Friday, January 23, 2015

Future tense

All photos: Buick/GM
If we learned anything from the press cycle of the Detroit auto show, it's that good old-fashioned surprises still work. The Ford GT would have been the class of the show in any case, but the way it was such a colossal shock - from deeply vague rumor to there on stage in about 1.3 "Oh, my God"s - just added that much more drama and grabbed that much more attention. It's been said repeatedly, but still: Pity the poor folks at Acura who had to follow the blue storm by presenting the by-now-familiar-looking NSX.

The GT was the biggest and most lust-inducing surprise of the show, but I think the one that occurred the day before was more interesting - and I wonder if it may turn out to be more significant.

Buick is in kind of a curious spot right now. Its position in the GM car hierarchy doesn't really align it with many competitors in the North American market. Chevrolet is of course the mass-market nameplate, and Cadillac is well on its way to facing off against the Germans. Buick is left somewhere in a vague middle, trying to establish and assert a new identity as it moves past the velour-and-whitewalls stereotype.

If the Avenir (French for "future") is any indication, I think they could be onto something very appealing. I just wonder if, provided this effort turns out to be what I think or hope it might be (a stretch, to be sure), it will be enough to matter in the vehicle market of the near future.

Start with what we have: The Avenir is, simply, a lovely car. It is elegant, it is interesting, it looks like the kind of machine driven by someone who knows and cares about tailoring and presentation. Some have complained that it is not as original or audacious a design as it could have been. So? Better to assemble styling traits that has been developed over the last few years into a coherent and attractive whole than push into yet another direction without resolution. One of the defining features of a good brand is a certain continuity in design and character; the Avenir uses the existing Buick design language, but moves all of it to a much more impressive and appealing level.

It is also clearly not a German car. It is a comfortable, stylish tourer instead of some N├╝rburgring-tuned exercise in merciless Teutonic competence. It seems more humane, more relaxed, more charming. And in that - even in concept form - it is something special, something of a rebuke to an increasingly dreary status quo.

I certainly don't have problems appreciating the numerous traditional strengths of German - and, in a similar way,  Japanese - vehicles. I am, however, starting to dislike the way in which the often dour and clinical paradigm that they embody has become the prevailing standard by which luxury cars are judged in, and designed for, the American market. Luxury is now too strongly defined by stiffness and arrogance and technological overkill, a state which has been developed and refined for decades to the strong exclusion of other understandings.

That attitude is where Cadillac is going right now, very much on purpose. It's playing by the German rules and working hard to live up to that metric. It's apparently working; in some ways Cadillac has already out-BMW'd BMW, if the published impressions of ATS chassis tuning are to be believed. But in the process it is forgoing a significant sense of individuality and reinforcing this status quo.

I wish we had more options. I want luxury to be broader than overbearing sedans and CUVs, draped in computer controls, with all the warmth of a submarine. Does the marketplace really dictate this kind of adherence to one standard model? Do we live with a strict communal idea of "luxury" - in the same way that pillow suspensions and opera windows were the accepted norm in the '70s, do we have to abide by this uptight and increasingly tired set of rules?

In an ideal situation we could depend on various companies to provide thoughtful and appealing alternatives given their different identities and cultural roots. Unfortunately, Lexus and especially Infiniti both model themselves after - and even influence - that same proto-Teutonic ideal; Maserati is very appealing in its more Italianate approach, but is still a marginal player for the foreseeable future; and Jaguar is Jaguar in its perennial tendency to be charming without being all there somehow. If only.

Someone else seems to think they can indeed be different, because there's this graceful creation wearing a tri-shield badge that seems to point somewhere else.

Buick, like Cadillac, has moved to shed its shipload of cultural baggage, but in doing so it's looking at an existential freedom that Cadillac is not allowed to have. As it continues to distance itself from a legacy of of wire wheel covers and vinyl roofs and burled plastiwood, it can - should - develop a definition of moderate-upscale luxury that is more graceful and comforting and, arguably, much better suited to driving in the United States.

And, yes, probably China too, but just for the sake of conversation let's stick with the more familiar frame of reference.

The great thing about the Avenir is that it's very different. It's not a prisoner of that same paradigm. It sees luxury as something less harsh and more comforting, maybe more humane: it's cashmere instead of creases, leather instead of steel, a fountain pen instead of a laser pointer.

Strangely, wonderfully, this is a more contemporary take on the idea of luxury and high living. Styles are moving towards a less structured, less rigorous, more colorful, more serene ideal. The concrete-and-arrogance attitude of the recent past is weathering. (Looking at Audi's recent trends and the interior of the new S-Class, I wonder if even the Germans are getting a bit tired of it all.) The Avenir is dangerously close to reflecting this.

Really: Buick is being the progressive and fashionable party here.

Consider the menswear collections on display in Milan this season. The designs uniformly shun severity. There is an ineffable degree of richness and stylishness on display, but it's all draped and casually elegant. These are not the clothes of a hard-edged (and perhaps slightly insecure) stockbroker; these are the clothes of someone who is comfortable with himself and knows how to live well.

The Avenir makes much more sense to this mindset than, say, a 5-Series. It's almost accidentally a wonderful reinterpretation of much of the grace and civilized good cheer of vintage touring cars - Lancias, old Jaguar sedans, the Citro├źn DS, machines that very often show up in fashion spreads as signifiers of the Good Life.

However, it remains to be seen whether an identity this removed from an entrenched and rigid status quo can find success, especially coming from an American company, especially coming from Buick. They do deserve serious credit for trying and continuing to try; this new perspective has shown up in some of the ads, it's shown up in some of the detailing applied to their takes on certain platforms, it's become a steady current of taste and refinement. Admittedly, though, as the division is making serious thematic progress on some fronts it still seems to be learning how to apply that more evolved and civilized identity across the board. (Quiet advice to Buick marketing heads: you need a better website. Go look at Volvo's, then steal it in its entirety and you're pretty much there.)

But if they get the pieces in place and persist with the marketing and identity, I seriously think Buick has the ability to reach a deep well of customers out there, even worldwide, who want something other than, even better than, what is too common now. In the midst of consolidation and narrowing mindsets, this is a chance to make a genuinely ambitious move towards something great and desirable.

This car deserves to start something.