New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2010 Buick LaCrosse I-4

Buick’s latest LaCrosse is one of the new General Motors’ best success stories. Sales of the nameplate have increased dramatically, and more than one-third of all buyers are new to the General Motors family. Better yet, transaction prices are up by a whopping $8500, despite the fact that sticker prices haven’t significantly increased.

In the days of the old GM, we wouldn’t expect much in the way of changes so soon – the LaCrosse debuted in June 2009 – but the born-again automaker seems to think there’s always room for improvement. The first major addition, a four-cylinder engine, is already in production.

Hello, Ecotec; So Long, Three-Point-Oh

When the LaCrossed first appeared, buyers had two engine choices. A direct-injection 3.0-liter V-6 served as the base engine in both the high-volume CX and CXL models, while the direct-injection 3.6-liter V-6 – used in the likes of the Cadillac CTS and STS – was offered only in top-spec CXS trim.

For 2010, Buick is catering to customers looking for better fuel economy by adding the direct-injection 2.4-liter Ecotec I-4 to the portfolio. This engine launched late last year in the Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain crossover, and the specifications are identical. The engine is rated at 182 horsepower at 6700 rpm, and a respectable 172 pound-feet of torque at 4700 rpm. A six-speed automatic is standard, and routes power to the front wheels.

The four-cylinder does give up a significant amount of power compared to the 3.0-liter’s 255 horsepower, but there are offsetting fuel economy gains. According to the EPA, the 2.4-liter LaCrosse returns 19 mpg in the city and 30 mpg in highway driving – a considerable improvement over the 3.0-liter car’s 17/26 mpg ratings.

For the 2010 model year, the Ecotec is only offered on the CX trim line, but Buick plans on expanding its availability. Come 2011, the 3.0-liter V-6 will be dropped, and the I-4 will serve as the standard engine on both the CX and the CXL. The 3.6-liter V-6 will be available on both the CXL and the CXS, and can be paired with all-wheel drive on either model.

The Structure Remains The Same

Although LaCrosse CXL models will receive some chassis improvements later this year, the four-cylinder CX receives no major updates outside of its engine compartment. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. GM’s Epsilon II platform lends the car a stiff, solid foundation, helping the LaCrosse avoid the wallowing ride traditionally associated with large Buicks.

Buyers won’t have to sacrifice much style or substance by opting for the four-cylinder. The CX largely resembles its upscale siblings, although there are a few key differences to set it apart from a CXL or CXS. Leather isn’t available, nor is a navigation system or fog lamps. Virtually every other upgrade, however – i.e. 17-inch aluminum wheels, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth phone pairing, a remote starter, and a Harmon/Kardon sound system – remains optional.

Behind the Wheel

Like its siblings, the four-cylinder LaCrosse is incredibly quiet. Buick’s hallmark “QuietTune” insulation package surely helps, but so to does the performance of the engine itself. The Ecotec isn’t thrashy when pushed hard, and is virtually silent when maintaining a given speed. Power is adequate for the car, but those desiring something sportier should go for a CXS.

We were impressed with the refinements GM has given its six-speed automatic. Early examples would occasionally deliver a harsh shift, but the gearbox in our test car was impeccably smooth. Gas misers will appreciate the transmission’s tendency to quickly work its way into higher gears to maximize fuel economy, but those who want a little more fun aren’t forgotten – both a “sport shift” algorithm and manual shift controls allow drivers to use more of the rev band.

Although a far cry from the stereotypical floaty Buick ride, the LaCrosse CX’s suspension tuning is somewhat softer than that in the CXL and CXS models. It’s not ready for the Nurburgring, but it did a good job controlling body motions over the winding country roads we drove in northern Virginia. Our only complaints lie with the feel of the brake pedal and the electric power steering – we think Buick engineers can easily add a little more weight to both.

CX versus CXL?

Buick says the four-cylinder will account for roughly 25 percent of all LaCrosse production, and we think that’s a safe estimate. The 2.4-liter delivers reasonable power and impressive fuel economy, the latter being an increasingly important factor in today’s midsize luxury segment.

We’re more interested, however, in how sales will split between the four-cylinder CX and CXL models. Buick is keen to offer the Ecotec to customers who desire the features associated with the CXL trim level, but unless you must have navigation or leather seating, there’s no reason to wait for the 2011 CXL to reach dealers.

On that note, 2010 LaCrosse CX 2.4 models are already rolling off the assembly line in Fairfax, Kansas. Base price for the four-cylinder model is $26,995 (including $750 in destination fees), but with every available factory-installed option, that figure can rise to $28,995.

Buying Guide
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19 City / 30 Hwy

Safety (IIHS):

Best Pick

Horse Power:

182 @ 6700