Rebuilding a failed nameplate may be the most difficult job in the business. I can think of only a few that ever were revived successfully.
A few, such as American Motorsâ Rambler, were resuscitated way back when, but Jeepâs comeback is the only one that stands out in recent history.
Instead, for decades, auto makers have chosen to just kill a troubled nameplate and eliminate its dealers rather than try to resurrect it. Thatâs the way it was with Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Plymouth, Edsel, DeSoto and numerous others.
But nowis making a serious effort to save Buick. And most of us do not realize how far the brand has fallen. It had only 102,000 light vehicle sales in the U.S. last year. Thatâs slightly better than âs Mercury brand, which sold 93,000 vehicles.
And we all know what is happening to Mercury.
In 2010, Buickâs U.S. sales will be better, but still horribly low, maybe 135,000 units. Is a true turnaround possible?
The best-selling Buick car of the past few years, the Lucerne, is being killed. The old dealer body is gone, and current Buick dealers make most of their money selling GMC trucks.
The Buick buyer of the past, who wanted a big soft-riding car, is on Medicare and wonât be buying many new cars. That means a new customer base must be created.
GM is putting 4-cyl. engines in the new Buicks. The base engine in the LaCrosse, and the new Regal, will be an inline-4.
We donât know if younger consumers want Buicks with 4-cyl. engines. And I donât mean 20-year olds who canât afford anything right now. I mean 45-year-olds.
I know Buick sold almost 450,000 units in China last year, and sales were up 60% compared with 2008. And yes, Buick has great brand equity in China. But that does not help in the U.S.
Even so, rebuilding Buick in the U.S. is not impossible.
The Buick Enclave cross/utility vehicle and the LaCrosse and Regal sedans are getting praise from car magazines that usually sneer at the brand. Motor Trend actually put Buicks on its April cover for the first time in 28 years.
Buick also usually does well in J.D. Power & Associates quality and dependability studies. And I have to admit I was amazed at the sticker on a LaCrosse CX model I recently test drove with a 4-cyl. engine and 6-speed automatic. It was $27,345.
The interior wasnât cheap-looking. It had an audio system with satellite radio, an MP3 player and seven speakers. It also had cruise control, air conditioning and air bags galore and offered excellent mileage: 19/30 mpg (12.4-7.8 L/100 km) city/highway.
That price is lower than a loaded 4-cyl.Sonata ($28,415) or a loaded Prius ($32,771).
If GM succeeds, it will be natural to questionâs decision to kill Mercury. But Ford really is getting out of the true luxury business and turning Lincoln into a new Mercury.
That is, there is no distinct Lincoln platform â just dolled up versions of Fords, which is what Mercury had become.
With only three other brands now, GM is going all out to rebuild Buick. The odds are long, but this time, GM just might do it.
Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.