A versatile five- to seven-passenger crossover vehicle.
by Denise McCluggage
Base Price (MSRP) $24,924
As Tested (MSRP) $33,062
Buick's all-new Rendezvous crosses over all the lines that used to separate sedans, minivans, and sport-utility vehicles. The word “crossover” is now becoming a word, as manufacturers are no longer putting quotation marks around it. No matter what you decide to call it, the Buick Rendezvous is well-priced and easy to like.
The 2002 Buick Rendezvous is versatile, seating five to seven passengers. It's nicely styled. It has fine manners on the highway, a benefit of its unibody construction normally associated with sedans. At the same time, the four-wheel-drive version can cope with gnarly weather and marginal off-highway tracks with dignity. The three-row interior compares favorably with costlier vehicles.
There is much to like here in terms of engineering, flexibility, and appearance.
Buick Rendezvous comes in two models: CX ($24,924) and CXL ($27,452).
CX comes with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The more luxuriously appointed CXL is available in AWD only.
All models come with a 185-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 engine that's used in GM's minivans and an electronically controlled four-speed automatic. Notable is the independent suspension, both front and rear, and anti-lock disc brakes all around. Both models come with 16-inch wheels, the CLX with fancier ones.
Dual-stage airbags with side airbags (seat-mounted) for front-seat occupants are standard. Also standard on all models: roof rack, remote keyless entry, theft-deterrent system, AM/FM/CD (the CLX adds a cassette player), and power outlets in all three rows.
CXL adds, among other features, dual automatic climate control, odor and pollen filter, ultrasonic rear parking aid, leather or upgraded cloth seating, and foot rests for second-row passengers. A tire inflation-pressure monitor will also be available.
A number of options are available including a six-CD changer, OnStar and a head-up display, which projects salient information on the windshield (low enough to be unobtrusive but clearly visible). The driver can read with a minimum of eye deflection the car's speed and radio or CD information.
It is difficult to judge the size of the Rendezvous without the context of another vehicle near it. That's usually a sign that the design team (headed, by the way, by a woman, Liz Wetzel) got the scale right. Although Buick says the track of the Rendezvous (64 inches between left and right tires) is wider than any SUV, the body is still quite tall. But the eye is told otherwise by strong horizontal elements that say “stability.”
The traditional Buick grille on the Rendezvous emphasizes a familial resemblance to the Park Avenue but it somehow looks less formal and more cheery here. It's a pleasing countenance.
The Rendezvous shows kinship to the shorter Pontiac Aztek without the body piercing and other design cues meant to appeal to a youthful (some might say taste-innocent) market. The Rendezvous is probably not beautiful to many, but it has an integrity that is suitable to its purpose and is thus attractive. In short, I like its looks.
The seating setup depends, first, on how you order the vehicle and then on how you choose to fold and configure. You can end up seating two with scads of stuff or seven with a lot less.
Captain's seats, for example, can replace the 50-50 split bench seat in the second row (an elegant choice, by the way). Also, instead of opting for the third row a buyer can choose a three-compartment storage arrangement. Additional hiding places and lockable bins are strategically placed here and there.
The flexibility of the seating configurations is an exercise in automotive origami. The seats fold and tuck and fit into an amazing number of arrangements. And you can end with two people up front with a flat floor behind without leaving anything home in the garage. Truly neat. For maximum capacity, however, the center row can be removed.
The load-height is low, reducing back strain when loading or unloading heavy objects. And get this: that old 4x8 plywood test? Well, the Rendezvous has a rear opening wide enough to take on board such building material flat. A red flag affixed at back will deal with the length.
The really amazing thing about the low stance and flat floor of the Rendezvous is that four-wheel drive and independent suspension and a flat floor are supposed to be mutually exclusive. Well, the Buick engineers found a way to do it. Too bad being unobtrusive is a mark of success because this needs to stand up and take applause.
Even with a 7-inch ground clearance and all-wheel drive, getting in and out of the Rendezvous is more sedan-like than SUV-like; small children, arthritic knees and tight-skirts can be grateful for that. All seats are easy to access and quite comfortable.
Access to the third row is far simpler than in most vehicles with three rows of seats. Once back there, the third row is pleasantly suitable for two full-size adults. And the third row is no Siberia: Even from way back there the acoustics allow you to participate in any car conversations.
Most important, perhaps, is the story in the rear part of the Rendezvous; the engineers managed to fit an excellent AWD system and suspension system while maintaining a flat floor. That's best appreciated when driving with a full load of people and their stuff on a nasty, sleety, darkening afternoon with a slippery glaze on the street.
But all is not sheer delight inside the Rendezvous. The plastic used for the instrument panel looks dowdy compared with the rest of the interior.
On the road the Rendezvous has a reassuring manner. Its long wheel base (6 inches longer that of the Grand Cherokee) smoothes surface irregularities like a sedan or a minivan. In handling the more sinuous highways, again it favors the minivan/sedan end of the scale. Driven in the truly twisty bits the Rendezvous comported itself surprisingly well. Even when pushed rather insistently it was thoroughly honest (more tire would have helped) and never felt incapable of dealing with stringent demands. (Willing as it was there was a slight admonishment: “I'll do that if you insist but it's not my specialty.”)
On off-highway exploration of some sandy and rocky arroyos the SUV heritage came to the fore. GM's all-wheel-drive system, called Versatrak, requires no input from the driver. Versatrak drives just the front wheels until sensors agree that some traction assistance from the rear is advisable. Now this is where the Versatrak is really clever: Power is meted out separately and individually to the rear wheels, not just to the rear axle. That is a fineness of traction disbursement not available in most other four-wheel-drive systems. The result is better traction and increased stability, making the Rendezvous more capable in the snow and easier to drive in the slush.
Overall, the road demeanor of the Rendezvous is pleasing. It stopped well, accelerated with reasonable aplomb (can't everything use more power?) and was quiet for an SUV, though a little road-noisy by luxury sedan standards.
The Rendezvous deserves a look on the basis of economy alone. In the first place it uses regular unleaded gas, not premium. Its thirstiness is temperate for its size: 22 miles per gallon on the highway for the Versatrak, 24 mpg for the front-wheel-drive models.
But where the Rendezvous really shines is in the window sticker department: Fully outfitted it is priced some $6500-$8000 below such all-wheel-drive vehicles as the Lexus 300 RX and the Acura MDX (and the Lexus does not have three rows of seats).
But the vehicle's flexibility, ease and variety of use are also strong points in its favor. If this be crossover, bring 'em on.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.