By Stuart Schwartzapfel
There’s no such thing as bad press. Or at least, that’s what GM’s Buick division must believe, based on its bizarre showing at this year’s Specialty Equipment Market Assn. (SEMA) show. It was Buick’s first-ever appearance at the annual tuner extravaganza, which is geared toward the The Fast and the Furious crowd. ("Tuners" are enthusiasts who attempt to improve—or tune—a car's handling or performance with engine and body modifications.) Before the show, Buick distributed 10 Lucernes to tuner shops across the country, asking them to customize the full-size sedans for the show. It was clearly an effort to appeal to the younger car-buying crowd, which makes sense given that most Buick drivers are older than 60.
The SEMA show is a key event in the growing global tuner culture. It reflects the $34 billion automotive accessories industry and the trends and products coming from the association’s 6,817 member companies. This year’s show, which runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, boasts more than 2,000 exhibitors showing some 1,400 new products over more than 1 million square feet of floor space in the Las Vegas Convention Center. It is not uncommon for automotive manufacturers to attend or even set up product displays at SEMA in an attempt to keep a pulse on today’s constantly evolving tuner culture. Street trends frequently turn into factory reality!
VIP STYLE. At Buick’s request, 10 custom car shops and other players in the tuner industry tricked out the Lucerne, with styles ranging from “urban hip-hop to sophisticated European influence to powerful hot rod,” according to a Buick press release. RIDES magazine, a well-known urban hip-hop publication with a strong presence in the aftermarket, was among those shops with the tasteful and stealth VIP Lucerne CXS. Modifications on the factory Lucerne CXS (top-of-the-line model with the Northstar V8 engine) include a black-on-black color scheme; custom body kit; 20-in. wheels and tires; mobile entertainment system with DVD and Bluetooth integration; interior featuring custom suede inserts with executive-style touches; and a stance lowered by 3.75 in. RIDES seems to have improved on the car’s original shape with streamlined looks that appear to be the result of drastic body lowering and a great choice of aftermarket wheels. Not too over-the-top, but by no means plain Jane.
RIDES and Buick pay homage to a design aesthetic commonly referred to as “VIP Style” (pronounced veep-style). This tuner trend, which began in Japan, is starting to gain traction on U.S. shores. VIP cars are modified to appear more luxurious and fashionable while elevating their owners’ social status in the process.
The Verdict: One can’t help but wonder why Buick chose to highlight the Lucerne, which is the largest and most expensive model in the company’s product portfolio (V8 models top out at more than $35,000). The smaller, sportier, and less expensive Lacrosse seems a more suitable base for such a youth-centric product-marketing endeavor—though, even then, it’s a strange marketing ploy.
The primary reason any auto company participates in SEMA is to learn how to get in on the lucrative aftermarket. For instance, if Buick executives see “all the kids” swapping stock wheels on a particular model for custom chromes, then they should start offering chrome wheels as an option. Does Buick have any intention to offer buyers options based on the cars on display in Vegas? It’s hard to believe.
With U.S. sales in the first nine months of 2006 down more than 17%, maybe Buick would be better served perfecting the Lucerne to the point that it actually stacks up against the competitive offerings in this premium large sedan category? Plain and simple, slapping chrome wheels and a body kit on the Lucerne will not change the car’s forgettable styling, lackluster consumer reviews, and spotty build quality.
Schwartzapfel, a certified car freak, writes BusinessWeek.com's Concept of the Week column. He has studied the automotive marketplace and worked as an advert