By Design: Buick Avenir Concept

By Design

The Buick Avenir concept car was one of the major attractions at the Detroit auto show this year. And why not? It embodies most of what people over age 50 think about when Buick is mentioned. The Buick Avenir (it means "future" in French) is impressive in size, conservative in presentation, and ostentatious enough to tell those on the sidewalk that the owner is someone of substance and importance. That the Buick Avenir has been styled by the GM studio in Australia is no surprise, since nearby China is the car's most important market. That an Australian, Warrack Leach, has done the work is no surprise either, given the widespread sources of automobile design today.

In the '30s, all Buicks became eight-cylinder cars, and the least of them was more massive than any of the popular Big Three makes. That endured until the "compact" 1961 Special—instigated by Stan Mott and me in 1956—got a V-6 for 1962, an engine produced through 2008. So a V-6 seems appropriate for the Avenir, in this case, the next-generation version of GM's direct-injected DOHC "high-feature" 3.6-liter engine.

On the floor of Detroit's Cobo Hall, the Buick Avenir was poorly presented, set up on a waist-high platform so that one observed it from an unnatural angle, much to its disadvantage. Granted access to the platform, one could see it as intended and thus be favorably impressed. In one sense, the Avenir seems like an older model, and this subliminal sense of continuity with big Buick sedans of the past is one of the best attributes of this design. I think the pudgy Opel-inspired models in Buick's current lineup dilute the brand's aura in the U.S., although sales are trending upward as the company seeks a new, Lexus-style audience. The only truly new element in the Avenir's design is the horizontal bar across the traditional vertical-bar Buick grille, with the Buick emblem encircled and placed on the grille rather than on the hood. As a feature, it works well, adding some visual width without losing identity. You see it, you know what it is.

To me, the Buick Avenir is a near-perfect expression of the traditional American car. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Americans really want objects from that tradition anymore, as we now prefer SUVs of all sizes to the sedans of yesteryear. So we have to accept that the Avenir is instead a handsome, near-perfect expression of the traditional Chinese car. Buick has a long and prestigious history in China dating back some 90 years, and without continuing popularity in that country, the brand probably would not exist today. May the Chinese enjoy the Buick Avenir, and may we see a few of them on American roads in the near term, even if they're built in Shanghai, not in Flint.

1. The dipping-and-resuming fender profile first seen on 1942 Buicks evolved into the marque's familiar "sweepspear" theme, which is so beautifully recapitulated here.

2. Thankfully the designers didn't feel it necessary to revive the traditional portholes on the fenders, but little round circles are buried well inside this vent to remind you of them.

3. The absence of bright metal trim around the windshield is a welcome surprise in a traditional-style car.

4. This hard line beginning at the A-pillar and curving around to fade into the hood is very nicely handled, taking precedence over …

5. ... the hard lines impressed on the hood from the windshield forward that disappear into the transverse surface, which itself is marked by a nice crease at the centerline in the style of 1960s GM design director Bill Mitchell.

6. The traditional harplike grille texture is retained, but adding a transverse member and huge badge is both new and welcome.

7. Though simple at first glance, the headlamp assembly is the control shape for the fender peak and its cross-section. The assembly then establishes the protruding nose section, thrusting the grille forward.

8. The lower corner lamps are unobtrusive but help justify the transverse chrome bar, a welcome design element.

9. Even more unobtrusive, the lower air intake is nicely shaped and totally free of decoration.

10. This sloping plane is seen on the rear end of many cars yet is unusual on a front surface. It works well here, further framing the grille.

11. Note the way the chrome strip tapers as it rises to point toward the rear chrome bar yet is completely dissociated from the frontal trim piece.

12. The sweepspear derives from the headlight assembly and flows back into the taillight, a truly traditional GM styling practice.

13. Apart from the grille, this chrome surround for the side glass is the biggest piece of brightwork on the entire car. It is beautifully shaped and has constantly changing sections.

14. Like the windshield, the backlight does without trim of any kind.

15. Bill Mitchell's influence is seen again in the suggestion of a pointed tail like some of GM's 1960s designs. Notice the nacelle shape coming forward from the slightly inset badge.

16. This plane coming off the taillights is common enough, but it's unusual in the way it provides a hard break between the side and rear. Continuing across the tail, it separates the boat tail from the lower body.

17. The exhaust outlets are very nicely done and become a key part of the graphic composition of the rear view.

18. As on the front end, a simple, bright accent strip encompasses the unobtrusive corner lamps, this time below the bar. Subtle and classy.

19. Seemingly unnecessary, this indent actually plays a major role in reducing the visual height of the body side. It could have been less extreme with the same effect.

20. A little rib section connecting the doors and instrument panel provides a visual continuity that is emphasized again in the shapes of the instrument panel, center tunnel, and doors.

21. The refreshingly simple steering wheel presents the Buick crest, which is the only marque identity inside the Avenir.

22. Having the seat belt receptacle in the seat itself rather than in a hard-to-control floating end between tunnel and cushion is a nice touch.

23. Bas-relief textures such as these on the tunnel top and seats are agreeable for appearance's sake on a show car but are apt to collect dust and crud in real-world service.

24. Unfortunately, the graceful curve at the tunnel is vitiated by the more abrupt intersection of door and instrument panel trim pieces.

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