Sometimes the hardest part about marketing and selling a new car is changing how people feel when they hear the name of a brand with negative preconceptions. Remember when the name Hyundai was almost synonymous with “cheap”? In recent years, new Hyundai models have gone a long way toward erasing that perception.
For Buick, the image that they’d like to change is that they only build old-fashioned, rather stodgy cars. For a certain number of buyers, old-fashioned and stodgy is okay. But the real money in the premium car business is in cars that are modern, refreshing and even a little bit exciting.
The change began with the introduction last year of the Enclave crossover SUV, a capable and rather stylish family vehicle that competes well with other brands in the rapidly growing three-row crossover segment. Room for up to seven family members, but without the dismal fuel economy of old school sport utility vehicles. The Enclave is rapidly becoming a popular choice and is helping Buick become a brand for younger buyers.
Next up in the revamping of Buick is the LaCrosse sedan, which is all new from the ground up and makes a handsome showroom mate for the Enclave. The look is bold, and a little chunky, but it definitely stands out. Some say it bears a slight resemblance to certain Lexus models, but GM insists that the shape of the car is full of Buick’s new design DNA.
Part of the challenge in styling a car these days is honing its shape in order to comply with increasing federal regulations for all sorts of things, from fuel economy standards to crash protection. So while some don’t like the fact that the rear of the car seems to sit a little high, that’s essentially the look of most sedans today, mainly due to packaging efficiency and aerodynamic necessity.
Inside, the Lexus mimic continues to an extent. But there are also cues from other General Motors products, particularly the way the dash flows downward into the center console. At night, the interior is awash in a soft blue-green light thanks to some overhead LEDs, a recent trend in the industry. There’s also a thin accent light sweeping across the dash in a muted glow of the same hue.
The best surprise when I first drove the LaCrosse was how solid everything on the car felt. Not just a solid feel to the chassis when going down the road, but a quality feel to just about everything. Opening the driver’s door, there is a nice heft to it, and the outside handle feels well made. The inside handle felt just as solid when I exited.
So for fun, I started opening and closing everything, just to see if that quality feeling carried all through the car. To my delight, it did for the most part. The doors shut with a solid “thunk.” The trunk lid does as well, and that portal is usually a little tinny on cars like this. It was only when I tried the glove box that a less-than-stellar effort was discovered. The door for that felt just a little plasticky, but not unlike the one in most cars in the LaCrosse’s price range.
My test vehicle was the high-end CXS trim model, which meant it had the keyless pushbutton starting system. A quick tap of the button brought the 3.6 liter direct injection V6 to life in a smooth whirr. The CXS gets this 280 horsepower engine, whereas the CX and CXL get a smaller 3.0 liter V6. All LaCrosse models come with 6-speed automatic transmissions as standard.
While I don’t know how the base engine would do (horsepower is rated at a still impressive 255 on the 3.0 liter), the bigger engine provides ample power when accelerating onto a freeway or up a hill. Fuel economy ratings for the 3.0 liter and 3.6 liter engines are identical at 17 mpg city and 27 highway. All wheel drive is optional on the CXL with the smaller V6, and the ratings drop by one mile per gallon in that configuration.
The LaCrosse CXS also includes an active-damping suspension system that electronically adjusts the shock absorbers in milliseconds to better control the ride motions. I was quite pleased with the way the car felt on one of our notoriously wavy freeways. Buick sedans of the past tended to bob and dive continually on roads like this. The LaCrosse just feels planted and stable.
Base prices for the LaCrosse range from $27,835 for the CX to $33,765 for the up level CXS. Option packages are numerous, but my test car wasn’t fully loaded up (no sunroof or navigation system, for example) and came in at just over $34,000 thanks to its optional Red Jewel “tint coat” paint.
Buick is now on a roll, and they’ll be bringing out more new models in the coming years. (The larger Lucerne, only a couple of years old, now seems quite dated compared to the LaCrosse.) If what they’ve done so far is any indication, the name Buick is going to be thought of in a very positive light in the car market.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.