friends of Buick and contributors at friendsofbuick.com for their participation in our Q&A and their general cooperation during the research necessary for this article.

If you wish to contact them, you may send them an e-mail at members@friendsofbuick.com

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Monday December 3, 2007 3:33 am

    The differences are beginning to emerge after the average desk body and a very harmonious, in our view, a modern silhouette touring: fast, with notes sportivnosti and at the same time vmestitelnogo and cozy…

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