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Buick Regal Competes With German Luxury Cars


Next we'll explore a contradiction at General Motors. GM has had a terrible year in the news. In recent years, in fact, the company has recalled more cars than it has made.


But there's another side of the story here. Even as GM is dragged down by lousy cars it sold in years past, the company is getting credit for designing innovative cars today.

INSKEEP: Consider Buick, the GM brand you'll find in my mom's driveway. You know it by the logo - those three shields - red, white and blue. In years past, Buick was not known for much else. But as GM recovered from bankruptcy, it also worked to retool this old brand - better styling, better steering, better technology. Our colleague Sonari Glinton took me out of our NPR West studios here in Southern California to see a new Buick he brought to the parking lot.


INSKEEP: Thank you, sir. So what are we looking at here, Sonari?

GLINTON: You are looking at a 2015 Buick Regal, which is supposed to represent all of the best that Buick and General Motors have to offer.

INSKEEP: OK, four-door sedan, kind of sleek, doesn't have that boxy look that I associate with Buick.

GLINTON: No, this is not the sort of '80s, you know, Park Avenue, old-school LeSabre. It's supposed to compete with the German carmakers. So if you look at German cars here in the parking lot, it has a similar silhouette, and it's supposed to drive and handled the same way those European luxury sedans do.

INSKEEP: OK, let's put it to the test then.

GLINTON: OK, here. You're going to drive.

INSKEEP: Oh, great. You're a brave man. I should mention this is one of many cars in the market that has the start-stop button. You don't actually have to take the key out of your pocket. You just press the button.

GLINTON: Yeah, and the reason for that is for older people who have arthritis, instead of, you know...

INSKEEP: Well, also lazy people like me. I don't have to take the key out of my pocket.

GLINTON: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Good feature. OK, so here we go.

GLINTON: All right, so we're going to take a right here on Jefferson Boulevard.

INSKEEP: Sure, we've already smoothly navigated the speed bumps at the NPR parking lot. That's very impressive. Now, I want to be clear Sonari, this is a General Motors car. So we are talking about a company that has recalled more cars than it has made in the last several years. What case can you make for the quality of the cars made by a company that's had to recall so many?

GLINTON: Well, these are the two competing ideas that I've had to deal with covering the auto industry. One is this thing that's been happening in the General Motors, with the ignition switch problem, in which millions of cars have been recalled. And at the same time, General Motors is doing a thing that it's supposed to be doing for the last century, which is make quality cars. It's actually making quality cars. And when any objective observer looks at GM they say their cars are better than they have been in at least a quarter-century.

INSKEEP: What are auto analysts saying about this car?

GLINTON: They love this car. Consumer Reports, for instance, says that it's doing the job. It's competing with the other cars in its class, the Audis, the BMWs, the Mercedes. The problem is really an image problem. It's such an old brand; it has such deep roots. You know, we think of our parents, our grandparents driving this car. And it represents, you know, the big boaty, land-cruising sedan that in many ways almost killed the auto industry, you know, in the U.S.

INSKEEP: Well, it's interesting to hear you say that because of course we know that in recent decades, GM tried to create new brands, the most famous maybe being Saturn, and that didn't work for them either.

GLINTON: No, and they've eliminated several brands - Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saturn - because there was a lot of confusion. And there's even some confusion with, you know, this car because this car is supposed to be entry-level luxury. But then there's also Cadillac which is genuine-for-real luxury. And so, like, what's the difference between entry-level and luxury? But if this car weren't so popular in China, I really doubt that we would be driving it here in the U.S.

INSKEEP: Is the future for General Motors then overseas, where they can attract new consumers who do not have established ideas and very old ideas of what their cars are?

GLINTON: The future for all the automakers are conquering, you know, the BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China. All those countries, that's where they have to sell the cars. And in many ways, the U.S. is the most mature car market. And the Chinese car market, the Indian car market, some of the other markets, they're much younger. And there's much more room for growth and to establish themselves over the next 20 to 30 years. So we're about to get on the 405.

INSKEEP: Oh, we're going to get on the 405. OK, let's just do that. It does comfortably go above 80 miles an hour.

Or so I've heard. We talked with NPR's Sonari Glinton while driving a Buick around Los Angeles.

GREENE: I'm glad you're safely back in the studio, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.

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