Driving Buick’s Avista: A Concept That Should Be a Reality by Sue Callaway @FortuneMagazine December 16, 2016, 10:37 AM EST E-mail Tweet Facebook Linkedin Share icons Some quality track time with Buick’s Avista concept vehicle made one thing clear: the American luxury brand’s comeback story isn’t over yet. And it’s not just Avista’s pretty exterior. The innovation is inside too, making this concept portfolio worthy. I wanted to see what Buick’s future might look like, so I headed to GM’s Technical Center campus in Warren, Mich., for an exclusive drive in the brand’s stunning concept. The Avista has a handsome exterior. Once inside, I was struck by the panoramic glass roof, which gave me the sense of a convertible without Michigan’s cold winds intruding on the calm, clean cockpit. The Avista is based on a Camaro, so the deep rumble of its twin-turbo V6 was sexy—and while it’s not likely to hit production, the sizable engine bay leaves lots of room for inventive alternative solutions. For years, GM’s Buick brand languished in the shadows of its siblings—performance-proud Chevrolet, luxury-locked Cadillac and GM’s successful snowflake, GMC Denali. Today, Buick is outselling Acura, Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lincoln, Porsche, and Volvo in the U.S. and is on target to set another new sales record this year. The brand’s success has been buoyed by numerous JD Power top honors this year for dependability, sales satisfaction, and overall appeal as well as a five-star safety rating across its entire vehicle lineup from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. Buick, which received multiple concept-car-of-the-year accolades for its highbrow coupe unveiled last January, is also the first American brand since the 1980s to break into Consumer Reports’ top three most reliable brands. And yet for all the success and trophies GM’s quietest brand has been garnering this year, there’s still a lag in brand recognition in the U.S. The brand is attacking “false familiarity,” Buick boss Duncan Aldred said, explaining that with Buick—people assume they know the brand as it was years ago and don’t consider it. Buick has an opportunity to win new buyers, which means focusing on volume vehicles, not halo projects like the Avista. Aldred says that the Cascada, a compact convertible, is Buick’s halo. But I’d argue that something with real timeless style and presence like the Avista is a better halo. Nothing breaks through the clutter and gets buyers’ and enthusiasts’ attention more than a progressive, gorgeous flagship. China’s Importance Buick didn’t go the way of Pontiac because the brand’s secret sauce is its history in China. The last emperor was chauffeured in a Buick, making the American marquee highly desirable with Chinese buyers. Buick is on track to sell more than one million vehicles in China this year—a figure that would keep it within the top five best-selling brands in the competitive market. Year to date, U.S. sales are up 5% over last year, and in China a whopping 22%. In part as a result of such success, Buick has been allowed to invest heavily in its product lineup where it needed it the most: crossovers, a sweet spot for sales, especially here in the U.S. (An interesting twist: the latest Buick model to launch, the Envision crossover, is actually produced in China and exported to the U.S.—a fact that doesn’t seem to be dulling the enthusiasm of U.S. buyers; it’s spending an average of 33 days on dealer lots, nearly half the industry average. That may be in part because it earned an IHS Top Safety Pick Plus rating under tougher 2017 guidelines as well as its NHTSA 5-star rating.) The Avista would change consumers’ minds about Buick here and only further elevate the brand in China. Sometimes changing perceptions—difficult to do—is at least as important as a vehicle’s business model. China’s importance shouldn’t be overlooked.