Bumpy Ride

A redesigned, reinvigorated car tries to save a crestfallen automaker.

April 13, 2010

I AM DRIVING a brand new, cherry red Buick sedan across the Golden Gate Bridge on a characteristically foggy day, and I’m feeling self-conscious. On a roadway teeming with compact cars and imports, I wonder if I am driving perhaps the only Buick in all of San Francisco. After all, the brand doesn’t necessarily conjure up thoughts of smart, city living.

Seung-il Sean Lo, a lead designer with General Motors, the parent company of Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC and Buick, agrees. “[Buick] is not really an inspirational brand,” Lo says, sitting beside me in the passenger seat. “We want to make it inspirational, we want to make it relevant.”

The 2010 Buick LaCrosse seems poised to tackle that task. With its modern design and efficiency-focused construction, could this be the redemption needed for a car company embattled by bankruptcy and bailout? Naturally, Lo seems to think so, and he’s convinced that it will require a more global perspective to save this domestic carmaker.

Good thing Lo possesses precisely this kind of perspective. “As a designer, what you produce is impacted by what you’ve seen,” Lo says. Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, he was uprooted to New Delhi at the age of 6, where his father was stationed as a foreign ambassador. Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Volvo, Toyota — these were the trendsetting imports that rolled through the foreign embassy in the 1970s. Awestruck, he was inspired to begin sketching his own designs.

As lead brand strategist for the LaCrosse, Lo hopes to reinvent Buick’s reputation by broadening its appeal to include a new, and decidedly different, demographic: young, environmentally conscious and non-white. “The automotive industry is going through a change whether you want it or not,” Lo says. “GM, as a brand, has to change with the culture.”

In June, GM filed for a very public bankruptcy, which prompted the federal government to direct nearly $50 billion to save the country’s largest carmaker. “We went through a painful bankruptcy,” Lo says. “It was demoralizing.”

But Lo remains confident that the LaCrosse will help redeem the Buick brand by 2020, by offering a “graceful and romantic” design coupled with a 182-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine — a less powerful version of its V6 counterpart — which gets about 30 miles per gallon on the highway (top-selling competitor Toyota Corolla gets about 34 miles). While not revolutionary, it’s a good first step for the company, he says.

Yet, even given the car’s respectable specs, how will it fare among the growing market of Asian American consumers? According to a January 2009 report from R.L. Polk & Co., a private automotive analyst company, Asian Americans will account for $670 billion in economic purchasing power by 2012 — a 46 percent spike from 2007 — and statistics indicate that they are primarily buying Asian makes, with Toyota and Honda taking up more than 56 percent of the market share.

However, regardless of specific demographics, Lo says GM will have to fight to re-establish its reputation as a purveyor of well-made and -designed vehicles with all consumers if it hopes to survive. Lo, for one, is up to that challenge and speaks of a “hungry feeling” to prove the brand’s cars to skeptical consumers.

Yet, I remain uncertain as we take the LaCrosse up and down the daunting peaks of Russian Hill. Does the LaCrosse perform any better than the other cars I’ve driven through San Francisco? Is it special? I want to believe this will be the car that restores faith in American automobile making. But my answer is unmistakably hesitant.

Maveric Vu is a Front of the Book editor at Hyphen. His last article was about the whitewashing of the film The Last Airbender, to be released this summer.

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