12/23/2011 09:51 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2012

It's Time to Wake Up Buick

Of all the "Car of the Year" awards coming out, the one that really caught my eye was the Detroit News Car of the Year: the Buick LaCrosse e-Assist.

As I watch Buick's lineup and fortunes improve with each passing month, I can't help but feel a little hometown warm-and-fuzzies for a brand that could have been sent to the scrapyard a decade ago, or just two years ago, when GM was being overseen by the White House.

Seeing Buick's comeback, in fact, gives me hope for the city of Detroit. If Buick can be revived, why not all of Detroit?

Explaining the choice of the LaCrosse, the Detroit News' Scott Burgess said: "It's the first mainstream vehicle anywhere, to introduce a mild hybrid system that is going to reshape our roadways for years to come." Burgess went on: "Known as eAssist, this drivetrain is a legend in the making. Everyone will eventually drive a system like this in whatever car they purchase -- that's how important it is."

The eAssist system uses a small electric motor, a lithium-ion battery pack, a start/stop system and regenerative braking that converts energy otherwise lost to electricity. The boost in eAssist allows the LaCrosse sedan to do better than many subcompact cars, let alone other large cars, on long trips. The LaCrosse, using the electric motor and a new 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Ecotec engine, gets 25 mpg-city and 36 mpg-highway.

Props to GM for putting such smart new tech in a Buick sedan.

So how is it paying off? Buick sales through November were 356,026 in the U.S., up 17.8 percent. In addition to the LaCrosse, Buick also launched an all new Regal this year, as well as an all-new Verano, a car and nameplate new to the showroom. And the Enclave full-size crossover continues to do well, even winning over owners who previously bought imports. The Enclave has quietly become a legitimate alternative to the Lexus RX in tony suburban neighborhoods.

At next month's North American International Auto Show, Buick will take the wraps off another vehicle: a compact five-seater crossover called the Encore. It looks good -- despite carrying the same name as a truly piece-of-crap Renault that was marketed in the early 1980s by the American Motors Corp.-Renault alliance in the U.S.

Buick is king of China

Back in 1999, GM executives knew they had too many brands and that something had to go. The argument then was between Oldsmobile and Buick. But Olds never stood a chance.

Buick, you see, had already established itself as "The Lexus of China," and GM execs knew the market would be the fastest-growing in the world for the next decade. R.I.P Olds. My father, a confirmed "Oldsmobile man" for 30 years died a month after GM killed the brand. Not that I'm blaming GM ... much.

The Chinese are mad for Buicks. During a visit to Beijing in 2010, I met a man plunking down $70,000-plus in yuan for an Enclave imported from the U.S. And to my shock, the equivalent of a Lincoln Town Car airport sedan in Beijing is a Terraza minivan. It's amazing. The Terrazza, by U.S. standards, was the Chevy Vega of minivans. But the Buick shield hood ornament in China may as well be the Mercedes-Benz tri-star.

I look around the Buick showroom today, and it looks pretty damn good to me -- if you like sedans. I'm a wagon and hatchback guy, so when I heard Buick would not bring the Verano wagon to the U.S., I was disappointed. But my own test drive of the LaCrosse, with or without eAssist, led me to recommend it to anyone looking to buy an excellent sedan priced $30,000 - $40,000. And the new Regal GS with a manual gearbox? That took nerve at GM -- and it's terrific.

But who's buying Buick in the U.S.?

So what's wrong with this picture? In all my travels around Michigan, New Jersey (my native state), greater Washington, D.C., where I frequently travel, and California, I haven't bumped into a single person whom I can get interested in Buick. It usually goes like this: "Buick? Seriously? My Uncle Mort drove a Buick." Also: "I've gotten stuck with those as rental cars on many a trip."

At least some people are buying them; the sales prove it. I just can't seem to find any of these folks. Ideally, I'd like to meet a Buick owner under age 50 to prove the idea that Buick has a future in the U.S., and not just an extended present driven by Midwestern baby-boomers who are already post-60, and their parents.

It still feels to me like Buick is fighting a perception problem. Honestly, the idea of buying a Buick is about as interesting to someone who hasn't shopped the brand lately as spending "mad money" on a dividend-paying utility stock.

Personally, if I was shopping a sedan, I would fancy an apple-red LaCrosse or Regal with eAssist, or maybe the Regal GS with that manual shifter. Those sedans feel good to drive, and my butt is happy in the seat. And it makes for interesting conversation when your Mercedes, BMW, Acura and Lexus friends ask you what you bought. There's something to be said for lively conversation.

READ MORE on Buick from David Kiley and AOL Autos:

How Will GM Fix Buick?

2012 Buick LaCrosse Overview

2012 Buick Verano Overview

Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.