Remember the Buick Envision? Larger than the Encore, smaller than the Enclave, the five-seat Envision was poised to launch into one of the hottest segments of the market. Buick showed it off at the 2016 Detroit auto show, claiming it would hit dealerships by the end of the year; coupled with Buick’s recently awarded top-three spot in Consumer Reports’ rankings, the compact crossover seemed like a can’t-miss proposition.
So what happened to it?
The Envision did, in fact, go on sale -- Buick has moved over 6,000 Envisions in the United States so far in 2016. That may not be much compared to a standby like the Audi Q5, which sold roughly six times that number over the same period, but for a new nameplate that launched in the United States for an abbreviated model year with relatively little fanfare, it’s not bad.
The question is why Buick isn’t trumpeting the arrival of the Envision from the rooftops – or, perhaps, via skywriting displays. At the Detroit Free Press, Mark Phelan thinks he has an answer: the 2016 political season.
It’s a bold claim, but it’s not totally unfathomable. The Envision is, after all, built in China. It’s wildly popular there, so the factory location makes perfect economic sense. Selling a Chinese-built car in the U.S., however, is a first for GM. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proved himself willing to attack automakers for outsourcing vehicle production -- recall his shellacking of Ford for its decision to move some of its car production to Mexico.
It’s certainly possible, Phelan argues, that GM has decided to let this election pass before pushing its Chinese-built Envision. Hence, no high-profile launches, no flashy model-exclusive press drives, no availability in press fleets and so on.>
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The issue of the Envision’s origin has been raised before. In a joint statement issued in late 2015, just after GM confirmed it would build U.S.-bound Envisions in China, UAW president Dennis Williams and VP Cindy Estrada criticized the company for what they described as a “slap in the face” to American autoworkers -- and the U.S. taxpayer. We expect brusque language from UAW officials; bluster in the name of workers is all part of the game. Yet at the same time, GM can’t afford to rekindle any bailout-era ill will, and a Chinese-built crossover won’t do much to quell populist sentiment.
Buick, for its part, says that its Envision rollout plan was set in motion well before the 2016 political season, er, took the direction it took. A national ad campaign began in June, when 2016 model-year Envisions arrived at dealership lots.
However, those early Envisions were all pricey premium-trimmed examples equipped with the range-topping 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four motor and mandatory all-wheel drive. Of the limited run, all were allotted to dealers -- none made it to press fleets. With 2017 models arriving right around now, buyers will get the option of more basic trims, front-wheel drive and a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine, and reviewers can look forward to getting their hands on a range of Envisions to test in the coming months.
Buick didn’t come out and say it, but we can think of another reason for the gradual rollout: risk management. Buick isn’t the first automaker to sell Chinese-built cars in the United States. That honor goes to Volvo, which builds the long-wheelbase S60 Inscription overseas (there was the Coda EV, too, but the less time spent talking about that, the better). Barring the implementation of insurmountable tariff walls, it won’t be the last. If GM wants to continue selling Chinese imports in the United States in the future, or at least have the option to, it can’t afford to screw this one up.
A gradual rollout gives the automaker a final line of defense against problems, whether major or minor. As we’ve seen in recent years, flawed introductions can leave a long-term stain on important new vehicles (the Jeep Cherokee and Dodge Dart come to mind). From the quiet arrival of the Lincoln Continental to the relatively low-key introduction of the important Cadillac XT5, automakers seem to be experimenting with launches that remind us a little bit of the “soft opening” trend popular with new restaurateurs.
This may or may not have factored into why Buick rolled out the vehicle the way it did, but if we were them, we wouldn’t miss this opportunity to make sure the Envision is totally buttoned-up before introducing America to the full lineup. Whatever concerns the company has over populist rhetoric, they ought to pale in comparison to the risk of a botched launch for its first-ever made-in-China offering.
Graham Kozak - Graham Kozak drove a 1951 Packard 200 sedan in high school because he wanted something that would be easy to find in a parking lot. He thinks all the things they're doing with fuel injection and seatbelts these days are pretty nifty too.
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