- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

Is there a second act for General Motors? If Buick can make it, maybe the new General Motors can. And if it’s going to happen, we’ll know soon.

There’s a new Buick LaCrosse about to debut. It’s a good-looking car with smooth handling; 3.0- and 3.6-liter V-6 engines with 255 and 280 horsepower, respectively; state-of-the-art standard safety equipment; and it’s quiet, too. (A 2.4-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder engine is planned for later in the year.)

The LaCrosse’s interior is dappled with LED ambient lighting and loaded with engaging technology. Fuel economy is comparable to its competitors.

The LaCrosse faces off against the Lexus ES 350, Acura TL, Lincoln MKS, and Toyota Avalon. Buick says it will cost thousands less than the others, but a walk-out price in this market is hard to predict. The front-wheel-drive La Crosse starts around $28,000 and runs up into the low $40,000s. Half of its sales are expected to come from the CXL model that starts at $30,395. All-wheel-drive adds around $2,000 more.

The new Buick looks good, drives well, and is priced right - but is that going to be enough? GM may have alienated stockholders, bondholders, employees who are losing jobs and millions of Pontiac and Oldsmobile owners. Saturn, Hummer and Saab are going away. Retirees feel betrayed if they have to pay for a pill. The bankruptcy is over, but some are furious about Washington’s promise to hand over $50 billion of our taxpayer money. Can any new car overcome all this?

If there’s hope, it’s that Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is back at GM, responsible for marketing and communications. He knows what a car is, and he knows how to sell. It was under Lutz that BMW created its slogan, “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”

Mr. Lutz has jumped right in and stomped on Buick advertising. Critics complain the new ad tagline, “Take a Look at Me Now,” is blah and even pales in comparison to Buick’s tagline from the 1950s: “When better cars are built, Buick will build them.”

In the old days, Buick was big, especially in the movies. A Buick was in the background when Bogart said goodbye to Bergman in the film “Casablanca,” and who didn’t want that Buick convertible that Dustin Hoffman drove across the country in film “Rainman?” A hot car chase in a big movie with the new LaCrosse wouldn’t hurt Buick’s image one bit.

Buick will need GM’s strongest team if it’s to come back, and Mr. Lutz will give Buick a necessary shot in the arm. It is very good news that manufacturing/engineering leader Mark Russ is returning from Australia. Maybe he can help Buick.

GM has said it will give Buick much-needed product. A redo of a German Opel will become the 2011 Buick Regal, positioned below the LaCrosse. Right now, dealers are selling just three models: the Enclave crossover, the Lucerne sedan and the LaCrosse.

Before there was a GM, there was Buick. William C. Durant bought it from David Dunbar Buick when starting to form General Motors. For decades Buick introduced important advancements like four-wheel brakes, power brakes and steering.

People forget how big Buick was: The designs were breathtaking with signature waterfall grilles that snapped like a silver-toothed shark, and there were the portholes, the gunsight hood ornaments. In 1955, Buick sold 757,000 cars in a (then-record) year that saw 7 million cars sold. That year, Buick owned 10 percent of the market.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who once said that there are no second acts in American lives. There are some good people at General Motors with a shiny new Buick who want to prove him wrong.

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