$25,000 to $30,000 Front-wheel drive Mid-Size 4-Door Sedan.
Who should buy this car:
A family looking for a smooth, quiet, comfortable American car with all the traditional trappings.
Comparable models in this class:
Ford Five Hundred, Hyundai XG350, Kia Amanti, Mercury Montego, Nissan Maxima, Pontiac Bonneville, Toyota Avalon, Volkswagen Passat
Take a good look at the new Buick LaCrosse and youll pretty much get the whole story without ever stepping inside.
Its all new, obviously, but it doesnt stand out in the crowd. Nobody will say its bad looking, but the word gorgeous wont come up, either. It doesnt offend, certainly, but it doesnt excite. Two words come to mind understated and unobtrusive.
The temptation, after spending a few days with it, is to imagine this product-planning scenario. I picture a big boss sitting across a big desk from his team of designers and engineers and issuing a strong warning: Were going to replace the Century and the Regal. Make sure you dont screw anything up.
So they didnt. They went straight to the middle of the road. They put together an automobile that epitomizes the Three Cs many manufacturers rely on with their bread-and butter products cautious, careful and conservative.
Of course, anybody can tell you thats not the way it really happened. The LaCrosse is no doubt the result of focus groups, surveys and countless meetings. Its also the result of strong input from Robert Lutz, GM product boss who set the project back about a year by demanding that the original design be redrawn. The result is a three-tier LaCrosse, with pricing and equipment levels aimed at core Buick customers and, hopefully, a lot of other people.
With that in mind, its probably safe to say the folks at Buick have succeeded.
Typical Buick customers certainly the ones I actually know require ease of driving and parking, a certain amount of upscale amenities and a quiet, comfortable and relaxing experience. The LaCrosse offers all of that.
What they dont need is a jarring race-track suspension, hair-raising acceleration, a motorcycle-like roar from the engine compartment or g-force cornering characteristics. The LaCrosse offers none of that.
Before we go to the details, one thing should be made clear. Although the LaCrosse was built with some carry-over parts, it is a vast improvement over the Regal and Century. Its not for the enthusiast, for sure, but it ranks as competition for the Japanese-made family sedans. And, it brings Buick into the 21st Century.
The engineers started with a much-modified version of the platform used by the Regal and Century and the improvement is obvious in the cars solid feel.
Two engine choices are available. An update of the old reliable 3.8-liter V-6 produces 200 horsepower and is standard in the base LaCrosse CX and the somewhat more opulent CXL. The sportiest, most refined and most expensive LaCrosse, the CXS, is powered by a modern, all-aluminum, 3.6-liter V-6 that features dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. It generates 240 horsepower.
Both engine choices are mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Its plenty smooth, but a fifth gear, common in the competition these days, was definitely missed.
The LaCrosse CXS that I drove would have had better performance and better fuel economy if the gear box had had one more cog. As it is, the CXS will run from a stop to 60 miles an hour in under 8 seconds. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 19 miles per gallon city/28 mpg highway, but I averaged only 18 to 24 mpg.
The new suspension setup in the CX and CXL models eliminates much of the mushy ride and the excessive body roll that plagued the cars the LaCrosse replaces. A larger rear anti-roll bar and standard 17-inch wheels with low-profile tires make the CXS more responsive to driver inputs and give it an even crisper feel than the other two models.
Some form of traction control is standard on every LaCrosse. The CX and CXL get a version that uses fuel cut-off to help eliminate front wheel spin. Full-range traction control, which applies brakes at one or more wheels to restore traction, is standard on the CXS. The optional Stabilitrak, installed on the car I drove, applies the brakes selectively to the right and left wheels and reduces engine power to restore the vehicles proper path if sensors detect it is about to go out of control.
The electrically controlled rack-and-pinion steering has decent on-center feel and it is reasonably precise. But, it pretty much isolates the driver from any feel for the road surface beneath the car. The four-wheel disc brakes offer plenty of stopping power and give a nicely modulated response to the drivers pedal pressure.
Inside, the Buick CXS is conservatively furnished, with soft leather covering comfortable seats. Buyers are given the choice of two buckets or a bench seat in the front row.
Theoretically, the bench makes the LaCrosse a six-passenger sedan. In truth, three adults in front or back will be a tight fit. And people over six feet tall will not particularly enjoy the rear seating because the cars styling lowers ceiling height for those sitting next to the doors. Figure the LaCrosse as a comfortable cruiser for four adults.
On the plus side, all instruments are logically placed and the center console houses easy-to-find, easy-to-operate controls for the sound and ventilating systems. The plastics and metal accents appear to be of good quality, but the fake walnut trim will fool nobody.
What people inside the cabin may appreciate most are the efforts made to eliminate intrusive levels of mechanical and outside noise. Quiet tuning, as Buick calls it, provides a mostly serene atmosphere for passengers to enjoy conversation or the quality sound system.
There are 16 cubic feet of space in the trunk, and cargo space can be enhanced by folding down the 60/40 split rear seatbacks in the CXL and CXS models.
Standard safety features include driver and front-seat-passenger airbags, the OnStar emergency communication system, daytime running lights and rear child-seat anchors. Head curtain airbags for side-impact collisions are a $395 option.
Standard convenience features on the LaCrosse CXS I drove include a six-speaker sound system with cd player, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, driver-information center, power drivers seat with lumbar adjustment, and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel.
The most expensive option on the test car was the $1,150 Gold Convenience Package, which adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio and temperature controls, auto-dimming inside mirror and heated power outside mirrors, six-way power passenger front seat, rear park assist and a couple of minor items.
Other options included Stabilitrak, $650; XM satellite radio, $325; and a key fob-operated remote starting system for northern- and southern-climate motorists, $150.
The options totaled $3,165, but what does this car actually cost? Hard to say since my drive came during General Motors highly successful You pay what we pay program that offered GM cars to the public at the same prices employes pay. I can say the sticker listed the base price at $28,995, including shipping costs, and the bottom line at $32,160. I can also report that comes within about $1,000 of the priciest LaCrosse.
Buick buyers content with more plain than fancy will find the base price of a CX is $23,495 and the base price of a CXL is $25,995. Again, that includes shipping costs and, again, it doesnt take into consideration any discounts.
Motorists who require comfort and practicality, but dont think of their cars as another toy to play with, may find the Buick a nice alternative to the rest of the family-car fare.