Saturday, October 31, 2009

We'll do the high-end stuff here

This is another example that puts the lie to the idea that lower-end work would (and should) migrate to lower-cost countries.

“The Riviera concept made us realize how small the world was,” Mr. Welburn, the design vice president, said. “It’s not east; it’s not west. It’s Buick.”

It has an interior done by a Chinese design lab and an exterior adapted by Americans from a Chinese design, all riding on what Mr. Federico calls “a heavily European-influenced chassis system.”

If they are to get the production duties and now they are doing the design also, what is left?

The engineering and electronics? Also done 'there'.

Accounting, bookkeeping ? Moving 'there'?

Executive suite? Surely set to move 'there' should the bailout resuscitate the company.

Lastly, taxes paid here? Sure to move 'there' when the company moves it's headquarters and incorporates overseas.

November 1, 2009
Design | Buick LaCrosse

How New Buicks Took Shape in China

THE idea of creating a new Buick in a design studio in China, as General Motors has done with the 2010 LaCrosse, is not as loopy as it might sound. Buicks have a certain cachet in China, dating back some eight decades to when the emperor bought one.

But today’s commercial imperative is more compelling than nostalgia: sales of Buicks in China first outpaced sales in the United States in 2006, and the margin is considerable today. For the first nine months of 2009, for instance, Buick sold 312,798 vehicles in China; in the United States, it sold 72,389.

In 1997 General Motors established two joint ventures with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation in China. One was for manufacturing. The other venture, for design and engineering, is the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center. The center has done the engineering to adapt various G.M. global models for the Chinese market.

It was logical, then, to expect that the Chinese designers and engineers would eventually take the lead in developing a new vehicle for both markets. That became a reality in July 2006 when Ed Welburn, G.M.’s vice president for global design, gave the Shanghai center an assignment to develop a design study for introduction at the 2007 Shanghai auto show.

The design study would be a modern-day version of the Riviera, which in its 1963 version was a trend-setting personal luxury coupe with crisply chiseled surfaces inspired by vintage Rolls-Royces. After the Shanghai debut, the 2007 Riviera concept was not forgotten; its design language, drawn from Buick history and Chinese culture, became the basis for another concept, the Invicta of 2008, as well as the production 2010 LaCrosse.

Under the guidance of Min Cao, lead exterior designer for the Riviera concept, the Pan Asia team looked to the Buick Y-Job concept of 1938, designed by Harley Earl, and to classic Buicks of the ’50s and ’60s. Three signature elements were distilled from those decades: the waterfall grille, the portholes and a “sweep-spear” design line along the side.

The low, wide grille of the Y-Job, a stark contrast to the tall, narrow radiator grilles of that era — probably influenced by the pioneering Lincoln Zephyr — set the stage for the 1942 Buick’s thick convex vertical bars just above the front bumper, a theme continued through 1954. When the vertical bar theme was revived in the 1990s, the previous semi-elliptical form became a full ellipse and moved up the car’s face. A 2004 concept, the Vélite, moved it farther up and wrapped it over the leading edge of the hood, creating a true waterfall form. It was this design that was applied to the Riviera concept.

Portholes appeared in 1949 and were part of Buick styling through 1957, appearing occasionally after that. Usually they were on the side of the fender and were called ventiports; in theory, at least, they vented warm air from under the hood. The Riviera concept moved them to the upper surface of the hood — an extension of the front light clusters.

The sweep-spear styling accent was both a body contour that provided emphasis above the front and rear wheels and a diving chrome accent line that followed those forms. It faded from favor after 1958 on the mainstream models but was resurrected with the 1963 Riviera.

Drawing from Chinese cultural history as well, exterior designers looked to the yuan bao, a gold ingot with convex and concave surfaces, which inspired them to develop similar forms on the car, especially where the roof joined the rear deck and spoiler lip.

Early design sketches by Nenghua Liu, lead interior designer of the Riviera concept, showed a wraparound treatment that had no discernible start or finish. It was an attempt to provide a sense of sanctuary, a place where occupants would feel relaxed and tranquil. A theme of earth and water was adopted for the colors and textures, and avoided hard, aggressive forms. A jadelike material on backlighted interior surfaces was included to signify the importance of that stone in Chinese culture.

“The Riviera concept made us realize how small the world was,” Mr. Welburn, the design vice president, said. “It’s not east; it’s not west. It’s Buick.”

Making clear what the future held for the Riviera’s design, Mr. Welburn continued, “The Riviera communicates the global design vocabulary of the Buick brand and sets the stage for General Motors’ design, engineering and manufacturing centers to work together on the next generation of Buick midsize luxury cars.”

That foretold the path from the Riviera concept to the 2010 LaCrosse. Joining the Pan Asia team in that project were designers at the Warren, Mich., technical center and chassis and body engineers in Rüsselsheim, Germany.

Using virtual reality technology that permitted 3-D visualization of proposed designs, the widely scattered designers took styling themes developed for the coupe body of the Riviera concept and applied them to a four-door sedan based on the new midsize car architecture developed for Opel’s flagship, the Insignia. The Riviera’s pair of gullwing doors gave way to four conventional doors.

The sedan was revealed at the Beijing auto show in 2008 as the Invicta concept. Other than a different front fascia, it was pretty much the 2010 LaCrosse that made its debut at the 2009 Detroit show.

The exterior of the LaCrosse clearly carries design themes drawn from the Riviera. It has a design line that runs along the top of the body side and around the car and is said to have been inspired by Chinese ribbon dancing. It also carries forward the sweep-spear tradition for Buick. Most of the Riviera’s exterior forms have been squared up slightly for a more efficient use of space.

November 1, 2009
Behind the Wheel | 2010 Buick LaCrosse

A Buick With Higher Aspirations

AS if the world needed more proof that General Motors’ stars were out of alignment, the company managed to introduce some of its best cars — true world-class competitors — just before it tumbled into the disgrace of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. G.M. finally found the magic formula just as the momentum from decades of mediocrity carried it over the edge.

The latest example of this belated excellence is the 2010 Buick LaCrosse, which joins other top-notch latecomers — like the Buick Enclave, the Cadillac CTS, the GMC Acadia and the Chevrolet Malibu and Traverse — in the newly shrunken universe of G.M. dealer showrooms.

If your forehead crinkles in mystification at the name LaCrosse, allow me to explain. It is Buick’s midsize front-drive sedan, now available with an all-wheel-drive option. But forget the old car, which was a vehicular nonentity. The new model is quite different, and for a good reason.

“LaCrosse plays a huge role in terms of changing the way people think of the Buick brand,” said Craig Bierley, Buick’s product marketing director.

The LaCrosse was an international effort with new mechanical underpinnings that G.M. calls its “midsize global platform.” Developed in Europe, it was first used for the Opel Insignia, voted the 2009 Car of the Year by European auto writers.

But Jim Federico, G.M.’s global vehicle line executive for midsize cars, says the LaCrosse is not a rebadged Insignia with a green card in the glovebox. It has an interior done by a Chinese design lab and an exterior adapted by Americans from a Chinese design, all riding on what Mr. Federico calls “a heavily European-influenced chassis system.”

The 2010 LaCrosse is about the same size as its predecessor, but the look is new. One interesting element is that Buick’s signature “portholes” are on the hood, facing up, rather than on the fenders. Mr. Federico said this was no manufacturing mistake, that putting them on the side would have disrupted the design. “It broke up the car,” he said. “It was not flowing. You had lost the harmony.”

The cabin has a lovely flowing theme that manages to look fresh but not quirky. Many surfaces and panels are soft. The front seats are comfortable, and the back seat has gained about three inches of legroom, a huge increase. There’s enough room for a six-foot passenger to be comfortably seated behind a six-foot driver. Since the LaCrosse is also being built and sold in China — where the big back seat is expected to make it a midsize limo for capitalistic Communists — G.M. had the interior done by the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center, a joint venture with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.

My biggest complaint about the interior: there are no trays on which something can be kept in view and easily retrieved.

The 13-cubic-foot trunk provides reasonable storage, although it is smaller — by three cubic feet — than the old model’s.

Buick has decided that one of its brand characteristics will be hushed motoring. Even on the highway there is almost no wind noise. The sound that does intrude tends to come up from the road.

The LaCrosse comes with all the important safety equipment, from electronic stability control to side-impact air bags. After crash-testing the LaCrosse, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety declared it a “top safety pick.”

Mr. Bierley, the marketing director, says the LaCrosse is aimed at buyers in their late 40s and 50s. “The people that we are hoping to attract do not want a soft, cushy ride,” he said. “They do not want to feel every bump in the road, but they want to be connected to the driving experience.”

The LaCrosse team managed that tricky compromise. On a rough surface, the suspension deflects all but the worst impacts. The body is also solid and shake-free. Upward body movements are well controlled, which keeps the LaCrosse from feeling floaty, like so many Buicks of yesteryear.

To my knowledge nobody has ever accurately used “agile” and “Buick” in the same sentence, and though the thought crossed my mind I am reluctant to do so here. But for a front-drive two-ton vehicle, the LaCrosse is surprisingly quick to respond and feels nicely connected to the driver, although the steering could use a little more feel.

Two months ago, Mark LaNeve, at the time G.M.’s vice president for United States sales, said quality issues at the assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan., were holding up delivery of the LaCrosse. In an e-mail message, Randal Fox, a Buick spokesman, said, “The issues are minor (mainly fit and finish), but we want to make sure the cars are right before they’re shipped.” Last week, Mr. Fox said full-speed production had resumed by the end of September.

The midgrade LaCrosse, the CXL, has a 255-horsepower, direct-injection 3-liter V-6 and a 6-speed automatic. The transmission’s gear ratios were well chosen, assuring a quick response and strong acceleration under all conditions. The transmission is also smart enough that midway through a slow turn, just when the driver is ready to accelerate, it immediately and smoothly slips down a couple of gears.

Cruising at 65 miles per hour in sixth gear, the engine works at a relaxed, quiet and fuel-efficient 1,400 r.p.m. The federal mileage rating is 17 miles per gallon city and 26 m.p.g. highway. That is less than the 2009 model, which got 17 m.p.g. in town and 28 on the highway with a 3.8-liter V-6 and a 4-speed automatic. But that engine had 55 less horsepower and was propelling a vehicle 500 pounds lighter.

The fanciest LaCrosse, the CSX, comes with a 280-horsepower 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6, also with the 6-speed automatic. Oddly, its 17/27 m.p.g. rating gives it a 1 m.p.g. highway fuel economy advantage over the smaller engine.

Late this year, in an unusual move for a near-luxury brand, Buick will offer a direct-injection 4-cylinder (2.4 liters, 182 horsepower) as the standard engine in the base-level CX. Mr. Federico says that version is expected to go from zero to 60 m.p.h. in 9.2 seconds and deliver 20/30 m.p.g. That car is expected to cost slightly less than the current CX, which has the 3-liter and a base price of $27,835.

The CXL starts at $30,395 and offers all-wheel drive for an additional $2,175. The CXS is $33,765 and up.

I tested a CXL, which is expected to account for half of LaCrosse sales. Options like a navigation system, heated and cooled front seats and a fancy stereo brought the sticker price to $35,915. What one gets for that money is a near-luxury sedan with a distinctive style that is also interesting to drive. It recognizes that while baby boomers are getting older, they still want a connection with their cars.

The LaCrosse also means good news for the bigger picture. Not only should it help to end Buick’s serial identity crisis, but its underlying structure will be used on a fistful of other G.M. vehicles, including a new Regal to be introduced next year. That bodes well for a company that just limped out of Chapter 11 and is hoping its next chapter will be a happier one.

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