Roomy, quiet and affordable.

by Trish Robb

Base Price $26,395
As Tested $28,300

The Buick LeSabre is a car with a loyal following.

In the grand tradition of full-size American sedans, the LeSabre offers lots of room, plenty of power and a soft, quiet ride. It offers many of the same amenities as prestige luxury sedans, but in a more affordable package. And that's just what its cadre of dedicated drivers want.

The car has changed over the years. Modern notions like front-wheel drive, an electronically controlled V-6 engine, and traction control have crept into recent redesigns.

LeSabre owners, though, have not been clamoring for more major changes. After a major redesign last year, Buick asked LeSabre owners what they would like to see changed. They did not get a long list of demands. Instead, they were urged not to mess up a good thing. Buick listened.

The most noticeable changes from 1997 to 1998 are new plastic moldings that keep errant grocery carts from dinging the doors and fenders, new halogen headlights and new end-release seat belts. There's a new transmission, less-powerful second-generation air bags, and an optional telephone system that puts help just a quick call away. But none of that changes the LeSabre's basic character.

It remains familiar, yet sophisticated, reliable and comfortable transportation. Buick likes to say the LeSabre offers peace of mind, and it does exactly that.

Walkaround

Up front, the LeSabre's luxury car ambitions are clear in the shine of the large chrome waterfall grille. A chrome strip running all the way around the car accents the notion that this is well-to-do family transportation. This is also one of the few cars left that still uses real chrome door handles.

The "thunk" that comes when you slam those doors, or the trunk lid, is a reassuring sound. This is a solid car, well assembled. One senses it is also a car with few surprises.

The overall shape of the LeSabre is reminiscent of traditional, full-size American family cars. The hood is long and with far less slope than more aerodynamic designs. The cabin is squarish with virtually no rake to the rear roof line. A sizable portion of the car extends forward from the front wheels and back from the rear wheels.

Buick's redesigned LeSabre offers a more contemporary appearance with flush wraparound headlights, stylish wheel covers and taillights and reflectors that stretch across the back.

LeSabre comes in two models: Custom and Limited. Prices start at $23,070. Our LeSabre Limited test car included traction control and the slightly stiffer Gran Touring suspension package, which brought the bottom line to just over $28,300.

The Inside Story

Behind the steering wheel, we noticed LeSabre's cluster of somewhat small instruments beneath an otherwise graceful cowl. The tachometer and speedometer are placed in a long, narrow space between small gauges for engine temperature, oil pressure, and amperage. In a car designed for mature drivers, we find this surprising. Big, easy to read instruments would seem a must. Though the wipers and cruise control switches are conveniently located on the left stalk, the light switches, perched on the front edge of the drivers door, are not.

Higher up on the dash there's a narrow line of warning and status lights that extend all the way across the front of the car. This arrangement leads to a few anomalies. For example, when we engaged the cruise control and a green indicator light came on in front of the passenger seat. Buick product designers say they are responding to the stated preferences of current LeSabre owners who are not enthusiastic, they say, about the trend toward bigger displays housed under rounded cowlings.

However, the cabin design imparts a feel of comfort and reassurance. A lot of armchairs are not as plush and comfortable as the front seats of the LeSabre. Three adults can be fairly comfortable in either the front or the back; the car really does hold six, as promised. Rear seat space is vast.

The LeSabre's list of standard features remains modest for a car in this price range: air conditioning, power windows and doors, tilt wheel and power driver's-side outside mirror. For 1998, cruise control was added to this list.

The LeSabre Limited includes many other comfort and convenience features, such as separate automatic climate controls for the driver and front-seat passenger, dual power mirrors and keyless remote entry.

Almost every conceivable luxury feature is available, including six-way power seats, radio controls on the steering wheel, and a head-up display that projects vehicle speed and other information on the lower part of the windshield so you don't have to look down. The luxury car touches extend to the interior with a strip of wood running all along the doors and dash.

Safety features are up to date as well with dual air bags, anti-lock brakes and daytime running lights. A low-speed traction control system, a $175 option, can keep you going without sliding around on wet or snow-covered roads.

For additional peace of mind, the LeSabre offers GM's highly regarded OnStar system as an option this year. (It costs $895 plus dealer installation, plus a $22.50 monthly charge.) A hands-free voice-activated cellular phone instantly links the caller to a special center that can provide everything from directions to an ambulance. Satellite tracking tells the center exactly where you are, even if you don't have any idea.

A few details seem like modest lapses in thought and taste. Small sliding switches on the instrument panel for dimming the lights feel less than solid. The mylar chrome plastic switches for the windows and power mirrors on the door blend less than ideally with the otherwise subdued interior. When you push the power lock switches on the driver's door, the entire door panel moves a noticeable eighth of an inch or so.

But in general the LeSabre's fabrics, materials and components impart a solid, well-appointed character.

Ride and Drive

Comfortable, dependable transportation is what the LeSabre is designed to provide. As a result, ride quality is very good, but handling is just average.

The 3.8-liter engine, though, has been widely praised as one of the finest V-6s on the market. As a result, the 205-horsepower LeSabre accelerates quickly enough to satisfy most family sedan buyers. It takes off briskly from stoplights and overtaking semis on two-lane roads does not require an act of courage.

The previous-generation four-speed transmission was quite good, but GM says the new one has been redesigned for greater durability. It shifts so smoothly it's nearly unnoticeable. The gas mileage for a car of this size is extraordinary; it's rated at 19 mpg city, 30 mpg highway.

You can spend a lot more for a car without getting this kind of powertrain performance.

When cruising, the LeSabre delivers a soft, quiet, comfortable ride that insulates its passengers from the tumult around them. On the freeway, the miles slip by almost unnoticed. It is a little less at home on twisting, secondary roads. This is no sports car. Even with the Gran Touring suspension, the body rolled in sharp turns and bounced up and down on uneven pavement.

Still, the LeSabre will get you where you are going as effortlessly as any of its competitors. And that's the essence of the traditional front-drive sedan.

Final Word

Buick has modestly updated the traditional American family sedan without compromising the things its owners most admire. Its one concession to progress is front-wheel drive. But beyond that, the LeSabre represents two decades of refinement.

Some American cars are trying to attract younger buyers by marrying the traditional full-size concept with better handling, and sleeker, more contemporary styling.

The LeSabre, though, has stayed true to its tradition and, as a result, has a loyal following. The faithful are rewarded not only with what they like, but also with good value. LeSabre is more luxurious than many more expensive cars.

Such traditional character is easy to admire.

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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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