DETROIT – General Motors Corp.’s Shanghai-built Buick Riviera hybrid concept coupe, to be shown for the first time in the U.S. at the North American International Auto Show here today, underscores the brand’s presence in China and presages plans to roll out hybrid powertrains in the red-hot Asian market where GM sold 1.03 million vehicles last year.

First unveiled at China’s Auto Shanghai 2007, the gull-wing, front-wheel-drive Riviera was penned by the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center, a Shanghai-based design and engineering joint venture between GM and partner Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. (SAIC).

The JV received input on the project from GM’s global-design and engineering teams.

“We said last year the Riviera concept made us realize how small the world was – it’s not East; it’s not West. It’s Buick,” Ed Welburn, vice president, GM global design, says in a statement.

The 4-passenger concept, which takes its name from a fullsize coupe GM produced in Flint, MI, between 1963 and 1999, includes a new hybrid-propulsion system that will go into production at Shanghai GM Automobile Co. Ltd. later this year.

The hybrid car will be introduced in China prior to the Beijing Olympic Games, which begin Aug. 8. No further details on the hybrid system were made available before press time.

GM says the Riviera concept “captures the essence of Buick classics” in a thoroughly contemporary design, drawing inspiration from ancient Chinese artifacts as well as modern icons.

Development of the concept car in China also demonstrates GM’s commitment to the local market, where its strategy is to build vehicles “in China, with China, for China.”

Late last year, the auto maker established the GM Center for Advanced Science and Research, part of a new RMB1.8 billion ($250 million) campus the auto maker is building in Shanghai.

The center will perform advanced research projects in partnership with the Chinese government, industry partners and academic institutions, GM says. Its primary focus will be on alternative fuels, advanced alternative-energy propulsion systems and manufacturing and supplier energy efficiency.

GM also is helping to establish the China Automotive Energy Research Center (CAERC), a collaborative effort between Beijing’s Tsinghua University and SAIC.

CAERC will work with government, academia and related industries to develop a comprehensive and integrated automotive-energy strategy for China. GM and SAIC jointly will provide a 5-year RMB36 million ($5 million) grant to Tsinghua University to establish CAERC.

“We see China as being among the first markets and production sites for alternative-propulsion systems,” GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said about the two initiatives in October.

GM has good reasons for its commitments. The Buick brand last year became the first nameplate to sell 1 million vehicles in China in a single calendar year. And it long has been considered a prestige brand in the country.

China also ranks as one of the world’s fastest-growing transportation economies, a movement GM first recognized in the early 1990s. Investments since then have begun to pay big dividends, with 2007 sales up 18.5%, compared with year-ago, making the auto maker the market leader for the third consecutive year.

“Despite growing competition across the board, demand remained robust for our established products, such as the Buick Excelle and LaCrosse and Chevrolet Lova (Aveo),” says Kevin Wale, president and managing director, GM China Group.

“Several of our new products, such as the Cadillac SLS, Buick Park Avenue and all-new Chevrolet Epica, also got off to a good start,” Wale says in a Jan. 10 sales report.

In addition to its Shanghai concept car, Buick also will show the Velite here, which first was introduced at NAIAS four years ago to highlight how elements of the car have bled into production vehicles such as the LaCrosse, Enclave and Lucerne.

jamend@wardsauto.com