After years waiting for an invasion of Chinese cars that never came, General Motors says it's going to be the first of Detroit's Big 3 to offer a Chinese-made model for sale in the U.S. -- a Buick SUV.
The Buick Envision crossover will go on sale next summer, helping to fill ravenous demand in the U.S. for smaller SUVs at a time when the Chinese economy has weakened. But the Buick is coming despite resistance from the United Auto Workers union that wants it produced in the U.S.
Envision, which will make its U.S. debut in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, was a sore subject during the recently concluded contract talks between General Motors and the UAW. Envision is large enough to be assembled profitably in the U.S. Its comparable in size to the Ford Escape, assembled in Louisville, Ky., and the Jeep Cherokee, now assembled in Toledo, Ohio.
"The company should reconsider this decision and place this product into one of their facilities in the United States," the union said in a statement.
While GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, along with a raft of Asian and European automakers, have been building cars in Mexico and other low wage countries for import into the U.S. for years, China is a different matter. About a decade ago, automakers were riven with fears that the Chinese automakers would export waves of cheaply made cars to the U.S. Chinese makers even tested the waters at the same big Detroit auto show where Envision will appear.
But it never happened. Chinese auto quality and engineering wasn't deemed to be good enough to succeed in the competitive U.S. market. Plus, China became the world's hottest auto market as consumers grew wealthier. Automakers couldn't make enough cars fast enough to satisfy the domestic market there.
Now, the change is rather than facing competition from Chinese makers, Detroit's Big 3 could become the importers themselves. GM has always had the largest footprint in China, and Ford has been trying to make gains there. Will American consumers care if their car is Chinese? "The country of origin is significantly less of an issue now than it ever was," says Ian Beavis, a veteran auto executive who is now chief strategy officer for consulting firm AMCI Global.
In GM's case, the reason for turning to China appears to be expediency. The nation's largest automaker needed to find a way to be able to take advantage for the hot market for SUV at a time when its other factories are running full tilt.
"To do it from scratch it would take a long time," says David Cole, chairman emertus of the Center for Automotive Research. "You can get them here a lot more quickly."
GM told the union it would import the Envision from Yantai, China, where it has produced the vehicle for about a year. Through the first 11 months of 2015 it sold 127,000 of them in China, said Buick spokesman Stuart Fowle.
Buick sees Envision competing with the LIncoln MKC, Acura RDX and the Audi Q5, which gives a general idea of where it will be priced. Buick will release base pricing closer to the time the Envision goes on sale.
When it reached dealerships next summer it will have a 2-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine with a 6-speed all-wheel drive transmission.