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Exclusive: GM plans to more closely intertwine Buick and Opel brands

The logo of the carmaker Opel is seen on a roadside in Istanbul February 17, 2012. REUTERS/Osman Orsal
The logo of the carmaker Opel is seen on a roadside in Istanbul February 17, 2012. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Paul Lienert and Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Buick customers in the United States and China could see more European design and engineering in an expanded range of new models by 2020, as General Motors Co more closely integrates global product development between Buick and GM's German brand Opel.

GM is hoping to strengthen both brands by more closely aligning their products, a strategy that could shave development costs and time, and increase their respective product offerings in major global markets.

For American and Chinese buyers, that could mean some cool new European-bred cars for Buick, from the sporty Opel Adam hatchback to the luxurious Opel Cascada convertible.

It also means some future Buick and Opel models of the same size may not look alike, but will share more common parts under different skins. In some of those cases, notably the next-generation Opel Insignia in Europe and the redesigned Buick Regal and LaCrosse in the U.S. and China, the basic development work will be centered in Warren, Michigan, with final design and engineering done locally by teams in Russelsheim, Germany, and Shanghai.

Unlike the effort to transform Chevrolet and Cadillac into stand-alone global brands, GM now intends to cover global markets with a combined Buick/Opel product portfolio, with Opel-branded vehicles built and sold primarily in Europe and similar Buick models built and sold mainly in the United States and China, senior GM executives said in interviews last week at the Frankfurt Auto Show.

Reuters interviewed GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, Opel Chief Executive Karl-Thomas Neumann and GM Europe Engineering Vice President Michael Abelson, who described the company's broad strategy, but declined to comment on the brands' specific product plans.

To implement its evolving global brand strategy, GM is taking a different approach to product development, one that is deeper and more complex than those employed by many of its multinational rivals.

Where many large multinational auto companies are building a variety of different models on common structures called platforms or architectures, GM now wants to shift toward basic modules that still use common chassis and powertrain components, but enable much more flexibility in terms of design, size and configurability. The modules can be better tailored to suit individual markets such as China and the United States, GM executives said.

The modular approach could help resolve another issue for GM, whose Chevrolet and Cadillac brands are relatively well known around the globe, but whose Opel and Buick brands have more limited appeal. To get more efficient economies of scale, it pays to combine product development for Opel and Buick, where appropriate, GM believes.

Broader product portfolios also could help boost both brands in their respective markets.

Buick's U.S. sales through August were up nearly 16 percent, largely on the strength of its Encore and Enclave crossovers, but demand in the home market lags well behind that in China. In addition, Buick's sedans, particularly the midsize Regal and LaCrosse, are aging and in need of replacement soon.

In Europe, Opel is still struggling to recover from a long investment drought and a devastating sales slump that has caused its market share this year to plunge to less than 7 percent from a high of more than 10 percent a decade ago. More than $18 billion in cumulative losses in Europe have motivated GM to tie up with French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroen on joint development of future compact vehicles.

GLOBAL DELTA AND GLOBAL EPSILON

Facilitating the growing communization between Opel and Buick is the development of two modular vehicle families, known internally as Global Delta and Global Epsilon.

Global Delta, a compact family that carries the internal code D2XX, is being engineered mainly by Opel in Russelsheim, with different model variations designed and built in Europe for Opel - including look-alike models for its British sister brand Vauxhall - and in the United States and China for Buick, GM executives said privately.

Among the future vehicles in the Global Delta family, according to suppliers familiar with GM's plans, are the next-generation Opel Astra for Europe, due in late 2015; replacements for the Buick Verano in the U.S. and the Buick Excelle in China, also due in 2015; the all-new Buick Envision crossover for the U.S. and China in 2015 or 2016; a redesigned Opel Antara SUV for Europe in 2016, and a redesigned Opel Cascada in late 2017, including a version for Buick.

Global Epsilon, a midsize family that carries the internal code E2XX, is being engineered mainly in Warren, again with different model and brand variations designed and built in Europe, the U.S. and China, GM executives said privately.

Among the future vehicles in the Global Epsilon family, according to suppliers familiar with GM's plans, are replacements for the Buick Regal and LaCrosse for the United States and China in 2016; a redesigned Opel Insignia for 2017, and the next-generation Buick Enclave crossover in 2017.

ADAM AND EVE

A potential addition to Buick's future product portfolio is a version of the Opel Adam, a small and quirky-looking hatchback that is aimed at BMW's Mini Cooper and has been a hit for the Opel brand in Europe since its introduction earlier this year.

GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky said the current version of the Adam was not intended for markets outside Europe and could not easily be re-engineered to meet U.S. safety and emissions regulations.

But supplier sources, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the information, said the next-generation Adam, due in late 2018, is being designed and engineered for sale in the U.S. and possibly in China. It may be joined by a small, sporty two-door sibling known inside Opel as Eve, which also will be sold in the U.S. about the same time.

The Adam and Eve will be among the first GM products to be jointly engineered with PSA Peugeot Citroen, the sources said. They are expected to use PSA's new EMP1 (for Efficient Modular Platform), as will the 2018 replacement for the Opel Corsa.

(Reporting by Paul Lienert and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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