A stalwart rekindles its fortunes with a versatile, unusual new player.
by Marc Stengel
It's been a while since I was last excited about a Buick. The Reatta intrigued me in the late '80s and early '90s, but mostly because of its George Jetson styling. In high school, the 350-horsepower Gran Sport GSX of 1970 stoked my daydreams even before I could drive. The '87 GNX was a turbocharged, albeit unobtainable, supercar that came and went like a meteor.
And that's about it: It's been at least 10 years since Buick has peddled excitement. For that very reason, Buick's continued existence is a popular matter of debate. So it's about time that an eye-catching, if oddball, novelty like the Buick Rendezvous should debut for the 2002 model year. It's about time precisely because time is what Buick mostly lacks.
Chances are, the Rendezvous will inspire a lot of different reactions as it infiltrates the traffic stream. Cynics will grudgingly admit that it's downright pretty compared to its dog-faced horse's a- of a sister, the Pontiac Aztek. Kids, like my youngest, will recognize the Rendezvous as "Tiger Woods' car," since the Linksmeister seems to be having so much fun in one in the current crop of TV spots. I myself am caught between two conflicting emotions: "Ugh! Another SUV," is one; "Wow! Maybe it'll save the brand," is the other.
At the very least, the Rendezvous suggests that there are still some folks at Buick with their thinking caps on. Subtle yet important styling decisions — commonly known as "taste" — have spared Rendezvous from sharing the Aztek's fate as the butt of all jokes. Say what you will about all the glittering chrome and all the diamond, ruby, and amber sparkles from so many lighting assemblies, but the Rendezvous looks perfectly at ease among such SUV socialites as the Lexus RX300, Acura MDX, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, and BMW X5. Moreover, its base prices ($24,924 for front-wheel drive; $27,452 for all-wheel drive) are anywhere from one-quarter to one-half less expensive than these other high-society worthies.
Bangles and baubles
My own tester, however, was bedecked with some $5000 worth of high-end luxuries in a single package of options. Together with a $700 sunroof, that was enough to inflate the sticker to $33,737. Still, the Acura MDX I recently reviewed cost $37,450 at base price, and the BMW X5 3.0Xi started at $38,900, only to sticker out at $48,810.
I suppose Rendezvous' 185-horsepower rating (versus 240 hp for the MDX, 225 hp for the X5) might have something to do with this price discrepancy. The Buick's 3.4-liter V-6 is tried-and-trusty, just not very gutsy. Frankly, considering Rendezvous' all-American fluffy ride, 185 horsepower is about all the hot-dogging potential this SUV needs. It's a bit of a shame too, since Buick has equipped its SUV with independent suspension at all four corners and four-wheel disc ABS brakes. Handling, though, is mushy; ride is soft; and shifts of the four-speed automatic transmission are a tad on the lazy side.
Apparently, Rendezvous is designed for cruising. As Tiger Woods would probably like us to believe, it's the golf cart that takes you to your golf cart. Or you could probably tow a pair behind you, thanks to a 3500-lb tow rating. At least the Rendezvous' economy numbers of 18 mpg city/24 highway are better than most of its rivals.
Rendezvous absolutely trumps the field with another distinction, however. With 108 cu ft of maximum cargo space, Buick's SUV positively dwarfs BMW's puny 54 cu ft, and it also outclasses the 80 to 85 cu ft or so in the Acura, Mercedes, Lexus, even Mercury Mountaineer/Ford Explorer.
Rendezvous is based on the same General Motors platform that underlies Chevy's Venture, Olds Silhouette, and Pontiac Montana; but there's no real sensation of driving a minivan here. As a "crossover vehicle" combining favorite features of cars, vans, and SUVs, the Rendezvous is cleverly successful. Seating for five is standard and plenty roomy — there are even footrests for second-row passengers. An optional third-row bench ($730) increases occupancy to seven, and it folds flush to the rear threshold when out of use.
My tester was a five-seater, and in place of the third-row bench was an ingenious in-floor storage box with partitioned compartments under three separate, carpeted hatches. On my first day with the Rendezvous, I successfully transported a shoulder-high chest of drawers, small office desk, small credenza, assorted lamps, hampers, and knickknacks. The split second-row bench seats flip-folded out of the way, the compartments kept the knickknacks in place, and the carpeted floor (with all hatch handles recessed) protected everything from scratches.
Buick's chief tout about the Rendezvous is its versatility, and I'm inclined to agree. Apart from all that cargo stowage, people space is comfy and well organized. The CLX package of luxury options on my tester included plush leather seating, AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo, and fully automatic dual-zone climate control. I was grateful for the sensors in the rear bumper that assisted parking while backing up with a load of furniture; OnStar telematics was available had I needed navigation or emergency assistance. All-time all-wheel drive is provided by Buick's Versatrak drivetrain, which defaults to front-wheel drive unless wheel slip sensors direct tractive power to the rear. Compared to a front-wheel-drive model, Versatrak represents a $2528 premium. It's a boon for tackling different traction conditions; but off-roading's a definite no-no, thanks particularly to a very low-hanging rear suspension.
It's taken years, but this oddly appealing SUV may well be the right vehicle for Buick at the right time. There's a prevailing suspicion these days that it represents Buick's Rendezvous with destiny. If so, it's an appointment that this venerable car division can't afford to miss.
2002 Buick Rendezvous
Base price: $24,924 (FWD) or $27,452 (AWD); as tested, $33,737
Engine: 3.4-liter V-6, 185 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 186.5 x 73.6 x 68.9 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Curb weight: 4250 lb
EPA - City/Hwy: 19/26 mpg (FWD); 18/24 mpg (AWD)
Safety equipment: Front and front-side airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control (FWD only), daytime running lights
Major standard equipment: Cruise control, power locks/mirrors, AM/FM/CD stereo, fog lamps
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
© 2001 The Car Connection