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In its earliest days Buick had a reputation for engineering innovation and raw speed. Swiss-born race driver Louis Chevrolet made his name, in part, driving Buicks on race tracks around the country.

In the 21st Century, though, Buick, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, has been a quiet spot in GM’s North American brand strategy. It’s long been popular in China where, despite increasing competition, it still sells far more vehicles than in the US. Not quite a luxury brand but not quite mainstream either, Buick offers luxury style at bargain prices. Recently, with some fresh designs, car shoppers have started noticing and sales have rocketed upward.

Last year, Buick sales rose more than 60% in the US compared to 2022. Things cooled off somewhat this year compared to a white-hot 2023, but sales were up again in the first quarter of 2024. Buick is one of the fast growing car brands in America.

“It’s all new, it’s actually good looking. It’s one in five of their sales and it sells quickly,” Edmunds.com analyst Ivan Drury said of the Envista. “It sells faster than the vast majority of GM products.”

Buick’s latest iteration of an eye-catching design is striking a chord. Since before World War II, GM has treated Buick as a design showcase. The 1938 Buick Y Job, a long, low convertible, is generally regarded as the auto industry’s first “concept car.” Production cars like the elegant, flat-sided 1963 Riviera helped move auto design forward from the chrome-encrusted ’50s, according to the The Atlas of Car Design by Jason Barlow.

A sharp-looking entry-level model has certainly helped, accounting for the largest chunk of the increase, according to data from Edmunds.com. The Buick Envista introduced last summer is, essentially, a modified version of the well-received Chevrolet Trax, GM’s cheapest crossover SUV. The sleek Envista looks distinctive enough that hardly anyone would guess the relationship. With prices starting at around $23,000, the Envista costs only a couple of thousand dollars more than the Chevy.

Buick’s new look, the one that’s drawing buyers to the Envista and the recently redesigned Encore GX, was previewed by the 2022 Buick Wildcat EV concept car. It includes a curved blade-like front, smooth sides, and slim wedge-shaped lights.

“No one came to us – I don’t think we even said it to ourselves – that there was a problem with the old [design style.] It was just through the constant experimentation and looking toward the future, and what can we do with that, we came up with a solution that we thought would move the brand forward,” said Bob Boniface, head of Buick design.

Despite the fact that the Wildcat concept is a two-door electric car, the fundamental design cues were intended to be easily transferable to gas-powered four-door SUVs, too, said Bob Boniface, head of Buick design. Aspects will appear on a redesigned Enclave three-row SUV and an Envision model coming to market later this year.

The fresh designs of the Envista and Encore GX have attracted buyers into showrooms, some of whom have been buying other Buick models, said Duncan Aldred, who currently oversees both the Buick and GMC brands at GM. He pointed out that the Enclave and Envision, models that, for now, still sport Buick’s older design style, also had significantly increased sales.

“I think what we’re getting is the halo effect of the new design language,” he said.

Almost 70% of Buick buyers are new to the brand, according to GM. In fact, data on trade-ins for the Envista, as with the Chevy Trax, indicate that it’s often a buyers’ first new car, which is a good thing for Buick and for GM, since it means its bringing in a fresh crop of customers, Drury said. It’s doing exactly what an “entry level” model should do.

To be fair, Buick’s relatively small size makes its sales figures somewhat volatile and it’s had ups and downs before, according to historical data from Cox Automotive. But the trend lines are clearly positive at the moment. In 2023, Buick sold 167,000 vehicles in the US, moving it up just ahead of Cadillac among GM’s four brands in this market.

The Buick Wildcat EV concept, shown here in a rendering, provided a preview of Buick's latest

Shifts in the American automotive market have presented a particular challenge for Buick. Within GM’s North American brand structure, Buick has traditionally been paired with GMC with both those brands placed under the leadership of one person and mostly sold at the same dealerships. For the past decade, that’s been Aldred, a lanky Englishman with a Liverpool accent who had previously worked for GM in Europe.

The original idea behind putting these brands together was that, with Buick’s cars and GMC’s trucks and SUVs, a Buick-GMC dealer would have a full line of vehicles to offer virtually any customer who came in. But the American auto market has shifted so hard toward trucks and SUVs that Buick now sells only SUVs and no cars at all.

GMC, which sold more than three times as many vehicles as Buick last year, brings in big profits for General Motors. For vehicles that often have little substantial difference from Chevrolet trucks and SUVs, buyers willingly pay thousands more for the GMC version and even more for pricier sub-brands like Denali and off-road-tuned AT4 models.

Buick has borrowed that sub-brand stategy from GMC. Buick has Avenir which indicates a slightly more posh versions of Buick models. Last year, Avenir models, which get some fancier interior materials, more features, and distinctive paint colors, made up almost a third of Buick sales, the highest levels yet, Aldred said.

The question now, of course, will the positive vibes last this time for GM’s sometimes awkward middle child.

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