LaCrosse leads new Buick entries

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Buick is undergoing a rather interesting transformation. The century-old General Motors’ division is replacing four popular sedans with two new ones.
For 2005, Buick has taken its two mid-sized sedans and combined them into one vehicle. Lucerne is the merger of Buick’s two large sedans, LeSabre and Park Avenue into a single car.

The first of this conversion effort is called the LaCrosse, which replaces the popular senior citizen’s Century and the family-oriented Regal. It’s now in showrooms. At first blush, this streamlining effort may seem like a good thing for Buick’s sagging fortunes.
Well, maybe and maybe not.
The LaCrosse may be too many things to too many people. That being said, the LaCrosse is definitely an improvement over both the Century and the Regal. The problem comes with Buick’s goal for the new sedan.

On the one hand, it seeks to keep its older, loyal buyers in the fold and away from such mid-sized stalwarts as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. On the other hand, it wants to attract those younger buyers who are now turning to the Acura TL, Infiniti G35 and Lexus ES 330 for an entry-level luxury sedan.

It seeks to accomplish this dual-personality goal through a three-model lineup. The base CL and the mid-level CXL offer many of the old Century properties including a soft ride and an old but reliable push-rod engine.
The top-of-the-line CXS comes with a sport-tuned suspension and a double-overhead cam 3.6-liter aluminum V-6 engine developing 240 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque.

We drove the CXL with the tried-and-true General Motors 3800 series V-6 generating 200 horsepower on a 400-plus-mile trip to Atlanta. Then we jumped into a CXS the next day for the trip back home.

We got a full seven-hour dose of both personalities.
The LaCrosse CXL should please Buick loyalists. It is a restyled version of the Century with a new and attractive dashboard layout and a Lexus-quiet interior. In fact, Buick benchmarked the Lexus ES 330 for quietness. And it succeeded.
Buick calls it a “Quiet Tuning” package. This new level of quietness is achieved by adding laminate to the windshield and side windows, using sandwich-construction panels known as “quiet steel,” adding a noise-suppressing engine cover, installing extra sound-deadening material throughout the cabin including dense carpeting with extra foam, and by using unique resonators and mufflers to reduce exhaust noise.

Buick is on to something here because there is nothing like a hushed interior to create the feeling of quality.
The LaCrosse carries on with a front-wheel drive system that has been part of the Buick lineup for decades. Although the suspension is slightly firmer than the Century, it retains a Buick feel. The suspension setup in both models eliminates much of the body roll usually found in a Buick. In this regard, the LaCrosse has made giant advancements over the Century and Regal, particularly in the CXS trim.

The LaCrosse has a modern exterior package mimicking the traditional Buick look with curvaceous lines, a vertical-slat grille and a rounded hood. Although the rear third of the car could be mistaken for something other than a Buick, the overall appearance is pleasant and will be instantly recognized as a Buick.
To gain something of a coupe-like look, the roof slopes steeply in back making it necessary to duck your head when entering through the rear doors. And if you are over six-feet, you may find your hair bushing the headliner in the rear. This is a textbook case of form over function.
The LaCrosse owner will get a well-designed dashboard with decent-quality materials. The black matte finish that surrounds the stereo and climate controls is pleasing to the eye.
While the controls are nicely designed, some of Buick’s older customers may be put off by their un-Buick-like small size.
We found the front seats comfortable for the long interstate highway trip. Our aging backs never complained.

The 3.8-liter engine mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission is a Buick staple. It provides adequate acceleration for all circumstances and should be pleasing enough for the buyers the CXL is aimed at.

The sportier CXS was more to our taste with its responsive 240-horsepower V-6 and sport-tuned suspension. Although the engine was mated to the same 4-speed transmission found in the CXL, it provided seamless shifts and didn’t detract from the performance.
Our seat-of-the-pants estimation was a 0 to 60 run of about 7.5 seconds. That’s not in the territory of some of the cars the CXS seeks to compete against, but still very respectable.
Adding to the upscale look of the CXS were 17-inch aluminum wheels as standard equipment.

Both models come with a fair amount of standard equipment including 4-wheel disc brakes, remote keyless entry, a stereo with six speakers and CD player, dual-zone climate control, power windows and locks, leather-appointed seating, driver information center, cruise control and power driver’s seat.

Buick calls the LaCrosse a “premium” mid-sized sedan. So using that terminology it seems inexplicable that the mid-level CXL with a base price of $25,995 would come without antilock brakes. They are a $600 option.

Even more glaring is the power driver’s seat, which lacks a power adjustable seatback. The rake of the seatback must be adjusted manually. Also, only the driver’s window has a one-touch down feature and none of the windows are one-touch up.

While a navigation system can be purchased in such family mid-size sedans as the Camry and Accord and in all the entry-level luxury sedans on the market, it is not available in the new Buick.
That seems like a glaring omission especially for a portion of Buick’s target audience who may be newly retired and ready to travel from sea to shining sea.

The upscale CXS comes exceedingly close to entry-level luxury price with a base of $28,995. Standard CXS equipment not found on the CXL includes Magnasteer variable-assist power steering, full-function traction control, stainless steel dual exhaust and 17-inch wheels.
Our test car came with several options including head curtain side impact airbags, StabiliTrak anti-skid system, remote vehicle start and XM Satellite radio. The bottom line was $32,750.

Overall, Buick has done a commendable job with its new mid-sized sedan. But Buick is perhaps trying to do too much with one model, and may lose the battle for the younger buyer.
A better plan might have been to split the sportier CXS off with its own styling package, adding a few tweaks such as a 5-speed automatic, more horsepower and an upscale sound system.
The CXL is going to reel in traditional Buick buyers, and the CXS may win a few over, as well. But the CXS will be challenged to win over people contemplating the comparably priced models from Acura, Infiniti, Lexus and Audi.

It is not impossible but Buick will have to work at it. In the meantime, it has a new sedan that is worthy of the Buick name. And it will keep many Century and Regal owners in a Buick when it comes time to trade.