Greg Gardner, Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — General Motors released the first photos Sunday of the U.S. version of what will be the first new vehicle from Detroit’s Big 3 that’s being imported from China — the Buick Envision crossover.
Ahead of its formal unveiling at the North American International Auto Show, Buick offered a peek at the vehicle that it that will be produced at a joint venture plant in China. Last year, Buick sold more than 140,000 Envisions in China.
Americans continue to shift from traditional passenger cars to crossovers and SUVs. Higher-driving positions and more voluminous storage are fueling much of the migration.
Sales of what Autodata calls sport wagons and crossovers grew 18.5% in 2015 to 4.5 million, while sales of midsize cars fell 2% to 3,5 million.
“Buick needed to quickly fill a hole in their product lineup, and importing the Envision is the quickest way to do it,” said Erik Gordon, clinical assistant professor at the University of Michiga’s Ross School of Business.
The United Auto Workers union protested General Motors’ decision to import the Envision during this year’s labor negotiations. But Buick can begin selling it as early as July because it’s already produced in China, and shipping it here can happen faster than it would take to install new tooling in a North American plant already running near its capacity.
GM officials, including Duncan Aldred, vice president of Buick and GMC, have pointed out that the company’s U.S. engineers have made key changes at the Warren Tech Center that will make the U.S. version of the crossover more appealing to American consumers’ driving preferences.
“The engines will be of larger displacement. There will be certain comfort and technological features (such as park assist and hyperstrut front suspension) that are’t available in China,” Aldred said.
The U.S. version will have a 2-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine, mated with a six-speed all-wheel drive transmission. The Envision sold in China offers the choice of a 2-liter or a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine.
Buick will also unveil another new vehicle or technology tonight, but Envision fills a gap in Buick’s lineup.
Aldred cites the Audi Q5, Acura RDX and Lincoln MKC as Envisio’s direct competitors. It is similar in size to such high-volume models as Ford Escape, Jeep Cherokee, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
Despite the UAW’s irritation over Envision, the economics of bringing a vehicle from China are enhanced at the moment. That country’s economy appears to be slowing and its plummeting stock markets dragged down financial markets worldwide in the past five days.
The Chinese government continues to devalue its currency, the yuan, as part of a policy designed to boost exports of all Chinese-produced goods, from T-shirts to smartphones to cars and trucks.
U-M’s Gordon, however, does’t see Envision as a harbinger of more vehicles being shipped from China to the U.S.
“If carmakers have excess manufacturing capacity in China, they will export cars, but the U.S. market may not be their best bet,” he said. “It took American buyers a while to warm up to Korean cars, and Korea was a strong ally that had been exporting high-quality electronic goods to the U.S. for years.”
Stephanie Brinley, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive, does’t expect that most American consumers will care where the Envision or any other vehicle is built.
“Buick is already importing from South Korea, Europe and Poland,” Brinley said. “Vehicles are coming from all over the world for all manufacturers.”
China is a larger market than North America for Buick, which sold more than 1 million vehicles in China in 2015, compared with 223,000 in the U.S.
Buick is GM’s largest brand in China, where it has deep roots dating to before World War II. According to statistics from the Shanghai government, in 1930 one out of every six cars on the city’s roads was a Buick. Shanghai GM, the automaker’s joint venture that launched production in 1999, chose Buick as its first model because of legacy as the car of choice among high-ranking government officials.
“The center of gravity for Buick is China and that ultimately impacts manufacturing,” Brinley said.
Last year, Buick unveiled the Cascada, its first convertible in more than two decades, that will be imported from an assembly plant in Gliwice, Poland. Dealers expect to begin receiving Cascadas in February.
In July, Buick dealers will begin selling the 2017 Buick LaCrosse, first shown last November at the Los Angeles Auto Show. LaCrosse will be assembled at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant.