Remember When GM Got Cyberbullied Into Canceling Buick's 2010 Plug-In Hybrid?
The Saturn Vue almost, maybe, kind of, grew into a Buick plug-in hybrid.
As GM went through "restructuring" circa 2010 and the Saturn brand's fate was being decided, some strange repurposing of its cars were floated. Remember when Buick was about to have a plug-in hybrid based on the Vue? No?
I remember the weirdest, most obscure factoids for cars no one liked or cared about. Why? I don’t know.
Kevin Williams is an author at Car Bibles, a coming-soon sister site to The Drive focusing on automotive adventures and DIY tips to help you get the most out of your car. That includes industry commentary, hot takes, and stuff that's a little bit of both. Like this. -- Andrew P. Collins, Car Bibles EIC
GM was sort of reselling restyled vehicles from their European arm, Opel, but the success of them was mixed to not great. Opel'ized Saturns were not necessarily bad cars, but it seemed like GM just sort of stuck them over at the wrong brand.
The 2008-2010 Saturn Vue was a thoroughly decent vehicle, I know, I’ve owned one. Upon the death of Saturn, Buick sort of became a stand-in as a way for GM to import Opel and Vauxhall products, albeit ones that had been slightly breathed by U.S. engineers, for U.S. consumption.
I guess the Saturn Vue was one of these cars that GM thought wasn’t out for the count yet. The General wanted to make this car work, somehow. So sometime in 2009, GM presented a teaser for a new hybrid vehicle.
Oh, come on. Look at the picture and it’s clearly (then) last year’s Saturn Vue, with some nifty wheels and a waterfall grille. And reception from the internet, GM internal, and GM dealers was so bad that the car was cancelled a few weeks after the teaser was released. Here's a great forum thread from GMInsideNews chronicling the reactions to the Buick Vue.
Then we all forgot about it and instead, GM revised the Vue with a new engine and transmission, gave it a double-bar grille, started making it in Mexico, and sold it exclusively to fleets as the Chevy Captiva Sport from 2012 onto about 2015. GM reasoned that rental fleets wanted a small SUV, and the company couldn’t make enough Equinoxes to satisfy fleets, nor did it want to hurt private residuals of the Equinox.
At the time, GM was adamant that the subcompact Trax would not be successful in the U.S. or Canada, so there was a pretty big hole in the automaker's lineup for a cheap SUV. It worked well enough, the Captiva provided what fleets needed at the time, and the Captiva was a decent enough car.
Anyway, back to the bizarre Buick that never was. The other day I tweeted about it, dredging this memory up from the bottom of the ocean.
It seemed that a lot of people in the auto industry had never heard of this car, and information shared by others on the tweet thread sent me on a quest to research.
Foolishly, I thought the “Buick Vue” was a cynical rebadge to offload extra Saturn Vue Green Line parts. The Green Line hybrids were one of the mildest of mild hybrids, and not particularly impressive. On the used market the Green Line package is a penalty now, lowering the value compared to a base model gas-only car.
The Green Line has essentially a much larger alternator, pared with a small accessory-belt driven electric motor that acts as both a starter and can add electric assist at certain speeds, namely low speed. The performance was about the same as its gas-only sibling, but fuel economy rose from 22 mpg in mixed driving to 26 mpg, at least on paper. I guess in context, those numbers aren’t so bad, but the Green Line’s performance and economy numbers were kind of mediocre compared to say, the Ford Escape Hybrid.
The Vue Green Line was also front-wheel-drive only, compared to the AWD options on rival Ford and Toyota SUV hybrids. In the real world, the GM mild hybrids often struggled to meet their advertised fuel economy. CNET only averaged 22.8MPG from their test car, back in 2008.
But it actually gets more interesting – I learned that the “Buick Vue” was more substantial of a redesign than I thought.
According to a GM press release from 2009 posted at Autoblog:
“The Buick plug-in hybrid is expected to be the first commercially available plug-in hybrid SUV produced by a major automaker.
The Buick plug-in hybrid has the potential to achieve double the fuel economy of comparably-sized SUVs on short trips. This significant boost is achieved by combining a modified version of GM's proven 2-Mode Hybrid system with advanced lithium-ion battery cells and charging technology developed for GM's Voltec system, which will debut in the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle in late 2010.”
Oh wow, what? A plug-in hybrid vehicle, in 2010? Although the range sounds low, this would have beaten a lot of automakers to the punch by years. The first mass-market PHEV SUV on sale in the U.S. was the subcompact Kia Niro, released in 2016. There was a Porsche Cayenne plug-in earlier, but that wasn't exactly a commonly accessible car.
This whole system pitched in that press release was much more than the glorified big-starter motor that made up the Vue Green Line. This would use pieces and parts from the then-new Chevy Volt and used GM’s two-mode hybrid setup seen on the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon SUVs of the mid-2000s.
In that setup, the vehicle toggles between:
- Mode one; a large electric motor motivates the vehicle along the road at most slower speed, light-demand driving, say under 35 mph.
- Mode two; a complicated series of calculations lets the vehicle vary input between the electric motor(s), gas engine, and against the four-speed automatic they’re mated to.
It’s a little tricky to understand, but here’s a space where the tech is explained a bit more in-depth. The results on the Tahoe, Yukon, Silverado and Sierra was a notable jump in fuel economy, without too much loss in towing capability or performance. A couple of journalists even drove a few prototypes of the Buick Vue two-mode hybrid.
Yet, the backlash was too great, and the car was canceled mere days after it was announced. Maybe people assumed that it was going to be yet another typical “Old GM” rebadge? Can you blame them? Until the early 2010s when GM started to make cars worth a damn, “Old GM” is all we had to go off of.
We did drop Buick’s PR contacts a note to see if there was any more info on this project or its demise, but hadn’t heard back when this post was published.
Anyway, the two-mode pickups and SUVs were a flop, with GM moving less than 40,000 hybrids trucks or SUVs from 2009 to 2013. The Two-Mode, although it offered a tangible benefit of improved economy, was ill timed, introduced at the height of the 2008 recession. The SUVs in particular were some $15,000 more expensive than their base model counterparts, so sales never really took off. The tech largely died with the announcement of the cancellation of the Buick Vue, never again to be used on any car.
On one hand, I lament myself for judging GM so much, thinking it was going to give us the same car as the year before, but with a Buick badge and no upgrades. I should have researched more, and read past the teaser image, and learned that the Buick Vue was a different (and likely better) car.
Then again, GM should have known better than to blatantly rebadge a car like that. In the post-2008 climate, their use of “badge engineering” was speculated as one of the reasons why they sunk into bankruptcy. Why not spend the money and put that tech into a new car?
In the age of GM’s push for both electrification and SUVs, the cancellation of a hybrid feels awkwardly short-sighted. Obviously there were more factors to the pre-release death than just "people were mean about it online," but it seemed pretty clear that nobody wanted this car when it was pitched to the public. If the Buick Vue had been released, maybe it would have done well, and today we'd be looking at Buick as a green brand on the cutting-edge of efficiency. But I doubt it.
Kevin Williams is an author at Car Bibles, a coming-soon sister site to The Drive focusing on practical tips and DIY advice to help you get the most out of your car. Look for a freshly redesigned Car Bibles in early 2021. Meanwhile check us out on Twitter, IG, and Facebook.
Correction: Thursday, January 28, 2021, 5:00 p.m. ET: We originally wrote that the 2016 Kia Niro was the first U.S. PHEV, which was incorrect, we meant to say it was the first mass-market PHEV SUV! Apologies for the error.