Buick unveils electric concept car in China, where the brand is far more popular than it is in the US

  • Buick unveiled an electric concept car Tuesday in China.
  • China is Buick's biggest market. The brand sold 1.18 million vehicles there in 2017, and just 215,000 in the U.S.
Handout: 2018 Buick Enspire all-electric concept SUV
Source: Buick
Handout: 2018 Buick Enspire all-electric concept SUV

Buick unveiled an electric concept car Tuesday in China, which remains the brand's biggest market, by far.

The Buick Enspire is an all-electric sport utility vehicle that can drive zero to 60 mph in 4 seconds and travel 370 miles on a single charge. Like Tesla vehicles using that company's Supercharger stations, the Enspire can be charged to 80 percent of its battery's capacity in 40 minutes.

Buick did not comment on whether the Enspire will become a production vehicle.

However, the brand also said it plans to release two new electrified versions of the Velite, a production car currently sold only in China, which borrows some of the battery knowledge put into the Chevrolet Volt hybrid sedan in the U.S. A hybrid Velite 6 will go into production in late 2018 and a fully electric version will enter production some time in the future.

Buick has a much more mainstream image in China than it does in the United States. The brand has positioned itself as a niche brand selling what Buick calls "affordable luxury" to American buyers. But in China, Buick is one of the top three or four brands in terms of sales volume, and markets models not sold in the U.S., such as mass-market compact cars and minivans.

2018 Buick Enspire all-electric concept SUV
Source: Buick
2018 Buick Enspire all-electric concept SUV

Buick sold only 205,000 cars to retail buyers in the U.S. and another 10,000 to U.S. fleets in 2017, but the brand sold 1.18 million vehicles overall in China during the same period. For perspective, total 2017 auto sales in the U.S. were about 17.25 million vehicles, and 28.8 million vehicles in China.

The Enspire reveal and Velite 6 announcement came shortly after the Chinese government said it will relax rules for foreign automakers operating in the country. Currently, foreign car companies have a number of restrictions on how they conduct business in the world's most populous country.

The Chinese government has encouraged the adoption of electrified vehicles in part to tackle its severe pollution problems. But non-Chinese carmakers have long said they have to compete in an environment that favors Chinese companies.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk in particular has cried foul over China's rules for foreign companies. Chinese consumers can and do buy Tesla vehicles, but they have historically been subject to stiff import duties, since Tesla has no joint venture arrangement with a Chinese company, unlike larger U.S. automakers such as GM and Ford. Buick in particular partners with Chinese firm SAIC.