The Buick GL8, an unexpected American success story in China

Today we discuss one of the icons of the Chinese automotive world – The Buick GL8.

The GL8 was the second model to come out of the joint venture between then Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp (SAIC) and General Motors (GM). The joint venture was created in June 1997 with the first Buick rolling off the production in line in December 1998. The GL8 first rolled off the production line in December 1999. Although production may have begun in China in 1999, the Buick GL8 can trace its lineage back to the 1980’s with the development and launch of the original GM U-Body minivans, including the Oldsmobile Silhouette and Chevrolet Lumina APV, the latter of which was exported to China in the 1990’s before production of the GL8 started.

The first generation GL8 was based on the GMT200 platform that was launched in 1997 sold by almost every GM division. The GL8 was available initially with only a 3.0 liter LW9 V6 engine, the smallest engine available in any GM U-Body product at the time.

Chevrolet Venture

The first generation GL8 was also exported to the Philippines badged as the Chevrolet Venture with a 10 seater option available in a 3+4+3 format. Yes the GL8 was quite a big car at 5 meters long and getting on for 2 meters wide.

Buick GL8 XEA1

There was also a Hydrogen powered prototype known as the XEA1 or Phoenix. It was powered by a 35kW fuel cell. Sadly this is the only photo I can find.

First generation GL8 interior

The first update of the GL8 came in 2005, this time based on the updated GMT201 platform, again shared with the American GM Minivans. Engine choices increased with the introduction of a 2.5 liter LB8 V6. The exterior styling was also updated with a lower spec version getting the new, smaller V6 and the new GL8 Firstland got the old 3.0 liter LW9. The 3.0 liter was essentially a larger version of the LB8 that could trace its roots back to the 1985 Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird twins. Yes, Buick China got a “Brand New” engine in 2005… from 1985… At least it had a sporting pedigree (?) The good thing is it is a wonderfully smooth engine. Gearboxes were 4 speed automatics for both engines.

GL8 Firstland
GL8 Firstland interior

The Firstland also got a new interior to match the updated American versions of the GMT201.

Lower Spec 2.5

Confusingly the 2.5 continued to use the original interior.

In 2011 the first major update came in the form of the second generation GL8. This was also when things started to get a little messy.

Second generation GL8

The second generation GL8 was a heavily revised version of the first generation with a completely new exterior and interior design. One thing they didn’t change was the chassis. The GMT201 would live on… and still does. None of the engines were carried over, the second generation GL8 was available with the new 3.0 liter LFW V6. It would have been perfect if they updated the old 2.5 liter V6 but they didn’t, they replaced that smooth little engine with a very noisy 2.4 liter Ecotec. It may develop more power than the old 2.5, but it was a definite step back, nay leap back in refinement. The 2.5 was so quiet that stopped at a traffic light you’d forget it was running.

Second generation GL8 interior
2011 first generation GL8

But this is China! And in China if a car is still selling well and making a company money they will keep making it! So sold alongside the new second generation car was a yet again facelift version of the original first generation. Only engine option was the 2.4 liter Ecotec. They called this car the Business Edition and the second generation car the Luxury Business edition.

Third generation GL8

Then in late 2016 the GL8 was finally brought into the 21st century with the introduction of the third generation GL8. The GMT201 may still be hiding underneath the new exterior but gone is the archaic torsion beam rear end and in its place we find a brand new independent setup. This new rear suspension is frequently mentioned in Buick’s advertising material. Engine choice is limited to a 250hp turbocharged 4 cylinder engine.

Third generation GL8 interior

The same could not be said for this though. Once again Buick decided to let the previous GL8 live on by giving it a new nose and wheels! Engine choice is now limited to a 2.5 liter 4 cylinder with both the 3.0 liter V6 and 2.4 liter 4 cylinder no longer being offered. The wings coming off the Buick badge on the front make it look severely crosseyed.

For a few months however there were 3 models of GL8 for sale at the same time with the original GMT201 GL8 (introduced in 2005, updated in 2011) finally ending production on December 29th, 2016 after 12 years of production.

The GL8 has served the Chinese car market well since its introduction in 1999 and almost everyone in China will have had one involved in a part of their lives at some point. Saying goodbye to the orginal is a heartwarming affair but the GL8 never had the place in people’s hearts that the Volkswagen Santana did. Nevertheless it will always be remembered for its important place in China’s automotive history. The Buick GL8 is also one of the reasons Buick is still around at all, with China’s insatiable appetite for the brand seen as the key reason for it not being killed off in the last decade.


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