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The wonderful, unexpected return of the luxury coupe

If you want to win the hearts of cynical car journalists at an auto show, dazzle them with the unveiling of an unexpected luxury coupe concept. Buick, the GM brand that's struggled with its old-guy image over the past few decades, opted to use the stage of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) this week to make a powerful statement about its identity. Last Sunday, Buick unveiled its vision for a luxury concept coupe — the Buick Avista, a classic two-door looker.

The "coupe," a term with French origins, refers to a two-door body style and dates back to the turn of the 20th century. It is typically smaller and more svelte in proportion compared to a four-door sedan. In recent years, automakers have started to bend the definition of the word to include sporty four-doors, but the Avista is a true coupe in every sense of the word. "[The Avista] was purely a design exploration exercise," says Liz Wetzel, director of interior design for Buick. "We used this project to take sculptural beauty and think about Buick and where it’s been in the past. The Buick Y-Job was the very first automotive show car. Buick used to use technology and beautiful sculpture together." (GM's first car design chief Harley Earl created the Y-Job, the first concept car at an auto show in 1938.)

"[The Avista] was purely a design exploration exercise."

But Buick isn’t the only luxury automaker to spark car crushes at the Detroit show this year — Infiniti is showing the Q60, and Lexus makes a powerful statement with the LC 500 production car. Both of these handsome coupes attracted considerable attention away from the more conventional crossovers and sedans.

At NAIAS, automakers’ design departments get to put their best foot forward, and the classic coupe is sure-fire way to drum up attention from admirers. "Luxury consumers have come to expect fuel efficient cars for both economical and environmental reasons," says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute. "Aerodynamics play a huge role in the fuel efficiency of cars and highly influence the design. The most aerodynamic designs are simplistic, chic, and timeless. The cars of 2016 will have a classic familiarity that comes with simplistic design, but with contemporary features that make them appealing and modern."

Design departments are able to experiment at auto shows by pushing boundaries without the constrictions of practicality and safety regulations. When given the green light to make compelling concepts, the show fuels a sense of competition among car design studios. Buick's exterior director of design, Holt Ware, describes Detroit as "the Super Bowl for car designers."

"If you think about it like the race track, there are some really fabulous races around the world, but Le Mans is still Le Mans and everyone wants to go to Le Mans," Ware says. And the Avista won this week's Super Bowl: it took home the EyesOn Design Best Concept award.

Lexus LC 500 photo from the Detroit Auto Show
The Lexus LC 500 coupe

The Avista, like most beautiful objects, started from a burst of creativity followed by an approval from management, not the other way around. "From the teams in the studio, it happened because they wanted to see themselves in a vehicle," Ware says. "They didn’t all want to see themselves in a three-row SUV or a crossover." Production designers worked on the car as a side project. "If you’re in a production studio, you have to justify your resources, because everyone runs on a budget. The justification for us was that it was our jam session. If a musician has a concert, you can’t mess up in a concert, but then you have the jam session where you go in the garage, throw down, and try to explore your instruments and working together as a band. That’s what we did on this vehicle as well."

Both Wetzel and Ware says they're shocked about the powerful response to the show car. No one at GM is saying this car, which is based off GM's Alpha platform (the same one that underpins the Chevy Camaro) and boasts a 400-horsepower V-6, will be built. For now, the company is positioning it as a statement piece."We're getting the data points in North America right now, because everybody loves it. And so, when is the right time to do it?" says Mark Reuss, GM's executive VP of global production development. "Is it three years from now; is it two years from now? Is it a year from now? When is that? That would be the next discussion. And so, it's not out of the question, but the point of the car is, 'here's where Buick's heading.'"

"The justification for us was that it was our jam session."

While Reuss fashions the presence of three big luxury coupes at the show a coincidence, I have to wonder if this splashy trio suggests that there is more space in the marketplace for new coupe buyers — particularly as Infiniti and Lexus invest in building the production versions of these cars. Pedraza suggests that automakers might be making cars that appeal to an aging population that has disposable cash. "A majority of current purchasers in wealth are baby boomers," he says. "This age group is currently in a transition as their children move out of the house and they are left with an empty nest. They no longer need large cars and are able to buy more stylish, trendy, and fun vehicles such as coupes," he says. Hence products like the LC and Q60 — and maybe, if we're lucky, the Avista.