Buick Avenir sub-brand steals from the GMC Denali playbook
GMC‘s Denali line, mixing chromed-up exteriors with French-stitched leather seats, has effectively become a second U.S. luxury brand for General Motors. Its sales were roughly on a par with Acura and Cadillac last month, while generating higher transaction prices than Audi and Lexus.
“I think probably everyone in the industry has looked at it and gone, “How did that happen?’ and “How do we do that?'” said Duncan Aldred, vice president of Global Buick and GMC. “Everybody’s trying to replicate that.”
That includes GM itself. The automaker is applying a similar formula at Buick with Avenir, a new subbrand that adds a bolder grille, flashier wheels and a plusher interior cleansed by a cabin-air ionizer. While Avenir may have a hard time matching Denali in the U.S., it has huge potential in China, where Buick logs more than 80 percent of its global sales.
North American dealerships are to get their first Avenirs in September, with the arrival of the redesigned 2018 Enclave crossover. In China, the Avenir version of the GL8 minivan has been well-received since its launch in November, a spokesman there said.
Buick isn’t expecting Avenir to produce Denali-esque magic overnight. Denali, introduced on the 1999 GMC Yukon, has succeeded precisely because it was allowed to grow slowly and organically, Aldred said.
It accounted for 23 percent of GMC’s U.S. sales in 2016, according to IHS Markit registration data, and GM data show that 29 percent of GMC’s retail sales last month were Denalis.
“Denali was never forced. It was never rushed,” Aldred said in an interview at the New York auto show, where the Enclave Avenir made its debut. “That’s probably pretty unique for GM, that we haven’t kind of hurt something by trying to do it too quickly.”
At the same time, Buick says it will expand Avenir to more nameplates soon, though it hasn’t decided whether to include all of them as GMC does.
Avenir will spread downward through Buick’s lineup, generally in order of size and price, Aldred said. That strategy suggests either the China-built Envision crossover launched last year or the LaCrosse flagship sedan will be next, though company officials won’t discuss specifics.
For Buick dealers, having seen the benefits Denali brings to the GMC line most of them carry, Avenir can’t come quickly enough.
“Denali is an amazing piece of GMC,” said David Ferraez, president of Green Brook Buick-GMC in Green Brook, N.J. “If we can get that same thing in the Buick line with Avenir, I would think it would be great for us.”
Ferraez said he’s eagerly awaiting an Avenir version of the Envision to help it stand out from the fast-growing crowd of compact crossovers.
“The biggest problem we have is it’s a plain-Jane-looking vehicle,” he said. “Avenir would be a home run for it.”
Avenir — the name means “future” in French and first appeared on a widely praised concept car in 2015 — is starting at the top of Buick’s lineup because Denali is significantly more popular on GMC’s higher-priced vehicles.
More than 40 percent of Yukon, Yukon XL and Sierra HD buyers in 2016 chose a Denali, according to IHS Markit data. That compares with 29 percent for the Acadia, 14 percent for the light-duty Sierra, 12 percent for the Terrain and just 0.4 percent for the Canyon midsize pickup.
A big question with Avenir is whether it can avoid stepping too much into Cadillac’s territory, said Tom Libby, IHS Markit’s manager of loyalty solutions and industry analysis. Denali is less constrained because, aside from the Escalade, Cadillac doesn’t overlap much with GMC’s truck-based lineup.
“It has a lot of potential and more of a challenge,” Libby said of Avenir. “GMC can really go up as far as they want, but if somebody’s spending that much money on a Buick, they could say, “I might as well just get a Cadillac.'”
But Avenir’s prospects are far greater in China, where Buick has a strong reputation and higher market share. Sticker price for the GL8 Avenir there is 449,900 yuan ($65,400), about 95 percent more than the base model and 13 percent more than the next-highest trim.
Buick hasn’t revealed how much of a premium it will set for Avenir in the U.S., though Aldred said it would follow the brand’s mission of offering “attainable luxury.” The average transaction price for a Denali is about $5,000 to $10,000 more than GMC overall, Aldred said. That would put it in the low-$50,000 range, according to data from Kelley Blue Book for March.