A Lexus? Not quite. But a new middle American standard? Definitely. That's a good way of looking at the '05 Buick LaCrosse sedan, one of the "new" Buicks GM's almost-luxury division hopes will appeal to a younger generation of buyers without alienating the AARPers who have become Buick's customer base.
The LaCrosse replaces two ancient but still popular models, the Regal and Century - cars that may not be high on the automotive totem pole in terms of status or curb appeal, but which nonetheless have sold in their many tens of thousands to senior citizens and rental fleets everywhere.
The problem for Buick, of course, is that eventually the 55-up buyers it relies on won't be there to rely on - and unless the division wants to fade away like Oldsmobile, it must claw its way back to a more youthful clientele and become a serious alternative to 40-something family cars like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Or maybe even entry-luxury brands like Lexus that have done such a seamless job of melding plushness (a Buick specialty) with refinement and a degree of sportiness.
Coulda been a contender?
The LaCrosse is a contender in that class. On looks, it comes off very well against both the Camry and Accord, which have overtaken the Buick in stuffy, nondescript exterior styling. The designers who fleshed out the shape of the LaCrosse managed to retain the overall look of a Buick - the trademark ovoid grille opening and gentle elliptical shapes - while at the same time giving the finished car a less gray-haired mien. A married guy in his 40s won't feel like he's borrowing grandpa's car anymore. But an older person will likely not be put off by the appearance, either.
The upbeat report continues when you key the LaCrosse to a start. All versions from the base CX ($22,835) to the top-of-the-line, sport-themed CXS ($28,335) come with a solid V-6 drivetrain that provides good low-end power for people who don't especially like to wind out their engines, as well as enough top-end power (at least in the CXS) to stand up against V-6 versions of the Camry and Accord.
The base engine is an updated version of the general's long-serving 3.8-liter overhead-valve V-6. While not the most sophisticated engine on the market - it's pushrod activated and has old-timey cast iron heads with just two valves per cylinder - the 3800 Series 3.8 is still one of the most durable, fuss-free V-6 engines around. In the base CX and mid-trim CXL, it offers a not-bad 200 hp and gets the LaCrosse underway with confidence.
But the really big news is the 3.6 V-6 that's standard in the CXS. This is a totally new engine with an aluminum block, dual overhead cams and variable valve timing, all firsts for Buick and a clear measure of just how serious the division is when it comes to meeting the imports on equal terms. This engine not only offers 40 hp more (240 total) than the 3.8-liter V-6, it has a much higher operating range (a 6700-rpm redline vs. 5900 rpm for the 3.8) and feels and sounds good when pushed into that zone. Where the 3.8 is a boilerplate engine built for good low-end torque (and inclined toward those who rarely, if ever, floor it), the 3.6 cammer engine is a much more aggressive, free-revving piece that will appeal to drivers reared on OHC imports, who demand not only high-revving performance, but high-revving smoothness. And even though it has a pretty high 10.2:1 compression ratio, the 3.6-liter engine is designed to run on 87-octane regular, just like the grocery-getter 3.8 V-6. Nice touch.
Both engines also work through GM four-speed automatic overdrives, with the CXS differing only in having a more performance-oriented final drive ratio (3.69 vs. the 2.86 used in the CX and CXL). GM's Hydramatic division builds some of the world's best automatic transmissions: this one's nicely timed, positive shifts that are reasonably smooth as well as reasonably sporty, a good mix for a car like the LaCrosse. Buick might give some thought to the possibility of at least offering a manual gearbox as an option in the sport-themed CXS as it would make this version of the LaCrosse even more appealing to the younger clientele it is courting, without ruffling the feathers of the traditional Buick buyer, who most definitely wants a transmission that takes care of the shifting for him.
Shaking the Japanese
As far as handling goes, the car won't shake an Accord or Camry off too easily on a mountain switchback. It understeers a lot if you start treating it like a sport sedan, but in steady-state cruise mode it is one of the most solid-feeling and comfortable/quiet cars in its class. This is important given the type of car it is and the type of driver who might buy one. Sure-footedness is important, but tail-out power slides of the kind that might interest an IS300 or BMW 330i buyer aren't. The car has to feel competent, easy to maneuver and stable in normal street driving and tight enough when pushed a little beyond that. And it does. (Buyers can even get 17-inch wheels with 55-series Goodyear Eagles and GM's StabilTrak active handling/traction control system on the CXS.)
I drove my tester all the way from Atlanta to my home base in southwest Virginia with only a coffee stop along the way - and at the end of it all, my back and legs weren't numb (as they would have been in this car's Century and Regal predecessors) and I actually enjoyed the ride. I'm 38, so Buick should take this as a very encouraging sign.
To further entice people in my age bracket, Buick offers XM satellite radio and an MP3 player as well as an available remote starting system similar to the one used in Cadillac models and the new Corvette. It lets you key the engine to life from inside your house or office, so the car is all warm and toasty (or cooled down if it's summer) by the time you open the door. The interior of the car is well done and tasteful, comparable to what you'd find in a similar price import, and generations improved from the cheap-looking and cheap-feeling cabins of the Century and Regal. The dash, instrument cluster and controls "fit" and work well together, functionally as well as cosmetically. The seats are not overstuffed (Regal) or cardboardy (Century), with genuinely attractive leather that is, again, generations better than the downer cow leftovers they used to staple into the Regal and Century.
Though it's a mid-size sedan and realistically a five-seater, six can make it in a pinch, like when you have to bring the family back from the airport. The tilt/telescoping wheel is a nice touch, also, one of those small things you'd formerly find only in a high-end domestic or a medium-priced import, but never a medium-priced GM vehicle.
Is it a threat to Lexus? Not quite. But GM has definitely got something to throw at Toyota and Honda and even Ford with the new and tepid-looking Five Hundred.
2005 Buick LaCrosse
Base price: $22,835; as tested, $32,750
Engine(s): 3.8 liter V-6, 200 hp/230 lb-ft; 3.6 liter V-6, 240-hp/225 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
Length x width x height: 198.1 x 73.0 x 57.4 in
Wheelbase: 110.5 in
Curb weight: 3495 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 19/28 mpg (3.6-liter V-6)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, OnStar concierge service, power windows and locks, electric rear defroster, 16-inch wheels
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles