“Once you establish some kind of identity in the marketplace, that becomes very valuable.” So spoke Bryan Nesbitt one day removed from accepting the 2016 EyesOn Design Award for Design Excellence (Concept), the de facto “best-in-show” design honor at January’s Detroit Motor Show. Nesbitt and his team were the toasts of the Motor City, having unveiled the dramatic Avista two-door grand tourer to an unsuspecting and dazzled press corps. A midnight blue bombshell with a 400-horsepower V6 engine and a Buick badge on the grille, the Avista ranked closely behind a 95-degree day among plausible mid-January Detroit phenomena. Indeed, if the General Motors brand has an identity in Detroit, the Avista is the furthest thing from it.
Such is Buick’s baggage. The brand is sooner associated in the U.S. with snow-birding retirees than with the me-first sensualists that an Avista, if built, would target. To his credit, Nesbitt, Buick’s exec- utive director of design, is candid about the disconnect. “If we’re taking a road trip from New York to L.A., we’re going to see a lot of older drivers in Buicks,” he says. “Given what we’re trying to achieve, that’s an association we actually have to work hard to overcome.”
So the Avista marks a Buick in flux: not wanting to alienate its traditional buyer while securing a broader, younger base. Good thing, then, that this existential crisis is limited to North America.
Buick shipped one million cars in China in 2015, compared to less than a quarter-million in the U.S. The brand’s blue-hair connotations don’t extend to Shanghai, where Nesbitt spent much of the past five years developing some of GM’s most progressive designs and, no small mystery, design talent. “It might be a happy coincidence that our young designers challenge the status quo,” he says. “It makes me laugh when they take the bus to work in Shanghai. They don’t own a car, so you get these completely unencumbered ideas coming in. Their perspectives are so refreshing.”
Though Shanghai fed in, the Avista was led out of GM’s principal studios in Warren, Michigan. The car’s gestation period, like that of so many notable designs, was short. “We had a great initial sketch, and we moved right into clay,” Nesbitt says. “It came together very quickly.” The car wears classic GT proportions—rearward cabin, long hood, short overhangs, haunches to make a Jaguar blush. “The signature identity is in the front end. On the grille, the wing crossbar element actually comes from a 1954 Wildcat,” Nesbitt says, referencing a landmark Buick concept. The Avista’s designers also relied on an old auto-show trick: lots of surfaces for the Klieg lights to play off of. But rather than a hodgepodge of gratuitous cutlines and bulges, the Avista presents a tremendously restrained study of a GT.
“With the high-gloss surfaces, being able to control the reflections—you want to own all of that,” Nesbitt says. (Newsflash: car designers are micromanagers.)
But more than any styling cue or lens-flare-producing trim piece, the Avista embodies Nesbitt’s goal of a “holistic” Buick. “We strive for a sense of wellbeing,” he says. “Not just in the design, but the tech and the connectivity also have to harmonize. You don’t want stress. And Buick right now is deep in this tonality of harmonized design: something that can be appreciated by a few different demographics. We’re not chasing fads.”