A historic debut at Auto Show

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The Buick Envision will be built in China, but was designed in Michigan with the U.S. in mind.

The Buick Envision isn't among the biggest, sexiest automotive actors making their East Coast debuts at the Philadelphia Auto Show, which plays through next Sunday at the Convention Center.

But its arrival is historic.

When it hits showrooms this summer, this compact crossover will become the first Chinese-made vehicle brought into the U.S. market by a domestic automaker.

Good-looking and luxurious, it should boost Buick sales - down 2 percent in 2015 - by giving it an entry in the absolutely molten market for compact crossovers.

Compact crossovers now have 40 percent of the car market, and have surpassed the midsize sedan to become the largest-selling segment, noted Tony DiSalle, marketing vice president for Buick and GMC.

"The Envision fits into our portfolio beautifully," he added, pointing out that it slots between the full-size Enclave and subcompact Encore.

DiSalle declined to project sales for the Envision. Joseph Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting Inc., did not. "I would say [annual sales of] 50,000 is probably easy," he said.

"The dealers have been clamoring for it," Phillippi added. "It will give them something to sell against cars like the Lincoln MKC. . . . It is a great car for this segment. It should be a leading entry."

Phillippi's sales estimate for the compact is not unreasonable, given the success of the subcompact Encore.

"The Encore is our largest-selling car," DiSalle said. "We sold 67,500 in 2015, which makes it the best-selling subcompact crossover at any price point."

The luxury compact, which will probably start in the mid-$30s, will be powered by a 2-liter, 252-horsepower turbo and offered with either front-drive or a sophisticated new all-wheel-drive system.

Although it is built in GM's joint-venture plant in China (where it is already selling briskly), DiSalle said the car was designed in Michigan with the U.S. market in mind. A quiet, comfortable ride was a design priority, he added.

"It's a terrific car," Phillippi said, suggesting that it might have gotten here sooner if GM hadn't had to first get the United Auto Workers on board during the recent contract negotiations. He said that building the Envision in China seemed more of an issue than importing the Encore from South Korea.

The Envision, it turns out, isn't the only imported all-new Buick for 2016. It shares that distinction with the Cascada, a four-seat convertible starting at $33,065 that's also on display at the auto show. That car, a variation on the Opel Astra, is built in Poland.

Affordability is one reason for the popularity of compact crossovers like the Envision, but there are others.

"People like the commanding view of the road you get in a crossover," DiSalle suggested. "They also like the maneuverability and the functionality. In the Envision, the front passenger seat folds down like the rear ones and really gives you quite a lot of space to carry things around.

"Fuel economy is also a major reason. It's less so now [with cheap gas], but it is still an important reason why people buy small crossovers."

The new Envision and Cascada should pump up Buick's U.S. sales, but they will still be only about a fifth of the China trade. Buick sold 1.24 million vehicles in 2015, 990,000 of them in China and only 223,000 in the United States.

But, spokesman Stuart Fowle points out, Buick is still GM's second-largest global brand and outsells Audi, Acura, Infiniti, and Lincoln in the U.S.

"In fact, we more than doubled Lincoln's sales," he added, perhaps triumphantly.

alhaasauto@aol.com