Where Buick Fits in the Growing US-China Clash—If Anywhere

first buick electra e5 electric suv rolls off wuhan ultium assembly line
Where Buick Fits in the Growing US-China ClashGeneral Motors
  • Buick’s Chinese sales were off 18.2% last year, to 677,938 sedans and SUVs, but in the US the brand sold just 103,519 vehicles in 2022, down 42.4%.

  • Analyst Michael Dunne says he believes a sale of the Buick brand to a Chinese entity would ultimately be ideal for all parties involved.

  • Buick chief Duncan Aldred says the brand remains key to GM’s future. “The brand’s global transformation is empowering Buick to enter a new era in China,” he says.

China’s burgeoning automobile market saved Buick from the brand scrap heap loaded with Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer after General Motors’ 2009 bankruptcy. For the decade leading up to GM’s 2010 reorganization, mid-level Chinese bureaucrats had developed a taste for chauffeur-driven Centuries and Regals and rolling-boardroom GL8 minivans from a brand that already had a long history in the country.


About the same time, China passed the United States as the world’s largest automotive market, making Buick a big moneymaker there, even if GM had to share profits with “local” 50-50 partner Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC).

Now China’s tightening authoritarian rule, crackdown on Hong Kong, suppression of its Uyghur minority, threats over Taiwan, and floating of suspicious balloons—together with its slowing economy—have raised the question of whether such “partnerships” remain worthwhile.

Last year Congress passed the CHIPS Act to encourage moving computer chip production back to the US, and this year Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-WI) described the task facing the new House Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the US and the Chinese Communist Party as “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st Century.”

Chinese leader Xi Jingping responded Monday, March 6, that the US has led Western countries to try to contain, “encircle and suppress” his country. The next day, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang added, “The United States actually wants China not to fight back when hit or cursed, but this is impossible,” The New York Times reports.

Amid this war of words, the future of Buick in China seems like a minor concern. But the bean counters at GM must take a different view, pondering Buick’s future in its most popular market.

buick introduces envista crossover in china
Last August, Buick introduced the Envista crossover for China.Hearst Owned

Will GM assemble all-electric Buicks in North America and take advantage of Inflation Reduction Act tax credits, or will it become even more entrenched in the Chinese market, sharing GM’s latest Ultium battery technology with SAIC? Is a change in ownership in the cards?

Jeep began assembling vehicles in China years before the GM-SAIC deal, but last year gave up on the market and shuttered its factory there. Ford Motor Company, which added Chinese-centric Lincoln dealerships there in 2014 and began assembling Corsairs in the country in 2020, saw its market share slip from sixth place in 2014 to 18th place by 2018.

By 2022, China and Taiwan made up the only unprofitable region of Ford’s automotive business, The Wall Street Journal reports. Ford of China’s new chief executive, Sam Wu, is tasked with expanding the automaker’s electric-vehicle business in a country full of local automakers that have been building EVs for years.

Buick’s Chinese sales were off 18.2% last year, to 677,938 sedans and SUVs, but in the US the brand sold just 103,519 vehicles in 2022, down 42.4%. It was the number-four brand in China in 2017 (behind Volkswagen, Honda, and Geely), notes Sam Fiorani, vice president for global forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions. Last year, Buick fell to 12th, with BYD, Chery, and Tesla among brands that passed it.

“There is some recovery expected this year and in coming years,” Fiorani says, “but nothing to get it back to where it was in 2016 and 2017.” He expects Buick to move back into China’s top 10—pointedly not the top four—before the end of the decade.

For all of GM’s brands in China (including Wuling, Baojing, Chevrolet, and Cadillac as well as Buick) sales were nearly halved to 2.3 million units last year, down from 4.1 million in 2017, says Asian auto market expert Michael Dunne, CEO of industry market intelligence firm ZoZoGo.

“At the same time, GM’s revenues went from about $2 billion per year consistently to, last year, $650 million,” he says. “It’s still profitable. No one willingly wants to say they’re leaving… The Chevy brand is squeezed, under the most pressure” by local brands, Dunne says. “If you’re not a mass-market brand, you’re dead in the water in China.”

He sees potential for GM to migrate all its Chinese Chevrolet models to its entry-level joint-venture Wuling brand, and he believes a sale of the Buick brand to a Chinese entity would ultimately be ideal for all parties involved, though Dunne doesn’t expect it to happen soon.

buick unveiled its autonomous smart pod at a shanghai event in 2021
Buick unveiled its autonomous Smart Pod at a Shanghai event in 2021.General Motors

“The Chinese would kill for a global brand like Buick,” Dunne says. “This would allow GM to focus on Cadillac and EVs in the market.” Three major Western brands are now fully owned by Chinese entities: Volvo (purchased by Geely from Ford in 2010), MG, and Rowe (Rover), purchased earlier in the millennium from BMW by SAIC.

Officially, that is not about to happen with Buick.

“Buick is a key player in GM’s future, and China remains a critical market for Buick,” says Duncan Aldred, global vice president of Buick GMC, via a spokesman.

“The brand’s global transformation is empowering Buick to enter a new era in China. We’re accelerating our transformation towards electrification and intelligent driving.

“Leveraging GM’s Ultium platform, Buick is well positioned to become a strong player in the mainstream EV segment in China with an all-new EV portfolio starting with the Electra E5 (pictured at top of page on assembly line in December), which will launch in the first half” of this year. “The second Ultium-based Buick EV, Electra E4, will also be introduced in China later this year.”

Do you think GM should sell the Buick brand to Chinese investors, or continue nurturing it with new vehicles for both the US and China? Please comment below.