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THE BROAD VIEW

A legacy brand is slowly fading away

The iconic Buick name is no longer stamped on many models, and the company may soon exit the car business altogether to focus on SUVs and crossovers

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Detroit

BUICK, the rock upon which General Motors was built more than a century ago, appears to be fading in the company's rearview mirror.

As of the 2019 model year, the Buick name is no longer stamped across the back of its North American models. In China, where Buick claims most of its sales these days, the "Buick" nameplate disappeared years ago. The brand's logo is all that's left, and soon, the company might be gone from the car business altogether - making only SUVs and crossovers.

It seems that, after 115 years, the name's image has become too outdated for a company that wants to be thought of as a thoroughly modern "attainable luxury" vehicle in a class with Acura, Infiniti, Lincoln and Lexus, a notch below high-end offerings like Cadillac.

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The company has even produced advertisements that explicitly distance the brand from its reputation. "That's not a Buick" spots were placed in high-profile slots, like the Super Bowl, to drive home the point.

Today's Buicks are arguably not quite Buicks anyway - not in any sense that the founder, the all-but-forgotten David Dunbar Buick, would recognise.

Buick, the company, effectively ceased to be an automobile manufacturer after 2010, when General Motors shut down its vast "Buick City" manufacturing complex in Flint, Michigan. Buick City, once the largest auto factory in the world, had for more than a century produced purebred Buick vehicles, parts and powertrains.

Since then, Buick dealers' lots have been filled with a mélange of GM-owned vehicles borrowed from Opel, Holden, Daewoo and others, with a Buick badge affixed. So-called badge-engineering is a tried-and-failed GM strategy that has been criticised as helping to undermine brands including Oldsmobile, Saturn and Pontiac.

Today's Buick-less Buicks still carry a stylised version of the brand's "tri-shield" logo, which was introduced to highlight its stylish but poor-selling 1959 Electra, Invicta and LeSabre models. The absence of Buick lettering leaves room for the new Avenir badge, which Buick introduced as a "sub-brand" suggesting a higher level of luxury. Some auto analysts expect that Buick will eventually make a full transition to the Avenir name.

A Buick spokeswoman, Michelle Malcho, wouldn't comment on that possibility, but denied the division might be facing any existential crisis. "We see dynamic changes, certainly, but we see opportunities for growth," she said. "The company is uniquely suited and well positioned for today's global automotive market."

That position, with significant business in both China and the United States, also presents a challenge, with a trade war creating uncertainty over tariffs and currency exchange rates.

Interestingly, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Saturn were cancelled while selling at North American volumes far higher than Buick is now. Olds, in particular, was posting comparatively robust sales near a quarter-million a year when it was handed its surprise death notice in late 2000. Saturn and Pontiac had dipped below 200,000 in yearly sales and did not survive GM's bankruptcy in 2009.

If not for the Buick name's esteem in China - Communist Party leaders once favored lavishly appointed Buick land yachts - it is possible the brand would have been abandoned when Buick City was.

But the Buick division soldiers on, still in the black despite falling sales, Ms Malcho said, thanks to sales of high-margin sport utility vehicles and crossovers.

This calendar year, Buick dealers in the US might be lucky to top 100,000 vehicle sales despite deals, discounts and incentives of up to 20 per cent - and lately even more, at times - off the manufacturer's suggested price.

In China, sales have been dropping ominously. In 2016 and 2017, Buick and its partner SAIC Motor of Shanghai sold about 1.23 million vehicles. Last year, sales fell to 1.06 million, and they are expected to finish under 900,000 this year.

Oversaturated market

Besides headwinds from the trade war, the Chinese market faces oversaturation, said John Murphy, senior auto analyst for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, in his annual "Car Wars" industry outlook in June. He predicted a 7.5 per cent sales drop this year.

Buick is also running out of cars. It is winding down its flagship LaCrosse sedan and Cascada convertible - models no longer available from their source, Opel of Europe, since GM sold the division two years ago. Its last car, the Regal sedan (now also offered in hatchback and wagon variants), is dated and in need of a costly redesign. Fewer than 6,000 Regals are likely to be sold in 2019 - an unsustainable volume. If an affordable Regal replacement can't be found, Ms Malcho conceded, Buick will probably cancel it, too, thus exiting the "car" side of the business.

Mr Murphy, the auto analyst, expects the auto market will slide a further 30 per cent from current levels by 2022. That might tempt automakers to engage in ruinous price wars, as they did in 2007-09, in an attempt to maintain volume and market share.

In fact, chief financial officers from GM and Ford confirmed recently that they were preparing for dire conditions in the near term: They are stockpiling capital, rationing resources, deferring expenditures and redirecting sales strategies to lower-priced models.

The silver lining, Mr Murphy said, could come in 2023, when he foresees the survivors enjoying "a strong recovery". The question is: Will the Buick-less Buick, or Avenir, or whatever else it may be called, be one of them? NYTIMES