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LaCrosse a key player in Buick's game plan

April 07, 2004|Larry Printz | Morning Call

NEW YORK — When the 2004 New York International Auto Show opens to the world's media today, expect the renaissance of Buick to be among the headlines.

After successfully bringing its Cadillac brand back from the dead, General Motors is turning its attention and $3 billion worth of investment to Buick.

Actually, the renaissance started three years ago, with the introduction of the Rendezvous crossover sport utility vehicle, followed last year by the Rainier, Buick's first full-frame truck-based SUV. Buick is hoping to build on this momentum by adding another crossover SUV. "We are looking at one that's bigger than the Rendezvous," says CJ Fraleigh, general manager for Buick.

Buick is also adding its first minivan, the Terraza, in the fall. This would transform Buick into a division that sells more trucks than cars.

"Depending on how you classify crossover vehicles, yes, there will probably be more trucks than cars," Fraleigh says.

Still, many loyal Buick buyers prefer cars, and Buick's entries are long in the tooth.

That will change this fall with the introduction of the LaCrosse, Buick's midsize replacement for the aging Century and Regal. Based on the same platform as the Pontiac Grand Prix, the LaCrosse is the first production car to bear the stamp of GM Vice President Bob Lutz.

"The original design had a lot of what I'll call Buick design elements in the original execution, even things like portholes," recalls Mark Hines, marketing director for the Century and Regal.

"So what happened is Bob came in and he says, 'I know you have the check marks from the Buick recipe-styling book. But the gestalt -- the whole -- really doesn't feel like I think it should feel or have the style that I think a Buick should have.' " The resulting change shows a new face of Buick, with elegant lines and a premium quality interior. Buick officials also promise it will be the quietest in its class.

The LaCrosse will start at about $23,000, with top-level models coming in around $34,000. Buick spent more on the car than it had planned, according to David Whittaker, vehicle line executive, who notes that the LaCrosse's potential for long-term success in an upscale market was part of the decision.

"There was a time when we were doing J-car derivative Skyhawks, and X-car derivative Skylarks. If you try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing to everybody. What we're trying to do is be very pointed about what Buick is. This will basically be the entry into Buick," Hines explains.

The LaCrosse is about the same size as a Buick LeSabre; however, its price reaches over the LeSabre and bumps into the Park Avenue.

The LeSabre and the Park Avenue will be replaced by a new vehicle on a large-car platform. The same platform also will yield a new flagship model. Expect both models to be priced above the LaCrosse, going further upmarket to fill a void left as Cadillac moves further upmarket.

As if to prove Buick's rediscovered grace and style, Buick will unveil at the auto show the Velite, a four-seat convertible based on GM's Zeta platform.

The platform is used by Holden, GM's Australian subsidiary, which will build the forthcoming Pontiac GTO. The rear-wheel-drive Velite concept is powered by a twin-turbo 3.6-liter V6.

All of this is part of GM's $3-billion revitalization of Buick.

"That moves us even closer to where we want to be with our car portfolio, and it starts with LaCrosse," Fraleigh says.

Larry Printz writes for the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call, a Tribune company.

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