New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2010 Buick LaCrosse

With GM cutting its number of brands in half, those who remain in the General’s employ now have both the opportunity and the obligation to define their roles, build unique products, and sell lots of cars. As one of GM’s four surviving brands, Buick owes a debt of gratitude to the Chinese market, where it is considered a premium marque. In the United States, the brand urgently needs to develop a similar cachet, and the is an effort to do just that.

Younger skin for a younger Buick

Buick is making a conscious effort to attract younger buyers, and that shows in the new LaCrosse‘s styling. The grille is bolder, the headlights are more aggressive, and a strong character line on the sheetmetal sweeps along the profile. A high beltline and narrow glass reduce the visual height of the car to create a sportier stance. Chrome accents appear around the side glass, above the taillights, and on the door handles of some models. In all, it is an eye-catching new design, unexpected of Buick, that still doesn’t betray the brand’s image of comfortable luxury.

Interior by Asia

GM tapped its Chinese designers to treat the LaCrosse’s cabin. The result is tasteful design of swooping lines crafted from quality materials. The interior is accented with ambient lighting in the dash, center console, and doors that glows ice blue.

With a base price of $33,765, the top-of-the-line CXS comes with a well-equipped, luxurious cockpit. Interior appointments include leather, heated and ventilated front seats with eight-way power adjustment for both driver and passenger, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a heated steering wheel with audio controls.

Because many Chinese car owners won’t actually drive their Buicks (they’ll be chauffeured, of course), GM placed extra emphasis on the rear compartment design. Legroom is expansive, and the rear seats are comfortable. While many sedans make do with a flat, benchlike rear seat, the Buick offers supportive, bucketlike seats for two passengers with room for a third on the hump. An available rear-window sunscreen raises and lowers with the push of a button next to the gear selector. All LaCrosses feature a 12-volt plug in the rear of the center console; a 120-volt AC power outlet is also available.

What’s luxury without technology?

The high-end CXS comes with an extensive list of standard technology, including Bluetooth, keyless entry and ignition, an eleven-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system, a USB port, and the rear AC outlet. For $350, a head-up display shows speed, rpm, outside temperature, and a compass. When listening to satellite radio, song titles appear on the windshield as the song changes, and navigation directions show up as you approach a turn. Our test car came standard with rear parking sensors and was also equipped with the $1995 navigation system, which incorporates a rear backup camera. There’s also an available rear-seat DVD entertainment system with two screens mounted on the back of the front seats.

An engine for every driver

Buick will offer three engines in the LaCrosse, all using direct injection and mated to six-speed automatic transmissions. The top-tier CXS model comes with the 3.6-liter V-6 engine found in the and . In the LaCrosse, output is about 20 hp lower, rated at 280 hp and 259 lb-ft of torque. But unlike the Camaro and the CTS, power in the Buick is routed through the front wheels. That means there’s ample torque steer with spirited acceleration. In casual driving, the 3.6-liter is exceptionally refined, creating a smooth and authoritative driving experience.

The most popular engine will be the 3.0-liter V-6 found on the CX and CXL. It cedes some power to the larger-displacement V-6, with a rating of 255 hp and 217 lb-ft, but returns the same fuel economy at 17/27 mpg with front-wheel drive. The CXL with the 3.0-liter V-6 is the only LaCrosse model that will offer all-wheel drive, which knocks off 1 mpg from both the city and highway ratings.

Later in the year, Buick will add a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that will take the place of the 3.0-liter in the CX. Buick made a late decision to add the fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine to the LaCrosse lineup to meet rising fuel economy standards. Also found in the and crossovers, the engine makes 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. GM predicts about 25 percent of buyers will opt for the more fuel-efficient engine, and we hope they’re right. In order for GM to continue building performance-oriented models like the Camaro and the CTS-V, it’ll need to move a substantial number of fuel-sippers in other models. GM hasn’t yet certified the fuel economy of the smallest engine in the but is estimating it will achieve a 20/30 mpg rating.

Chassis by Europe

The LaCrosse rides on the Epsilon II platform that also underpins the European Opel Insignia. The front suspension setup uses MacPherson struts, and the rear uses a multilink design on the base CX trim and H-arms on the CXL and the CXS. Continuously variable dampers had been fitted to our test car with the $800 touring package. Disc brakes are standard on all four corners, as is antilock braking. On the base CX, seventeen-inch steel wheels with covers are standard, a decidedly downmarket offering on a $28,000 entry-luxury car. But eighteen-inch aluminum wheels are optional on the CX and standard on the higher trims. Nineteen-inch wheels are also available for the CXS.

Buick takes pride in the fact that the LaCrosse suspension was tuned in Europe, a land that is famed for turning out solid chassis that inspire confidence without sacrificing comfort. That focus is a stark change from Buick’s reputation for cars that float down highways like a piece of driftwood rising and falling in rolling waves. It’s certainly a welcome effort, but can a company so ingrained in comfort do athletic? And what about the risk of taking it too far? If grandma’s dentures fall out over a stretch of rough road, is it still a Buick?

The driving experience surprise

Grandma, it turns out, still has her dentures, and she’s grinning like a hooligan at a Buick that is more engaging than anything in recent brand history. The LaCrosse strikes the perfect balance of comfort and sport, with a ride that is never harsh and competent body control. It certainly isn’t the second coming of the Pontiac G8, but the LaCrosse surprises with its admirable handling ability.

The steering wheel is the one place where the LaCrosse let us down, its variable-effort steering feeling feather-light and numb. This is the last nagging reminder of the old Buick that we’d love to bury six feet under.

Comfort, of course, is still a big part of the package. The powertrain is silky, and the automatic transmission makes smooth gear shifts. Buick has done an excellent job of blocking out wind noise and unwanted powertrain sounds with laminated glass and insulation. But the absence of some noises draws attention to frequent knocks from the suspension when it encounters broken pavement. Still, the overall package of luxury comfort and capable hardware creates an identity that we would love to see throughout the Buick line up.

Buick’s brand new day

Set to go on sale in the fall of 2009, the entry-level CX model starts at $27,835; top-trim CXS models start at $33,765. The mid-level CXL begins at $30,395 for front-wheel drive and $32,570 for all-wheel drive. With a fresh design, a luxurious interior, and well-balanced driving dynamics, the certainly redefines our perceptions of what was once a brand we regularly looked right past. Not only does the LaCrosse prove that the crossover wasn’t just a one-time badge engineering triumph, the new midsize car trumpets the arrival of a newly reinvigorated brand.

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19 City / 30 Hwy

Safety (IIHS):

Best Pick

Horse Power:

182 @ 6700