Buick Rainier expands SUV line-up – nicely

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2004 Buick Rainier was a constant companion and superb helpmate during an activity-filled week that included a 120-mile round trip to the airport, a 160-mile jaunt to pick up a family member and a glorious outdoor wedding.

But all that companionship came after we were forced to resolve a problem with the Rainier that was just 500 miles old when we took possession. Fortunately, the bugaboo reared its ugly head and was fixed a couple days before the ceremony-filled weekend.
We’ll have more on that problem later.

In the final analysis we found the Rainier, General Motors’ newest variant of the TrailBlazer, Envoy, Bravada collection, a mid-sized entry luxury sport utility vehicle worthy of consideration and sure to be a valuable addition to the aging Buick lineup.

The Rainier is the first truck-based sport utility in Buick’s illustrious 100-year history making it one of the last brands in the U.S. to gain a true SUV in a world filled with SUVs. Technically, we suppose, Buick joined the SUV ranks a couple of years ago with the Rendezvous, a front-drive minivan-based cross-over vehicle.

As expected of a Buick, the Rainier offers a quiet, well-appointed interior, a comfortable ride, room for five adults and a lusty V-8 engine. However, don’t count on this Buick to do serious off-road duties. That must be left for its cousin, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer. But with its truck underpinnings, it’s a cut above the Rendezvous when it comes to back-road driving and towing the family boat.

Towing capacities range from 6,100 pounds for the inline 6-cylinder version to 6,700 pounds for the 2-wheel drive V-8.

The Rainier can be purchased with full-time all-wheel drive, but is not available with a two-speed transfer case with low-range gearing for rugged off-road driving. The Rainier uses GM’s 50-50 power split system with a viscous limited-slip differential. That configuration will be a blessing on nasty winter roads.

The Rainier is the only member of the GM mid-sized sport utility stable with the V-8 available in the short-wheelbase version. The V-8 can be purchased only in the extended wheelbase models of the TrailBlazer and the GMC Envoy. Note, since the Rainier will, at least at the outset, be offered only in the short wheelbase configuration it will not have a third-seat option.

But the smaller Rainier derives excellent performance from the 290-horsepower 5.3-liter V-8, a $1,500 option, and few sport utilities will leave the Rainier in the dust at the stoplight. It has been timed at 7.6 seconds from 0 to 60. This off-the-line power is also readily available when it comes to passing and merging.

The extra power was particularly helpful on a race from the country club back to town to pick up some forgotten items in the last frantic hour before the wedding ceremony.
Buick, by the way, will not pay for speeding tickets. Fortunately, no citations were collected.

Speeding tickets were not a problem on our first day with the Rainier. On a trip to an out-of-town golf course, the engine all but shut down, leaving us in a sort of ‘limp home” mode.

The good news is the Buick didn’t leave us by the side of the road. The bad news is it was nearly disabled with 515 miles on the odometer and left us to endure people shaking their fists and offering hand signals as we eased from stoplight to stoplight at 5 mph. With an open road, we managed to achieve 45 mph with the ‘limping’ engine.

A visit to the Buick dealership early the next morning provided a quick fix. The computer was reset and we were on our way to a weekend of wedding activities with power restored.

What caused the shutdown? That’s a question with no clear answer.

The Rainier gains the Buick family resemblance with an unmistakable waterfall grille. From the side, the SUV has a sleek appearance, much like the Oldsmobile Bravada, which is being discontinued along with the rest of the Olds lineup.

We were of the opinion a couple years ago that the Oldsmobile was the most handsome of the GM siblings. The Buick now owns that distinction.

Inside, the Buick is well appointed with leather and wood. The gauges are handsome and the switchgear falls into the easy-to-use category. There is a problem if you opt up for the navigation system – you can’t play CDs while the nav system is in operation. The reason is the CD player in the dash is needed for the navigation DVD disc.

And even if you don’t use the navigation system, you can only load one CD into the sound system. The six-CD changer is not available in combination with navigation.

Although the Rainier has only five-passenger capacity, those passengers will find good leg and hip room in both the front and back seats. When there are no passengers, the rear seats fold down flat without the necessity of removing the headrests to create 80 cubic feet of cargo space, where every bit of it was needed over the weekend to transport wedding presents back to the newly-weds’ apartment.

There are numerous options available, but the Rainier comes loaded to the fenders with leather seating; wood trim; 17-inch alloy wheels; power seats, windows and doorlocks; dual-zone climate control; antilock brakes; remote keyless entry; and 4-speed automatic transmission.

The Rainier comes in two trim levels, CXL and CXL Plus. Both trim levels can be outfitted with 2-wheel or 4-wheel drive.

The standard engine is GM’s 275-horsepower 4.2-liter inline 6 cylinder, no slouch in its own right. It’s the same engine found as standard equipment in the TrailBlazer and Envoy and should meet the needs of most drivers. Base price is $35,945 ranging up to $38,945 for a 4-wheel drive CXL Plus model.

Our CXL Plus test vehicle included several options including the V-8 engine, navigation system, rear entertainment DVD, side impact airbags, chrome assist steps and heated front seats. That brought the bottom line to $44,705.

It doesn’t take a Criswell to predict the Rainier will be a successful addition to the Buick lineup. SUV’s seem to be like magic elixirs for brands in need of help. Plus there must be a large number of loyal Buick owners who may want to join the growing ranks of sport utility drivers, but who have been averse to deserting the Buick nameplate. It worked for Porsche, it can work for Buick.