Good news, everyone: I decided to visit a Buick dealer. In China. Setting the stage: a large dealer area in east Beijing, about a one-hour drive from the city center. In the same area are six other dealers, a car inspection place, and a wrecking yard for old taxis.
I know the area very well, as I used to live nearby. It is hot and it is raining hard. Perfect weather to check out some Buicks! Before we go inside, though, we must start with some vitally important context.
A very short history of Buick in China
Buick arrived in China in 1997. It was the first brand under the Shanghai-GM joint venture, later renamed to SAIC-GM. The first Buick to roll off the line was the Buick New Century sedan. The big success came in the mid-2000s when Buick was one of the most popular car brands in China. Buick made a wide range of cars, ranging from the cheap Buick Sail to the GL8 MPV to the mid-high-end Buick Regal, the successor of the New Century.
For a while, it seemed Buick could do no wrong. The brand had a strong following and a relatively loyal customer base. The range was extended with many new models while older models were kept around as well. GM was big and rebranded Opels from Germany, Daewoos from South Korea, and Holdens from Australia as Buicks for China. It was one big Buick party.
In 2010, Buick sold over a dozen different car models in China. The decline started in the mid-2010’s when local Chinese car brands started their ascent. This began with petrol-powered cars but quickly evolved to hybrids and electric cars. Like many legacy joint venture brands, Buick didn’t have a quick answer ready. In the meantime, their loyal partner SAIC launched three new brands with a lot of new energy vehicles. Back in the 2000s, SAIC was the junior partner, buying or borrowing technology from senior partner GM. That too started to change in the mid-2010s, especially when the EVs arrived. Suddenly, the partners were on equal footing.
For a while, it seemed that Buick was getting into serious trouble. Sales declined further and the brand only managed to launch two rather uninspiring NEVs: the Volt-based Buick Velite 5 and the Buick Velite 6. “Velite” was supposed to become a larger NEV line under Buick, but after the first two cars nothing happened anymore. In the meantime, other legacy joint venture brands started to die. Suzuki was first, followed by Jeep, followed by Mitsubishi. Other brands that are in a free sales-fall include Ford, Peugeot/ /Citroën, Hyundai/Kia, and Mazda. They all have the same problem: a lack of attractive and modern NEVs.
Buick, however, woke up. In the early 2020s, they started to develop yet another line of NEVs, this time under the Electra name. Unlike Velite, Electra is EV-only. The cars are designed and developed in China, using GM’s Ultium platform. These cars may save Buick in China, but the brand still has a long way to go. The current Buick lineup is a curious mix of these modern Electra EVs, reasonable new ICE cars, and a few very old ICE cars. This mix is caused by the equally curious structure of joint ventures. These are surprisingly independent entities, with their own legal structure, their own CEO and board, and their own profits and losses. The interests of a joint venture do not always align with the interests of the two main shareholders.
This is best visible in model policy. Joint ventures often own the Chinese market’s rights to legacy models no longer produced elsewhere. Development costs have long been earned back, and after so many years, these cars are cheap to make and run flawlessly, so warranty costs are super low. That means the margins on these oldies are top, and the joint venture will make money even if they only sell a few. This is why many joint ventures continue to sell old cars next to newer ones. Also, see my earlier article about the four-generations Hyundai Elantra. This always was the smart thing to do. Still, with the current onslaught by Chinese brands, which launch a new EV every day, the older cars may become a dragnet instead of a safety net, pulling the newer cars under the water, down to the dark depths of China’s unforgiven automotive world.
Buick sales numbers in China in August
Let’s have a quick look at Buick’s current lineup, the year of launch, and sales in August. That month, Buick sold 49961 cars, a market share in China of 2.6%.
|Model||Year of launch||Power||Sales in August||% of lineup|
|GL8||2010||ICE||11438 (inc. GL8 ES)||22.89|
|Verano / Verano Pro||2015||ICE||7861||15.73|
|Encore GX / Encore Plus||2019||ICE||0||0|
|Velite 6||2019||EV & PHEV||2472||4.95|
|Envision Plus||2021||ICE||8239 (inc. Envision S)||16.94|
A few important notes:
- The 5 oldest models include Buick’s 1st, 2nd, and 4th best-selling cars (!).
- Buick heavily depends on four cars: the GL8, Regal, Envision Plus & S, and the Verano Pro.
- The Electra 5 launched in April and the Electra E4 in June. So their full sales potential will only become clear in a few months.
- The total sales number of 49961 includes dealer-lot sales of older models that are no longer in production. These are not included in the table. The table shows the current line-up only.
- Buick is selling 3 generations of GL8 in China. These are sold as 3 separate models. However, in China’s sales statistics, the GL8 and GL8 ES are counted as one.
- Buick sells the Envision Plus and Envision S as 2 separate models. However, in China’s sales statistics, these are counted as one.
- The Verano Pro was launched in 2021, but it is not new. It is an updated variant of the second-generation Verano, which launched in 2015.
- The Encore Plus launched in 2023, but it is now new. It is an updated variant of the Encore GX, which launched in 2019.
- A ‘new’ Buick LaCrosse launched in 2023. SAIC-GM calls it the “4th generation”. However, this is not correct. The 2023 LaCrosse is a redesigned and updated version of the 3rd generation LaCrosse, which launched in 2017. The platform and engines remain the same.
- The Chinese Enclave is a different car than the US Enclave. It is based on the C1XX short-wheelbase platform.
As you can see, the lineup of Buick in China is complicated. And SAIC-GM also makes cars under the Chevrolet and Cadillac brands, with their own line-up oddities. That’s for later, this story is about Buick. That was just the introduction! Now to my visit.
Inside the Buick dealer in China
A wide open space with 10 cars on display, which wasn’t very much for such a large area, and surely doesn’t represent the entire lineup. On the left side are offices for the sales folks, and upstairs are offices for the managers. On the right side are large windows. [Editor’s Note: I admire Tycho’s commitment to giving you the full scene here. – JT] The new Buick Electra E4 was front and center, it stood on a separate stage in the middle with a panda holding a heart. Good! The E4 and the E5 were my main target for this visit. I hadn’t seen any on the road yet, so this was my first time with the Electras.
This shows perfectly that Buick is not quite up there. At any dealer of a new Chinese brand, this would be a touchscreen. I tried to poke and stroke but nothing happened. That’s because it wasn’t a touch screen but an old-school cardboard and plastic mash-up. The board advertises the E4, which is standing right next to it. Again, it is not digital so it only shows a static pic of a woman walking towards the vehicle. On the right bottom you can see the Ultium name. In China, it is very common to see platform names in advertisements. On the left bottom is a QR code for Weibo. Scan it and you get into Buick’s Weibo account. I am subscribed already so I didn’t scan.
Buick Electra E4
The Electra E4 is an SUV coupe with a sharp design, probably the best-looking new Buick in China, or even in the world. It has split headlights, which is a popular design theme in China. There are some shiny bits in the bumper and on the sides.
The wheels are pushed far to the corners for the typical EV-short-overhang look. It has pop-out door handles and frameless doors. The design language is called PURE, previewed by the 2022 Buick Electra-X concept car. The Electra E4 and E5 are designed in China by SAIC-GM PATAC Design. This is a separate joint venture founded in 1997, it has designed most of the China-only GM cars and numerous concept cars, like the lovely 1999 Patac Qilin.
The Electra 4 has a nice interior, for a Buick. It isn’t as high-tech as its Chinese competitors, who often fit way wider screens or combinations of up to four screens. Still, it all looks luxurious and well put together. Chinese consumers like light-colored interiors now. So in the last decade or so, many car makers have been fitting their vehicles with light combinations of colors and trim. This E4 combines white with beige with dark red. It is equipped with the Buick Virtual Cockpit System, featuring a 6K 30-inch integrated curved screen, which is called EYEMAX.
Car color names are always poetic in China. When a new car comes onto the market, car makers often release separate press releases about the names of the exterior and interior colors. Recently, a new trend has emerged: two color names for one color, like a name and a spare name, with the second name in “()”. That is indeed as strange as it sounds. Buick is into this trend, as you can see on the screenshot from Buick’s Chinese website. The Buick Electra E4 is available in four colors. The names are Night Ripple Black (Mysterious Black), Winter Birch White (Star White), Eden Purple (Twilight Purple), and Pine Cone Green (Emerald). The translations are mine and may not be the official English translations that Buick would use if they’d ever export the E4.
Buick offers four trim levels: Smart, Premium, GS (pictured), and the top-spec GS Long-range AWD. At least the names of the trim levels are kind of normal! We need normality. The first 3 are front-wheel drive with a single motor. Output is 245 hp and 330 Nm. Top speed is limited to 180 km/h (112 mph) and 0-100 is gone in 7.6 seconds. It has a 65 kWh LFP battery sourced from FinDreams Battery, which is a subsidiary of BYD. Tesla isn’t the only American brand using BYD batteries! The range is 530 kilometers CLTC (329 miles).
The GS Long-range AWD is quite a different beast. It has different motors and a different battery. The motor at the front has 191 hp and the motor at the back a paltry 92 hp. Buick claims a combined output of 287 hp and 465 Nm. Top is 112 mph again and 0-100 takes 6.2 seconds. Electricity is stored in a 79.7 ternary lithium battery sourced from CATL-SAIC. This, as the name may suggest, is a joint venture between battery marker CATL and SAIC, GM’s partner. CATL-SAIC makes batteries for all the brands under SAIC and for the EVs of SAIC-GM. The range is 620 kilometers CLTC (385 miles).
Money: the price range of the Buick Electra ES4 ranges from 189.900 yuan to 259.900 yuan ($26.4K to $36.1K).
A hugely popular trend in China at the moment is “glamping.” That’s camping with luxury. [Editor’s Note: Yes, Tycho, we know what glamping is. – JT] This trend started in the Covid days, when folks couldn’t travel abroad so they had to spend their time and money inside the country. Many Chinese car brands are onto this trend, offering brand-branded camping gear, V2L tech to power utilities, and tow hooks to tow a trailer. In many dealers, you can see displays like this one, a faux camping ground with a tent and chairs and camping stuff. But the effort at this Buick dealer is a bit halfhearted. Usually, there is a car on the display with a tent on the roof or a running oven attached to the V2L cable. Here, it was just the tent, without a car.
Buick Electra E5
The Buick Electra 5 has a more traditional SUV design, but it is still a pretty car. It has split headlights again, with the main units in the bumper. The top lights are perhaps a little bit too large. The E5 is a five-seat car, just like the E4. When Buick wants to compete with Chinese EV makers it will need a larger 3-row SUV soon. Somewhat worryingly, I haven’t heard much about any upcoming Electra cars. Two is not enough.
At launch, Buick China said: “The Electra E5 is tailored for the needs and preferences of mainstream EV buyers in China.” So if you buy one, you are a mainstream fellow. Always good to know, isn’t it? The E5 costs between 208.900 and 270.890 yuan ($28.7K – 37.2K), so just a bit more than the E4. I am into the numbers now so let’s to a size comparison:
Buick Electra E4: 4818/1912/1580, 2954.
Buick Electra E5: 4892/1905/1681, 2954.
They share the same platform so the wheelbase is the same. The E5 is a bit taller but not as much as it looks to the eye.
Buick sells five trim levels here: Smart Enjoy, Smart Enjoy Long Range, Premium (pictured), Premium Long Range, and the Avenir AWD. The base and top-AWD motors are the same as with the Electra E4, but there is an additional powertrain for the two long-range models: FWD, 204 hp and 330 Nm. The battery situation, however, is different. The E5 is only available with CATL-SAIC ternary lithium battery batteries. No fancy BYD LFP here. The long-range models get an 80 kWh unit for a max range of 620 kilometers (385 miles).
The Buick marketing guys came up with a cool slogan for the E5: Give Me FivE5. How hilarious. The Chinese characters say: 给我一台, give me a …
The image shows a flying saucer-style building with a one-child family and a bunch of hot-air balloons.
The latest iteration of the Buick Regal, in a fiery red color, was launched on the Chinese car market in the summer. This generation of the Buick Regal dates back to 2018. Buick got criticized on Chinese social media for this Regal, with many folks saying it is too old, and some saying that GM was “cheating” customers by saying this was a new car. Buick calls it the “New Regal”. That is a bit of a stretch indeed. But, in China, many car makers use the word ‘new’ for updates and facelifts whenever they feel like it. So it isn’t just a GM thing. The Regal is one of those legacy models I mentioned earlier. It is very old but it prints money, so why cancel it? Buick fitted a big and shiny grille, the new Buick logo, and… that’s about it. But perhaps they’ve gone a bit too far this time. Or not far enough, depending on your point of view. The main point of contention is the interior, the dashboard, to be more precise. Strangely, Buick didn’t make any changes there. So this is what you get:
A sea of gray and darker gray. But that ain’t the worst. Check the tiny 4.2-inch (four point two) infotainment screen and… the analog needle dials! Needles, needles, yeah needles. In China in 2023. Wow, Buick. I had already seen media pics earlier on, so I didn’t get another heart attack.
The ‘new’ Regal was even newer than the Electras, so it isn’t yet visible in the August sales numbers. That’s the ‘old’ Regal there. Will the new one sell just as well? Well yes, it probably will. Me and my little car friends may be mocking it, but the Regal name is super strong and Buick offers a lot of car for the money. The red Regal in the shop is the base ’25T Super’ model. It costs 159,800 yuan ($22.2K). That is a super price. It buys you a 4.9-meter-long car with enough space for five folks. Under the hood is a 1.5 turbo with 169 hp and 250 Nm, mated to a 9-speed automatic, sending horses to the front wheels. The top speed is 205 km/h and 0-100 takes 9.1 seconds. It is a bit thirsty with fuel consumption of 6.89 (not 6.9. No! 6.89 it is) liters per 100 kilometers (about 34 mpg) but petrol is cheap in China. It is cheap to run too, and it can be fixed almost anywhere.
The boards explain the various technical capabilities of various Buick cars. They had five boards but one wasn’t showing anything. Perhaps Buick doesn’t have any other capabilities to share. What about those needle dials? That’ll look nice on a board. Buick can sell them as “the most reliable needle dials.” Easy peasy, and true, as no one else in this segment is selling cars with needle dials. Even Honda hahaha doesn’t sell needle dial-equipped cars in China anymore. There is a real plant on each side of the boards. Most Chinese dealers have plastic plants. Fake stuff. At Buick the plants are real. That’s good. They care.
There is still a large market in China for full-size luxury sedans. Not so in the US. The Buick LaCrosse was canceled in North America in 2019, but production in China continued. Earlier this year the LaCrosse received an update, including a big and shiny new grille and a new dashboard. As noted above, Buick calls it the “4th Generation” but that isn’t true, it is really a heavily reworked 3rd generation car. I agree, however, that is looks really new. The text on the license plate says: 全新一代君越, and that means “Brand new generation LaCrosse.” Whatever you say, Buick!
The luxurious interior is totally new for 2023, with comfy red leather seats and red-white leather trim. The screen is the same 30-inch curved unit as in the Electra’s. And that is a bit of a thing as most Chinese competitors use a 2 or 3-screen setup in luxury sedans, with a separate screen for the front passenger. In the LaCrosse, there is nothing to do for the poor passenger. The screen is focused on the driver, so there ain’t anything to see or to play with. The only possible entertainment is, oh no … talking!
The rear looks nice with a car-wide light unit and an integrated spoiler. Sporty! There is enough space under the hood for a big V6 or even a V8. But this is 2023, you either size down or you go full electric. The front-wheel drive Buick LaCrosse can be had with a 1.5 turbo with 180 hp and 250 Nm or with a 2.0 turbo+48V with 237 hp and 350 Nm. The former is mated to a CVT, the latter to a nine-speed automatic. There are eight trim levels to choose from. The white car in the pics is a base-level ’28T’ 2.0 turbo model, priced at 209.800 yuan ($28.8K)
There were more not-working screen-display setup situations in the back. This was a 4-person simulator of some sort, I can’t remember if it ever worked. The screens looked quite old but they were larger than in the Regal. There was yet another not-working screen further in the back, a screen in a big box. No time to check that out because I had to go to the…
Buick Verano Pro
A golden oldie again. It dates back to 2015. Back then, this kind of small sedan was super popular in China. Every brand sold some. Volkswagen sold many. And all the Chinese brands had millions of them on offer. Nowadays small sedans are way less popular, but it depends a bit on where you are. In the big cities, the segment is near-death. But in smaller cities, small sedans still sell strong. So most brands keep at least one in the lineup. Buick has the Verano Pro. The ‘Pro’ was launched in 2021. It is an updated variant of the Verano. It is a perfectly fine basic sedan. It has been around forever, it is cheap to run and rarely breaks down. And there is a big surprise inside. After looking at the more expensive and just-updated Regal one may expect an even older dashboard in the Verano Pro. But no.
Yes, this ancient little car has entered the digital era. It has a dual 10.25-inch screen, so 20.50-inch in total. That’s really good for the segment! There is only one engine: a 1.5 turbo with 184 hp and 250 Nm, mated to a CVT. The top speed is 210 km/h, so you can outrun the Electra EVs with this thing. o-100 takes 7.7 seconds. Buick offers four trim levels, which seems a lot for such a basic car. This too is a 2015 leftover. Car makers offered these sedans with up to five different engines, dozens of trim levels and gearboxes, and all sorts of other mess that nobody understood. So one engine and four trim levels is actually a modest lineup.
It has a ducktail spoiler! The trim level names are too cool not to mention: Happy, Enjoy, GS Hunting Wind, and GS Blast. The fine white car in the photos is the top-spec GS Blast. It costs 158.900 yuan ($21.8K). That makes this top-spec Verano Plus almost as expensive, or cheap, as the base-spec Regal we saw earlier on (that one costs 159.800 yuan). Not an easy choice but they will both look nice in your museum.
The Other Buicks
Buick sells three generations of the GL8 in China, at the same time. They are:
- the Buick GL8, a continuation of the second-generation GL8, which was launched in 2010.
- the Buick GL8 ES, a continuation of the third-generation Buick GL8, which was launched in 2016.
- the Buick GL8 Century, the new fourth-generation Buick GL8, launched in 2023.
This white one is the Buick GL8 ES. It was updated early this year when it got this enormously shiny grille. It is the shiniest GL8 of the lot. It uses the same engine as the LaCrosse: a 2.0 turbo + 48V with 237 hp and 350 Nm, a nine-speed automatic and front-wheel drive. Buick offers seven trim levels. This one is the ES Exclusive which sells for 343.900 yuan ($47K).
This is the Buick GL8 Century. And unlike many other ‘new’ Buicks, this one is actually new. Buick messes a bit with the naming. Sometimes they call it ‘GL8 Century’ and sometimes just ‘Century’. The badge on the back is clear enough (from a white one I spotted on the road):
The GL8 Century is a big MPV: 5239/1980/1867, with a 3130 wheelbase. It uses the same 2.0 turbo+48V engine again. Buick sells 7, 6, and 4-seat versions and five trim levels. It is an expensive minivan. The car on display at the dealer is a mid-trim-level GL8 Century Avenir priced at 519.900 yuan ($71.3K). Normally, with Buick, the Avenir is the top-spec version. Not with the Century, where the top-spec car is the ‘Four-seat Private’ which costs $94K. That one has only two seats in the back and a limo-like divider with an enormous 32-inch screen in the middle.
This inverted pyramid used to be used to show 3D animations of cars and interiors. I remembered it from earlier visits, it was quite fascinating. Sadly it was out of order and only served as a dumping ground for empty paper tea cups. Perhaps they can’t load the new cars into the system. But for the Regal, that wouldn’t really matter. The Regal had needle dials and it still has needle dials.
The Enclave is the largest China-made Buick SUV. But is it shorter than the US-market Enclave, and it has a different design. Size: 4981/1953/1722, 2863. You never guess the engine (it’s the 237 hp 2.0 turbo+48V). The car on display is the near-top-spec 652T AWD Flagship with six seats, it sells for 339.900 yuan ($45.8K).
Whereas the plants were real, these flowers are very fake. Bah! The blue car between the vases is a Buick Envision Plus 652T Five-seat Four-wheel drive Luxury, which retails for 263.900 yuan or $36.2K. Engines: the 2.0 turbo+48V and an interesting 1.5 turbo+48V. This engine has 211 hp and 270 Nm. It bridges the gap between the standard 1.5 turbo and the 2.0 turbo+48V.
The parking lot of the Buick dealer in China
After I finished my inspection of the dealer, I went outside to check out the parking lot.
This is the China-spec Buick Envista. The Envista is made in China and in South Korea. GM also sells it in North America. This is the top-spec GS trim, which is marketed as sporty, with black window frames, black wheels, and red GS badges. Does it race? Well, not really. In China, Buick offers only one engine for the Envista: a 1.5 turbo four-pot with 185hp and 250 Nm. It is a cheap car, the base model sells for just 114.900 yuan ($15.7K), and this GS model for 140.900 ($19.3K).
Here we have the top-spec Electra GS Long-range AWD that I mentioned earlier. They didn’t have one inside, but happily, I found this one outside. Like most GS models it is marketed as the sporty one, with black trim and black wheels. Strangely, it doesn’t have red GS badges but black ones, which on a black grille one can barely see.
Finally, a Buick Enclave CXL. This generation of Buick Enclave was not produced in China. These were imported, but they were sold via the SAIC-GM dealer network. It was an expensive car at the time so they are pretty rare. What a kitschy car it was, with those faux air vents on the hood and all. [Editor’s Note: Um, they have a name. Ventiports! – JT]
It was sold in China from 2009 until 2013, powered by the 3.6 liter V6. This black example looks quite okay for its years.
My visit to the Buick dealer was interesting as always. I believe that Buick has a chance to survive in China, thanks to the new EV models. I understand they keep the old ICE stuff around, these cars are still selling well and earn GM China a lot of money. But Buick has to make a choice in the near future: go all in with EVs or go bust. The EV revolution is happening in China and is happening fast. Many Chinese brands, like BYD, have ditched their ICE cars altogether. Others, like NIO and XPeng, carry no ICE burden at all. And image is important too. Sure, the Regal sells. But folks are laughing at it, and that doesn’t help Buick’s new EVs, especially not among the crucially important younger car buyers. Concluding: Buick China is on the right way, but if they don’t move faster quickly, they may still lose out.
After I finished my inspection of the parking lot it rained so hard that I had to take shelter near the maintenance shop. I met a mechanic, wearing Buick overalls. He was having a smoke break and was curious what I was doing there. I told him I was interested in electric cars. He asked why I didn’t go to check out a Tesla. Will do! But first I had to check out all the new Chinese electric car brands. More on those dealers in a later post.