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GM drives Buick into a new auto era

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Kai Ryssdal: The automotive news of the day is electric. In more ways than one. General Motors announced today its new electric car. The Chevy Volt will get 230 miles to the gallon when it hits the market next year. If it’s going to survive ’til the middle of 2010, though, the post-bankruptcy GM is going to have to sell some other cars. The first one of which is just out.

DAN NEIL: It’s a Buick LaCrosse 2010. Probably the only one in California. So this is big.

Los Angeles Times car critic Dan Neil joined us last week at the Marketplace test track. Otherwise known as the parking garage here at 261 South Figueroa street.

The Buick’s not a bad looking car, but I was a little surprised that the first product launch of the new GM is a brand that’s been around for more than 100 years.

NEIL: Understand that this is kind of a legacy car. This is a project that began on the old GM. And now because of the way that timing has worked out, it is the first car of the new GM.

RYSSDAL: How long has this car been in the works?

NEIL: Well, about 36 months, and it was developed between China and the U.S. People have asked, well, why didn’t they keep Saturn. Because Saturn had the fresher product mix, had the better fuel economy. Because Buick is huge in China, and so they were looking at the global market potential.

RYSSDAL: Right. I’m obliged to point out that I think the average age of the Buick consumer is like 70-something.

NEIL: It’s dead. It’s dead. Yeah. Generally these things come with dialysis machines.

RYSSDAL: It’s not bad looking. Beefier looking than I would have thought.

NEIL: Yes, exactly more masculine.

RYSSDAL: Yes, the doors are big. The doors are huge.

NEIL: Yes, indeed.

RYSSDAL: All right time to take it for a spin. All right here we are pulling onto 2nd street, of course, there’s construction here. We’re going to go through the tunnel as we always do. Where is this car going to fall in the consumer mindset? Are people going to look at this and say, oh, sporty little thing, or midclass sedan. What’s it going to be?

NEIL: What we got here is a slightly bigger, slightly heavier version of a Lexus ES350. And in every respect that I can tell it’s equal or better of the Lexus. Now the question is what does the brand mean? And this is the big problem. Because the Buick brand has to dig itself out of this tremendous deficit because of the recent history, and the long-term history being known as the doctor’s car. Going back decades. Can it win over younger buyers? Well, I think it can. But they’ve got a lot of communications work.

RYSSDAL: Let me try a slightly tortured analogy here. You know how movies these days are made on opening night, when people twitter what they thought about it, and tell their friends on Facebook, and it’s either sink or swim within the first three hours of the thing being on the screen. When this car comes out, how much time does GM have to make it a hit?

NEIL: Thirty days. Thirty days. I think this is really…Box office for this car is crucial. They’ve got to get people into showrooms, they’ve got to have people raving about the car. They got to be able to change people’s attitudes.

RYSSDAL: Where does GM go if this car doesn’t work?

NEIL: Well, fortunately for GM they’ve been able to strip down to a fighting weight. So they do have a future in the business for some time to come. You know, another way to look at it is that GM used to be the incumbent, the target for Toyota. Now GM is the upstart, they have the advantages, they are stripped down, they have lower production costs. They are hungrier. And that is an extraordinary possibility that GM might be the one to come out and kick butt.

RYSSDAL: Pull this number then out of wherever you car guys pull it, and tell me what GM is going to make on this car.

NEIL: Per unit?


NEIL: You know, I think probably $1,500, $2,000.

RYSSDAL: Is that pretty good?

NEIL: No, not really. No, I think that they’re probably cutting it pretty thin. But that’s what they ought to do. Because for years they just raked obscene per-unit profits out of trucks and SUVs. And they didn’t put the money back into product development, which was a huge mistake. Really that was the original sin.

RYSSDAL: I will tell you, it’s kinda of a nice ride. I mean I enjoy it. It feels good. It clearly handles city streets reasonably well. And it just feels nice.

NEIL: You know, I almost want to say if you love your country, and you need a Lexus, buy a buick. Because I frankly want to get my money back. So Kai, the question is what can I do to put you in a Buick today?

RYSSDAL: Dan Neil writes on cars for the Los Angeles Times. Comes by every now and then and brings us something fun. Dan, thanks a lot.

NEIL: Thank you, Kai.

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