Buick takes a competitive leap forward with 2006 Lucerne

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

People have joked for several years that the Toyota Avalon is the best Buick sold in America.

We’ve got an update. Stop the press for a bulletin - the all-new 2006 Buick Lucerne is now the best Buick sold between the Atlantic and the Pacific. It could be argued with conviction that it’s the best Buick ever built by Buick — or anyone else.

That’s high praise for the Lucerne because the Avalon, which was all-new last year, is a honey of a family-sized sedan. But the Lucerne has a healthy Northstar 4.6-liter V-8 engine that rivals the big Avalon V-6 and in our opinion beats it.

Buick has caught up to Toyota in interior fit, finish and materials. The Lucerne has a serene passenger compartment that will rival anything below the Lexus LS430 for quietness. It has more rear-seat leg and hip room than the Avalon. And the Buick is one of the most reliable makes in America according to recent J.D. Power and Associates surveys.

Before we get to the second verse of praise, it’s only fair to mention that the big Buick is still a victim of General Motors’ seeming inability to completely let go of the past and push its vehicles into the modern age of equipment.

For reasons only a GM executive could rationalize the Lucerne continues to soldier on with a four-speed automatic transmission while virtually all non-GM cars in this class are outfitted with 5-and 6-speed shifters. And it lacks such near-luxury standard amenities as full one-touch windows, a navigation system — navigation will soon be on the options list we are told — split fold-down rear seat, high intensity headlights and Bluetooth wireless capability.

But Buick for the most part got this car right. It’s a big advancement from the Park Avenue and LeSabre models that it replaces. And there is a wide range of base prices from $25,990 to $34,900 to seemingly fit all the budgets of Buick’s targeted customers.

But a caveat here: there is a substantial difference between the top-line V-8 and the base V-6 models. The 275-horsepower Northstar — the same V-8 engine found in the Cadillac DTS — can be purchased in CXL or sporty upscale CXS trim levels. To us, those two models represent the real essence of the Lucerne.

The tried-and-true 3800 Series V-6 developing 197 horsepower comes in the base CX and CXL trim levels. We will not try to dissuade you from buying the less expensive six-cylinder offerings. In addition to a more affordable starting price, it comes with better gas mileage ratings.

But the six somehow doesn’t resonate with the new Buick and the image General Motors is projecting for the Lucerne. The Northstar, on the other hand, is a perfect fit giving Buick the power of a V-8 for the first time since the mid-90s.

If you shop wisely, the CXL V-8 — carrying a base price of $29,990 including destination charge — can be purchased well equipped for a couple grand north of $30,000. That puts a neatly outfitted V-8 Buick in the same price range as the base Lexus ES330, the mid-level Avalon XLS and the Chrysler 300 V-8.

The top-of-the line CXS starts at $34,900 and gives the sedan more of a sporting demeanor with GM’s vaunted Magnetic Ride Control, StabiliTrak stability system and 18-inch wheels. The extra cash also brings a nine-speaker 280-watt Harman Kardon stereo system with XM satellite radio and driver’s seat memory.

Our test CLS trim level test car came with a myriad of standard equipment for $29,990 including front and rear head-curtain airbags, antilock brakes, traction control, rain-sensing windshield wipers, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control and power driver’s seat.

Extras on the test car included heated and cooled front seats, upgraded stereo, chrome-plated aluminum wheels, remote starting system and StabiliTrak bringing the bottom line to $34,595.

The V-6 models start at $25,990 and $27,990.

The Lucerne is built on the same platform as the big Cadillac DTS in the same Michigan plant. In fact, you could argue that the Lucerne with the Caddy V-8 under hood is a better Cadillac than the Cadillac for about seven grand less.

The Lucerne is a big car by today’s standards, about 4 inches shorter than its platform mate DTS, but 6.4 inches longer than the Chrysler 300 and 6 inches longer than the Avalon. Where the Lucerne shines is in stretch-out rear-seat leg room, thanks to a 115.6-inch wheelbase, 4 inches longer than the Avalon.

The Lucerne is handsome, but conservative. And while we aren’t against conservative styling, a bit more flash and dash would have really returned some fire to the Buick name. The waterfall grille sends the message that this is a Buick. It is flanked by large jeweled headlights. The body is clean but leans a bit too much toward a Camry look to suit our tastes.

But you can instantly tell that the Lucerne is not a big Camry by the traditional Buick portholes in the front fenders. Many readers may not remember, but Buick was known in the ’50s and ’60s for its ventiports — four for the top-of-the-line models and three for the base models. The new Buick brings back this styling curiosity with the V-8 models getting four and the V-6 models three.

The Northstar V-8 is a willing performer, surging ahead through nearly imperceptible shifts of the smooth 4-speed automatic. It will clean up a 0-to-60 run in about seven seconds with the hint of a V-8 growl. That’s not Chrysler Hemi territory, but satisfying performance none-the-less.

The interior is pleasantly clean, free of many of the controls that infect German cars. And the pieces all fit. There’s nothing out of line.

Three chrome-rimmed gauge clusters house the vital information needed by the driver. Large substantial-feeling knobs run the stereo volume and climate controls. Both the stereo and climate systems are easy to operate. No need to reference an owner’s manual.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the driving experience is the solitude of the interior. Move over Lexus, this is one very quiet car. Buick uses something called a QuietTuning program, which consists of tight body gap tolerances, laminated side glass, noise-reducing outside mirrors, lower profile windshield wiper blades, an isolated powertrain mounting system, multi-layer steel laminate in the dashboard/cowl stamping and composite nylon baffles in the roof pillars, rocker panels and cross-car structures.

Buick is replacing two cars with one. And sales show that it is on the right track beating the combined Park Avenue-LeSabre sales month after month.

We think Buick is definitely headed in the right direction with its new big car. Now for that five-speed transmission.