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Beijing show: GM previews future Buicks

Sleek: The mid-size Invicta sedan concept at Auto China 2008.

Beijing's Australian-designed Invicta heralds a bold new design direction for Buick

22 Apr 2008

GENERAL Motors came out swinging at Auto China 2008 on Saturday night, presenting yet another example of the bold new corporate design language – created by former GM Holden designer Justin Thompson – which its top-selling Buick brand will soon wear in the world’s two largest automotive markets.

However, while the Invicta sedan concept unveiled in Beijing points to the historic US brand’s brave new styling future, which could also be applied to the Holden Statesman-based Buick Park Avenue limousine built and sold in China, GM management in China has told GoAuto in an exclusive interview that the show car’s Australian links end there and remains non-committal about both the Invicta’s production prospects.

Evolving from previous Buick concepts like the 2004 Velite convertible and 2007 Riviera coupe, the Invicta goes by a name that has not been seen on a Buick for 45 years. If it reached production, the mid-size Invicta would slot into Buick China’s four-model range underneath the Holden-designed Park Avenue, which last year replaced the WL Statesman-based Buick Royaum exported from Australia.

Between them, the big Buick sedans found 6143 Chinese customers in 2007 – a tiny fraction of the 332,115 Buicks sold in China last year, which was up from 304,225 in 2006. Buick is GM’s biggest passenger car brand in China and the Asia-Pacific region and – once figures are added to include its Wuling-branded commercial vehicles – the American auto giant was the total China market leader by a large margin with a 12.2 per cent market share last year.

GM claims the edgy new Invicta four-door was the result of design collaboration between its studios in Warren (Michigan) and Shanghai. It says the Invicta presents a bold direction for Buick’s new generation of vehicles in both the US and China and describes it as “Buick’s strongest statement yet of its deliberately international plans”.

Speaking to GoAuto on the eve of China’s biggest car show, GM China chairman and former Holden executive Kevin Wale said the Invicta, which is believed to be front-wheel drive, was unrelated to the Holden-developed global rear-wheel drive chassis architecture (known as Zeta) that underpins the VE Commodore, WM Statesman and America’s upcoming Camaro coupe.

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“We’ve been very conscious of developing a much more expressive design language for Buick and the evolution of the show cars is to demonstrate that consistency and we’ll take that consistency into production cars,” he said.

“These are not dream cars that designers go into a backroom and start pencilling. These are (previewing) the design language that forms the basis of what we’re going to be doing as we go forward.

“All show cars come off a platform but then there’s a lot of creative licence you can do with one-off cars. You can extend things, you change things, you can do all sorts of things, so it’s not being spoken about as being off any particular platform. It’s a concept car. I don’t think that (Zeta) is a conclusion I would come to.” Buick last year found more customers in China than in its home market but Mr Wale also short-circuited recent speculation that China may become a manufacturing base for Buick vehicles worldwide, following GoAuto’s recent report that Buick is considering replacing its premium large sedan in the US, the Lucerne, with a rear-drive vehicle that could be a version of either Holden’s own Statesman or China’s Park Avenue.

“No is the correct answer on that and this is really a very interesting point,” he said. “We have true collaboration between the two big markets. Clearly we have basically a hundred years of heritage in the US and in many technical and design capabilities, and in China we have youthfulness and rapid market growth. We don’t want to give either of those away so we really do work very closely together.

“We do collaborative design work, we do intense reviews of the products with both countries to make sure that what we’re doing works for both countries, but we’re not trying to move design one way or the other. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we leverage our capability but that we maximise the understanding and the input of the China market and the China technical capability.

“To be honest these are Buick cars that we are getting ready for Buick in China – and that’s the beginning and end of the story.” Mr Wale also poured cold water on the likelihood of either the Invicta sedan or Riviera coupe directly entering production.

“We’re going to provide all sorts of Buicks for the China market and the design language we’re creating will be the basis for the design language of our Buicks going forward. So the generic answer is the design language is the basis of what’s going forward, the specific answer is no, you can’t draw the extension that these cars automatically provide the basis for specific products,” he said.

An Australian formerly in charge at Vauxhall in the UK, Mr Wale said the Holden-developed Park Avenue had sold “okay” in China but needed continued marketing support to reach its sales expectations.

“It’s gone okay. The car’s fantastic. I drove in it this morning – it’s a great car. (But) like all new model lines, we need to continue investing in the marketing and create awareness for the nameplate.

“You know, the cars it’s competing against have been in the market for a long time with long-established marketing campaigns, so our biggest priority at the moment is to continue to build brand awareness,” he said, before declining to say exactly how many Australian components the Park Avenue shared with the Statesman.

“Certainly, there are parts that are being supplied from Australia but whether we are willing to go into details I don’t know, but there is commonality and it makes sense to have parts provided from up there.” In previewing the Invicta at the New York show last month, GM global design vice-president Ed Welburn said the Invicta underlined the international flavour of Buick.

“Buick’s global appeal created an opportunity for GM design centres to elevate our collaboration to new levels. Using our virtual reality centres in Warren and Shanghai, designers fused the best ideas from both cultures during the development of the Invicta,” he said.

“The result will set a new design standard for Buick, and it couldn’t have been achieved by one studio working in isolation. The Invicta represents another significant design milestone in Buick’s history.” The Invicta is powered by Buick’s first direct-injection turbocharged engine (a 186kW/298Nm four-cylinder), matched to a six-speed automatic transmission. However, the Riviera that preceded the Invicta at Shanghai was said to be engineered to accommodate a new hybrid drive system, which will debut in the locally-made Buick LaCrosse sedan prior to the Olympics in August to create China’s first hybrid vehicle.

Buick’s most recent model additions included a revised Excelle sedan and the imported Enclave SUV earlier this month, as part of a sales growth drive that Mr Wale said on the weekend would boost GM’s sales by about 50 per cent over the next three years by spending $US1 billion a year in new and expanded facilities and products.

According to Bloomberg, to accelerate the development of new models GM this year plans to hire another 250 engineers and designers for its Shanghai-based Asia research facility, which already employs 1400 staff.

But while GM’s attempts to boost its presence in China to offset falling US sales has seen it become both the largest foreign car-maker in China as well as one of the most profitable, it faces increasing competition from Toyota and Volkswagen, which is the second-biggest maker overall but remains the market leader in terms of passenger cars.

In line with its economic boom, vehicle sales in China have increased by almost 400 per cent in the past eight years and last year’s GM’s total sales in China rose by 19 per cent to 1.03 million. But while China’s total vehicle sales rose 21 per cent in the first quarter of this year to 2.58 million units (and, according to GM, will surpass the US by 2020 to become the world’s biggest car market), GM sales growth slowed to 7.4 per cent in the first three months of 2008.

Meantime, Toyota’s China sales rose 62 per cent last year to 500,000 vehicles, while Volkswagen sales continued to grow at 33 per cent in the first quarter, when the country’s worst snow storms in five decades impacted the overall economy.

“(Currently) we can meet demand,” Mr Wale told GoAuto. “We have to work hard at it and we constantly have to be looking ahead of the market to see if this when we have to expand our capacity within our internal facilities or whether we add new facilities.

“We’ve added a new engine plant, a new transmission plant, we opened a new assembly plant two weeks ago and we expanded through-put capacity in a number of operations. Unlike the rest of the world, part of our job today is building future capacity.”

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