There's a lot that's interesting about General Motors (NYSE:GM) new Buick Riviera concept car, and I'm mostly not talking about the way it looks.
Of course, there's no doubt that it's visually very striking. The Riviera Concept, which made its debut at an auto show in Shanghai on Friday night, is a coupe that combines sleek lines with an elegant evolution of the front grille that has become a Buick trademark in recent years.
It'll almost certainly never be put into production – at least not with all of its fanciful show-car details like the huge gull-wing doors. But there are (at least) three things that should make this Riviera quite interesting to those who follow GM's efforts closely.
First, it's not just a fanciful concept
Automakers have presented "concept cars" at auto shows for decades. Often, these have been just flights of fancy, an opportunity for designers to stretch, to play a little.
But as I wrote when GM showed its Cadillac Ciel concept car in 2011, "in the new cost-conscious GM, nothing, not even a fanciful show car, happens without a business case."
I think that's true here, too. The decision to call this car "Riviera" -- a badge worn by famous Buick coupes in the past -- wasn't an accident. While the Riviera (or at least, this Riviera) might not be destined for mass production, GM executives said that it "offers a preview of Buick's future design language."
That's what Ford (NYSE:F) said about its Evos concept car in 2012, and already we've seen its striking front-end design and other cues show up in cars like Ford's new Fusion.
It's also what the Cadillac folks said about the Ciel two years ago. Elements of the Ciel's striking look are clearly reflected in the new CTS that GM showed last month, and we're likely to see more of those cues if the much-rumored big new Cadillac sedan is revealed.
More to the point, I thought (and still think) that the Ciel was a sort of sanity check for GM management on the idea of taking Cadillac back in the direction of large, opulent cars. I think the Riviera might be another sanity check for GM's management, this time for what they want to do with the Buick brand.
And what's that? Well, I think it has a lot to do with China.
Second, it was unveiled -- and designed -- in Shanghai
While the Buick brand doesn't get a lot of attention here in the U.S. anymore, it's big in China. There are many reasons for that, not least of which is that the last Chinese emperor famously owned two Buicks.
Buicks are regularly among China's top-selling cars, and as GM looks to build on its already-big Chinese presence, it's natural that the Buick brand would have a big role in the company's plans.
But that's not why the Riviera was unveiled in Shanghai. It was unveiled in Shanghai because it was designed there -- by folks at the Shanghai GM joint venture and at GM's Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center in Shanghai.
GM's press release describing the Riviera draws on some very Chinese images, noting that the car's shape "has the vibrant nature of a moving river." Clearly, it was designed with Chinese consumers' tastes in mind.
And I think that's what GM is really saying here: Upcoming new Buicks will draw on the Riviera's design language -- and they will have those Chinese consumers in mind as well.
Third, it's a cool new kind of high-tech hybrid
It's entirely possible that GM will produce a coupe called Riviera in coming years. It's even possible that it will look quite a bit like this show car, though I'd be a little skeptical on that front.
But I'm not skeptical of the possibility that the Riviera's drivetrain technology will find its way into mass production, and not necessarily just in Buicks. If you have any interest in green cars, this is pretty cool: GM has come up with a plug-in hybrid -- a hybrid that can be charged up like an electric car and driven for a while without using any gas -- that doesn't need to be plugged in, though it can be.
Instead, the car recharges via a "sensory recharge panel" on the bottom: You drive it on to a special mat, and the car's batteries recharge wirelessly. Keep the mat in your garage, and you don't even have to think about recharging every night -- it just happens.
That's cool. That should play well in China, where high-tech car features draw lots of attention. And I bet that GM hopes to roll that idea out widely if the company can perfect it -- and not just in China, and not just in Buicks.