DETROIT – General Motors surprises the industry on the eve of the North American International Auto Show by offering the Buick Avenir concept car, a large sedan in the spirit of the division’s heyday and what CEO Mary Barra calls the future direction of the brand.

“Buick is a great global brand and this is an opportunity to express it and really show how we’re taking the design forward,” Barra tells WardsAuto after her executive team unveiled the Avenir and Cascada convertible at an event here.

“You’ll see a lot of cues from the Avenir in products as we go forward,” she adds. “It’s important for the global brand around the world. We’re going to continue to invest in Buick. It is a very important brand to GM."

French for future, the Avenir sedan was brought to life by a global team of designers relying on traditional Buick styling cues. The 4-passenger Avenir features a sculpted surface, sweeping body sides, a long hood with 21-in. wheels pushed to the corners and a sloping rear deck that recalls the classic Riviera coupe.

The exterior also boasts a new grille for the Buick brand, bringing back the three-color, red-silver-blue tri-shield insignia, accented by wing-shaped elements.

Other highlights of the concept include a next-generation direct-injection V-6 engine with cylinder deactivation and stop-start technology, a 9-speed paddle-shift automatic transmission, driver-selectable suspension damping and a twin-clutch all-wheel-drive system.

Underscoring the new global nature of Buick and especially its presence in China, SAIC Chairman Chen Hong and President Chen Zixin attend the reveal. SAIC is a longtime GM joint-venture partner in Asia. Buick now sells more vehicles in China than the U.S. Last year, Buick sold 919,582 vehicles in China, up 13.5%.

The Cascada convertible, which Buick will derive from Opel in Europe, also breaks cover at the event. It is the first convertible for Buick in 25 years and joins a space sparsely populated by U.S. automakers.

Barra calls it a chance for Buick to attract more newcomers to the brand in the U.S., where sales last year rose 11.4% to 228,963 deliveries.

“(It) grows the brand, but look at what customers want,” she says. “It speaks of the elegance of Buick. It all fits where Buick is going.”

jamend@wardsauto.com