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Buick's strong showing in 2 key quality surveys should help General Motors with younger buyers

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DETROIT — Buick, the brand that once was the pace car for the drive to the senior center, has made a comeback by appealing to buyers not yet ready for retirement.

U.S. sales rose 11 percent in 2014. In China, Buick's biggest market, sales gained almost 14 percent.

This week, strong showings in two influential quality surveys are bringing good publicity to a nameplate that was inches from the grave when its parent company, General Motors, was in bankruptcy six years ago.

On Wednesday, Buick finished second to perennial winner Lexus in the annual dependability rankings by J.D. Power and Associates. A day earlier, it was the first U.S. brand to crack the top 10 in Consumer Reports magazine's annual rankings, finishing seventh. The Buick Regal midsize car even bested the BMW 328i for top sports sedan honors from the magazine.

It is all part of a turnaround at Buick led by some creative television ads, updated cars and the almost perfectly timed debut of the Buick Encore, a new small SUV that hit showrooms two years ago just as consumers were abandoning cars in favor of higher-sitting vehicles.

Buick has been on J.D. Power's top 10 brand list for long-term reliability every year for the past decade, even winning top honors in 2007 and 2009. This year, the firm surveyed original owners of 2012 models. That helped Buick because all but one of its 2012 models had been in production for at least a year, and older models tend to have fewer problems than new ones, said Dave Sargent, J.D. Power's global automotive vice president.

Also, Buick has older customers than other brands, and they tend to take better care of cars and complain less than younger buyers, Sargent said. All General Motors brands, which share many components, have seen reliability improvements for seven straight years, he said.

Despite the gains, Buick has not returned to its heyday. U.S. sales of 229,000 last year were less than one-third of the 942,000 vehicles sold in 1984. And while the average age of a Buick buyer has fallen to 59, it's still eight years older than the average for a U.S. car buyer, according to Kelley Blue Book.

In the J.D. Power survey, Lexus owners reported only 89 problems per 100 vehicles. Buick owners reported 110, followed by Toyota at 111 and Cadillac at 114, while Honda and Porsche tied for fifth pace with 116.

PHOTO: FILE - This Jan. 13, 2014 file photo, shows the Lexus exhibit during media previews at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Lexus is the most dependable car brand for the fourth consecutive year in J.D. Power’s annual survey, released Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015.  (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
FILE - This Jan. 13, 2014 file photo, shows the Lexus exhibit during media previews at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Lexus is the most dependable car brand for the fourth consecutive year in J.D. Power’s annual survey, released Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

The industry average was 147 problems. Fiat was the worst performing brand, with 273 problems per 100 vehicles. Land Rover, Jeep, Mini and Dodge rounded out the bottom five performers.

The top two complaints were technical ones: inability to pair phones to the car and trouble with voice recognition systems, which often misunderstood drivers' commands. That's a change from past years, when design problems like wind noise or mechanical issues topped the list.

The rankings are important to automakers, since unhappy customers are more likely to shop other brands when they buy their next vehicle.

For the past three decades, GM has tried with little success to attract more youthful buyers to Buick, enlisting famous pitchmen such as Tiger Woods, Shaquille O'Neal and Peyton Manning. But a new ad campaign featuring people who don't recognize updated Buicks is getting noticed with its "That's not a Buick" tagline.

Ten years ago, the average Buick buyer was a retiree and grandparent, driving to the golf course. But the brand now attracts empty-nest baby boomers who often are downsizing from larger vehicles. Buick's two crossover SUVs, the larger Enclave, and the compact Encore, have average buyer ages below 60, and even are attracting people in their 30s.

The Encore, which starts at $24,605, saw sales rise 53 percent last year to nearly 50,000. Two car models, the Regal and LaCrosse, have been restyled, and sales are up as people opt for a little more luxury than mainstream models offer, Sargent said.

The younger buyers, quality rankings and rising sales are all interconnected, because the top reason people buy Buicks is the perception of quality, said Tony DiSalle, the brand's vice president of marketing.

Engineers, he said, have spent countless hours making Buicks quiet, which customers often equate to quality.

The four-spot television ad campaign is changing the way people view the brand because it replaces the outdated image of stodgy, boring cars, DiSalle said. "It all goes after the same message, which is really challenging the dateness perception that's in the minds of the consumer," he said.

And after years of trying, it all seems to be working.

"Buicks don't look like Buicks anymore," said Sargent. "They're pretty sharp looking, modern vehicles, and customers are gravitating toward that."

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PHOTO: This undated product photo provided by General Motors shows the 2012 Buick Enclave luxury crossover. Buick placed second on J.D. Power's annual ranking of vehicle dependability, released Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/General Motors)
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