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Statesman could follow VE sedan, ute to US

Premium pair: Invicta concept (above) and China's Statesman-based Buick Park Avenue (below).

Holden's humble Statesman could join VE sedan and ute-based Pontiacs on sale in US

25 Mar 2008

THE Statesman long-wheelbase sedan could be the next GM Holden vehicle exported from Australia to the United States.

General Motors is currently looking to replace its front-wheel drive Buick Lucerne large sedan and has told GoAuto that the Statesman is a strong contender.

The plan is not locked in as the American auto giant is still unsure whether it should stay with a front-wheel drive platform for the Lucerne or change to rear-wheel drive in line with its other premium models.

Buick is examining taking a reworked Statesman produced in Australia or a more luxurious Chinese-made version of the car, which is sold there as a Buick Park Avenue.

There is also the option of simply using the rear-drive architecture of the Statesman and using it for a large sedan that would be produced in North America – either in US or in GM’s plant in Ontario, Canada, which is producing the new Holden-engineered Camaro sports coupe, which is based on the same global rear-wheel drive architecture as the Commodore and Statesman.

Either way, Australia will be at the centre of the Lucerne development if GM does move to RWD.

The general manager for Buick, Pontiac and GMC, Jim Bunnell, told GoAuto at the New York Auto Show last week that GM was looking at options for its large Buick sedan.

“We have Buick Lucerne which is our premium large car – I wouldn’t call it luxury, it is front-drive and as we look at that, we think, ‘What is the evolution of that car? Does it go rear-drive or all-wheel-drive, or global platform with that?’” Mr Bunnell said.

“I know we have been looking for other options and we have looked at whether we can do something with the Park Avenue in China. Do we take that global rear-drive architecture and do a Buick off of that, maybe with Holden, maybe in Australia? As of this point there are no (concrete) plans,” Mr Bunnell said.

133 center imageLeft: Buick Riveria Coupe concept and China's Park Avenue.

While GM used the New York show to unveil Holden’s latest exports to the United States – the Commodore-based high-performance Pontiac GXP sedan and the Pontiac G8 “sport truck” utility – the manufacturer also provided a glimpse of a luxurious Buick show car it plans to reveal in China at the Beijing motor show on April 19.

Resurrecting the Invicta nameplate (which is Latin for “invincible”) after a 45-year year hiatus, the car was co-developed by GM design centres in Detroit and Shanghai “to meet customers’ expectations equally in the world’s two largest automotive markets” and is described as an evolution of the Riviera concept introduced last year in Shanghai.

Whether this emerges into a future large luxury family, which could have Australian DNA, is unclear. But the Riviera coupe appeared to have enormous potential as a Holden-engineered vehicle, and GM emphasised with the Invicta that it “reflects the way General Motors utilises design and engineering talent around the world to execute a premium vehicle with international appeal”.

One factor that could thwart plans for the Statesman to be sold in the United States is the looming Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that have forced US car-makers to look at ways to reduce fuel consumption. That could tip the balance in favour of making the new Lucerne front-wheel drive.

The CAFE regulations are also delaying plans for the Chevrolet Corvette and could even stifle plans to produce a new-age Monaro, as previewed by the Coupe 60 concept car at the recent Melbourne International Motor Show.

As previously reported by GoAuto, GM has ruled out importing the Commodore-based Sportwagon for the time being. Instead, the company is concentrating on rolling out the just-launched Pontiac G8 sedan, the GXP version (due for release later this year) and the utility, which enters the fray in 2009.

At this stage, GM is not sure how well the ute will sell. An unnamed senior GM executive said a reasonable estimate would be 10,000 utes a year. On the other hand, Mr Bunnell said the company really did not know how the ute would be received.

“We are having a hard time guessing that one - we don’t know,” he said, adding that he expected the ute to be popular because there was nothing like it on the road.

“That vehicle is so unique, people in this country just want something different, they want something that screams: ‘Look at me, I’m different!’” While GM and Ford did sell car-based utes in the 1970s and 1980s, it is not clear how well they will be accepted now. In many ways, the Pontiac ute will be a test case for car-based utes and whether Americans are prepared to switch to them from full-sized pick-ups as fuel prices bite.

Success of the Pontiac ute could open the door for a crew-cab Commodore ute-based model. GM showed it was interested in exploring that avenue when it revealed the Australian-designed GMC Denali XT ute concept at the Chicago motor show in February.

“You scratch your head and look at it and wonder, ‘Is that where the pick-up is going?’” Mr Bunnell said. “More of a uni-body, lighter weight, more fuel efficient, but is a four-door, in this case it’s a hybrid, you know, is that the direction of the pick-up in America if we have got fuel at $4 a gallon? Possibly.” For now, Pontiac needs to determine what to call its G8-based ute. It has launched a competition for the public to name the car that was presented at the New York show by rapper 50 Cent. It will take on the G8 tag, to indicate it is linked to the sedan, but the rest of the name is still to be determined.

For his part, 50 Cent – whose real name is Curtis Jackson – suggested they called it the Curtis, at least for the day of the presentation. The name Sport Truck was considered by Pontiac management, but was eventually rejected.

GM Holden chief Mark Reuss had suggested it should just be called the Ute, but Pontiac management told GoAuto this was unlikely.

Pontiac marketing manager Craig Bierley said there were two issues with the Ute name.

“When you say Ute it makes them think SUV, because that’s short for sport utility vehicle,” he said. “The other one is that we try to stay away from North American tribe names. There is a North American tribe in the west called Ute – it is pronounced differently but it is spelt the same.” Several websites in the US have launched campaigns for its readers to vote for the name El Camino, the name of the long-discontinued Chevrolet ute that today enjoys a cult following. Pontiac will consider all the names suggested, but Mr Bunnell indicated the El Camino nameplate was unlikely.

“We would probably think about it and do a bit of market research,” he said. “We’re not crazy about it (El Camino) because people are going to say, ‘Well, it’s a Chevy’ and they are going to walk into a Chevy store to go buy it and they (the dealers) are going to say, ‘No, I don’t have that, but I have this.’” GM did consider selling the G8 ute as a GMC, but felt that it was better to sell it as a Pontiac G8 derivative because that made it easier to market. It did not consider branding the ute as a Chevrolet as there was deemed no room in that brand’s product line-up for another model.

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