A jump start for Buick? Stalled GM division may get it from sporty Reatta

There may be room for only two passengers, but General Motors' Buick division still has a lot riding on its sporty new Reatta. The Buick division was once a powerful pacesetter at GM, introducing a number of key new products during the 1940s and 1950s. But in recent years, Buick has developed an identity crisis that has translated into plummeting sales.

As a result of General Motors' much-criticized ``badge-engineering'' system - in which products sold by each of GM's five passenger car divisions virtually look alike - many buyers have opted for less expensive models sold by sister divisions Chevrolet and Pontiac.

Or they have turned to GM's competitors. Since the 1984 calendar year, Buick sales have plunged from a record 941,611, or 9.1 percent of the new car market in the United States, to 557,411 units - or 5.4 percent - in 1987. Last year alone, Buick accounted for a third of General Motors' steep overall market share decline.

(Buick's problems have been so severe in recent years that there have been rumors - strongly denied by division management - that General Motors might eventually consolidate the Buick and Oldsmobile divisions.)

In order to revitalize the division, GM and Buick planners have decided to re-emphasize their roots, marketing Buick as ``the most American division of all of General Motors,'' says Bob Coletta, the division's general sales and service manager.

That doesn't necessarily mean whitewall tires and vinyl roofs, however, Mr. Coletta insists.

Indeed, from a visual standpoint, the Reatta strains the idea of ``traditional American'' by anybody's definition.

The Reatta, says Buick General Manager Ed Mertz, ``is for people looking for flair and distinction in their cars.'' It is supposed to demonstrate to potential customers that the division can match the styling and technology of its competition.

In fact, the two-seater is sleekly aerodynamic and is more likely to bring to mind such Japanese imports as the Mazda RX-7, rather than the Buick Electras or Regals of the past.

Reatta places a heavy emphasis on its highly visible technology, notably the video dashboard it borrows from the Buick Riviera. The touch-screen terminal controls a wide array of functions, ranging from the radio to the climate control system.

Reatta's styling does appear to be catching the public's eye - the car already has been featured on the cover of most of the nation's automotive enthusiast magazines. Yet some industry analysts question whether that visibility is going to translate into sales.

Buick officials say they did not design the Reatta as a sports car: It has far less power than the RX-7, for example, and it rides much more like a conventional American sedan.

``Reatta is for those Americans who really don't want the harsh ride of a sports car,'' Mr. Mertz insists.

Instead, it is being marketed more as a luxury car with sports car looks. But the result, cautions Ronald Glantz, auto analyst with Montgomery Securities in San Francisco, could be ``a betwixt and between car,'' a car that is too tame for sports car buyers, but too radical in appearance to appeal to the traditional luxury market Buick primarily wants to recapture.

Another potential problem is price.

At $25,000, the Reatta costs substantially more than its Japanese competition - however it is far cheaper than most European sporty cars, Buick officials are quick to point out.

``That's an effort to avoid a repeat of [the Cadillac] Allante's problems,'' says Chris Cedergren, chief auto analyst of the market research firm J.D. Power and Associates.

In early 1987, Cadillac introduced its own two-seat specialty car, but analysts say its $57,000 price tag is one reason why the Allante has failed to meet its modest sales projections.

Even at a price less than half that of the Allante, Buick has decided to take the cautious road in terms of sales forecasts. Prior to the car's introduction, company officials hinted they'd shoot for sales as high as 10,000 to 15,000 units a year. Instead, Mertz cautiously predicts sales of around 3,000 vehicles in 1988, with sales improving in subsequent years.

Even if the Reatta doesn't live up to initial, internal sales expectations, however, that does not necessarily mean it will be considered a failure, Mertz says.

Though he says he does expect Reatta to turn a profit in and of itself, that is not necessarily its first priority. The car's primary goal is to create ``a halo effect,'' Mertz admits.

More than anything else, the sporty car is meant to increase floor traffic at Buick dealers and to get people to consider the division's more conventional models, such as the new Regal, a much more conventional four-door sedan.

``I'm not going to buy the Regal based on the Reatta,'' insists analyst Glantz.

Mr. Cedergren, however, is a little more confident, saying he believes Reatta will draw new traffic - potential Regal buyers - into Buick showrooms.

And that, he says, will be essential if Buick is to survive.

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