Believe it or not, this is a Buick

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by By TOM VOELK / Special to KING5.com

NWCN.com

Posted on July 23, 2009 at 12:11 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: See the new Buick

The folks at Buick know what you think of their cars. To save your time and mine I'm not even going to run down the list of geriatric adjectives. 

Once upon a time Buick was known as "the doctor's car", the kind of ride that provided luxury, image and value.  Unlike a Caddy, it didn't cause patients to scowl when the bill came in the mail. Today both my GP and dentist drive Subarus. Go figure.  

I have nothing against older people, I hope to be one someday.  Automotive marketers think differently though.  Buick's average demographic was 70 plus a few years back.  Selling a person their last vehicle doesn't exactly build a strong brand, so the folks at GM set out to lower that age a decade or two.  Their first success came with the swoopy Enclave crossover.  Dropping the demo by over 20 years is a huge accomplishment.  Stats show that owners are parking them along side Acura TLs and Lexus ES350s.    

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Now comes the hard part- kicking those import sedans out of the garage.

If you haven't seen the 2010 LaCrosse the thought of a Buick replacing an Acura or Lexus seems, well foreign.  GM has promised these kinds of products before and largely failed to deliver.  This time the light at the end of the tunnel doesn't appear to be a train headlamp. 

Lately, The General has delivered solid desirable vehicles with Malibu, Camaro, Equinox, CTS, SRX, G8, and the large crossovers that include Traverse and Enclave.   

I've spent a full day with the Brave New Buick at a press launch near Detroit.  I walk away from LaCrosse impressed and turn to admire the sheetmetal when I do so.  

Why did GM save Buick?

Wish I had a buck for every time this question gets asked.  The biggest reason is China.   In the land best known for the Great Wall and toys slathered with lead paint, Buick is huge.  Apparently this brand is Levi's, baseball, and Hollywood rolled into one great big hot dog bun and washed down with a Coke.  Pure Americana.  Back in the 30s, A-list celebs like Dr. Sun Yat-sen (China's first provisional president), Zhou Enlai (China's premier) and Pu Yi (the last emperor of China) were big on Buick.  Not exactly Katherine Heigl but I'm sure they were hot in the day.  Fortunately for GM the royalty image endured.

Let's not forget that the New General Motors has just 4 core brands now and moving up the ladder to Cadillac from a Chevy might be too big a step for many loyal GM buyers.  Buick gives them a rung to rest on while they save their sheckles.

Oh the irony.

The Chinese who work for GM had a big part in designing LaCrosse, perhaps helping to save the American icon they embrace.   Team China designed the entire interior and some of the exterior.  The cabin is a great space. Not Michigan, not Szechwan but an attractive place the whole world can enjoy.  The sweeping instrument panel is covered with cut and sewn leather-like material similar to Cadillac.  It rakes away from the driver making the deep seating position more spacious.  On CXS models, cool blue lighting strakes the dash, center console and door pulls for an especially dramatic look at night.  This is a Buick?  Believe it.   Materials and fit and finish are quite nice, even on the preproduction cars we're driving.

Driven around the world, every day

Not all the work was done in the shadow of Terracotta warriors.  GM talks about the car being in continuous development 24/7.  When the folks in the Far East put down their computer mice, engineers in Europe started their day designing the suspension and all new Epsilon II chassis.  And as they were heading out the door for an evening Heineken, the Yanks were pulling into the parking lot with their Starbucks.   Americans did some exterior styling and integrated everything together.   The whole thing will be bolted together at the well regarded Fairfax plant in Kansas City.

A note on the sheetmetal- Buick is bringing back the "sweepspear"p element last seen in the 70s.  It's the crease that starts at the headlamp (optional adaptive HID if you prefer), dips down near the back door's handle, then swoops up to meet the tail lamp.  That line has no beginning and end since it starts and ends in the ellipse of the two light sources.   CX, CXL, and CXS exteriors look very similar.  Mostly we're talking wheel size and whether they're clad in chrome.  Neighbors won't know if you cheaped out and bought the base model.

Keeping up with the Wongs

Buick keeps comparing LaCrosse to Lexus ES350 and Acura TL, so I will do the same.  Driving dynamics slot right in between them.   Certainly sportier than the softly sprung Lexus but less harsh than the Acura, you can almost hear Goldilocks tuck into a hard turn and say "just right".    Comfortable and that overused term "library quiet" are expected from a Buick.  Controlled ride?  That's a new one.  At speeds that I'm not going to admit to, wind flows over LaCrosse with little more than a whisper.  This could be a great road trip machine. 

Touring Package equipped cars get a suspension with continuously variable real time damping that adjusts during hard cornering, keeping it as flat as the province of Jiangsu.  Who am I kidding?  I did lousy in geography.  Better be sure and compare body roll to the slightly undulating grades of Iowa.  Yes, there's noticeable understeer when hurried into a tight bend but it's doubtful even doctors rushing to a house call will drive LaCrosse as hard as I have.

Power to the people

Power in the CXS comes from a 3.6-liter direct injected V6 that smoothly produces 280 horsepower. CX and CXL models get a 3.0-liter 255 horse unit.  For the fuel economy crowd, GMs 2.4-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder that makes 182-hp  lb-ft. will find a home under the hood soon.  Transmissions are 6-speed automatics with a separate sport mode achieved by shoving the shift lever to the left.  Doing that alters the shift points and increases steering effort by 10 percent.   Manual gear changes are done with the console shift lever, there are no steering wheel paddle shifters. 

Shove the throttle to the floor and like the other front drive competition there's a little torque steer (that tugging of the steering wheel).  In a CXS 0-60 happens in the brisk mid-7 second range, a tick slower than ES and TL.   Since this is a preview, fuel economy is estimated by GM at 17 city, 27 highway.  The EPA needs to get its butt in gear before these can go on sale.

I briefly drove an AWD LaCrosse that's only available as a CXL with the 3.0L engine.  It's noticeably slower than the 3.6L meaning you will be slayed by an Acura TL packing Super Handling All-Wheel Drive.  Do NOT race one for pinks.  I can only imagine the fury of the Ecotec 4-cylinder

A guy's ultimate test 

All players in this class have technology.  Not all of them make it easy to use.  LaCrosse passes the "man test" which means a guy (or even a gal) can pair a Bluetooth phone, use the nav and tune a radio station easily without consulting the manual.   At $33,815, CXS comes standard with Bluetooth for phone, heated steering wheel, heated and cooled leather seats, 120V outlet, premium harmon/kardon sound with XM tuner and keyless ignition.   Shift into reverse and the standard rear sunshade automatically retracts for a better view. 

Throw in an excellent nav system with back up cam ($1,995), panoramic sunroof ($995) HID headlamps $695) and various other options and the as-tested price rises to $39,325.  A blind spot detection system that signals with a light in the side mirrors can be had as well.  All LaCrosse models get an electronic parking brake, and OnStar with a year of service including a downloadable audible direction service that works great.  A plus, the instructions also appear between the speedo and tech gauges.

The navigation system is both touch screen and knob operated satisfying both kinds of users.  The center stack is coming close to the blizzard of buttons found in a TL but backs off before getting too busy. 

If you prefer to be driven   

Being a Buick you'd expect a large comfy back seat.  Since this space is important to Chinese Buick owners, many who are chauffeured, it's a priority for LaCrosse.  3 average adults should be perfectly comfortable.  Foot and legroom is not a problem here.  Unlike TL, the LaCrosse middle position is usable by a grown up.   Unexpected touches back here?  The seats are Euro firm and there are side torso air bags to supplement the 6 other bags.  These rear side units are a $350 option but at least they're available.  Besides, some people for whatever reason don't want more airbags.

A few gripes    

The stylish low-profile roofline reduces visibility.  I find the windshield and mid-side pillars (known to designers as the A and B pillars) to be on the thick side.   Some of the press gathered here have asked if the wood trim is tree or petroleum based.  Brows furrow when told it is plastic.  Hmmmm.  Really though, if you have to ask

Finally there's the trunk.  Gooseneck hinge arms intrude into the cargo area.  Scissor hinges would have freed up a lot of space here.  Curves and undulations hurt it too.  No TP trunk test this week.  I'm in Detroit and my bath tissue supply is 1,900 frequent flyer miles away.  Ultimately the deep space rates average in capacity if you're loading boxes and golf clubs.  Thankfully 60/40 split seatbacks give a guy some options.

Available to the masses 

GM is making the good looking LaCrosse available to a wide range of income brackets.  With destination, a base CX goes for $27,800.  Mid-range CXLs that add leather start at $30,395 (AWD starts at $32,570).  CXS begins at $33,765 and many people would be happy here with no additional options.  Loaded up, a CXS is genuine competition, under cutting a somewhat equally equipped ES350 by a few grand.  Keep the Toyota Avalon and new 2010 Taurus in mind too. 

Can distinctive looks, a handsome interior and competitive pricing be enough to lure buyers away from their import brands?  That's a tricky proposition to be sure.  Buick knows their transformation won't happen overnight and the current marketing leaves something to be desired.  Between what's happened with GM lately and Buick's historically stodgy image, there's a bit of baggage to be hauled here.  But they'll happily throw out the fact that they ousted Lexus from the coveted #1 slot they dominated in the J. D. Powers Long Term Dependability study for 2009.   They're working on those ads too. 

GM executives Jim Federico and David McIntyre who are on hand at the event insist that starting with LaCrosse, Buicks won't be just competitive, they'll be world class.  Brands have been turned around before, just look at Hyundai.  LaCrosse is a nice piece of work, as dramatic as the outgoing car was dull.  If they can keep it up, Buick may once again be as popular in America as it is in China today. 

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