First Drive: 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist Prototype

The Buick LaCrosse has become a strong seller for Buick since its 2009 redesign, but that hasn’t prevented Buick from making continous improvements. For 2012 comes the biggest change yet – a new fuel saving technology called eAssist. Having driven a preproduction model, we can say the gains are well worth the effort.

The eAssist technology is, in essence, what some call a mild hybrid, but GM doesn’t call it a hybrid at all. You won’t see a single identifying badge on the car, and it won’t be offered in any sort of green trim package. Buy a four-cylinder 2012 LaCrosse, and you get a 25 percent improvement in fuel economy from last year’s mode, to an estimated 25 mpg city, 37 mpg highway. You’re welcome.

OK, this isn’t mere magnanimity on the part of the General. In truth, the company already tried to market this technology as a hybrid when it was offered in more primitive form on the Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura. They were given shiny green “H” badges and touted as competitors to the likes of the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion Hybrids. Consumers didn’t buy them -– literally or figuratively -- leading to their cancellation in 2009.

To GM’s credit, though, it didn’t simply give up on the technology. The eAssist system operates in the same basic way as the old Belt Alternator Starter hybrids: an electric motor/generator driven by the accessory belt captures energy from regenerative braking, which in turn powers accessories, assists during acceleration, and restarts the gas engine after stops. However, every component has evolved dramatically. The most obvious improvement is in the batteries, which are now lithium-ion rather than nickel-metal hydride and power a significantly beefier, 15-kilowatt motor. Engineers also credit several “enablers,” including a new six-speed automatic transmission that’s light-years ahead of the old system’s four-speed, and direct fuel injection, which allows the car’s computers to control ignition with much greater precision than before.

As noted, there are no badges on the LaCrosse to extol its green virtues, but close observers (really close observers) will spot a much more important exterior tweak in the lower front grille. It now has a plastic slat that opens or closes depending on vehicle speed and engine temperature to minimize drag. That’s right, active aerodynamics. On a Buick. Additional tweaks include underbody panels to further reduce drag and low rolling resistance seventeen-inch tires. The LaCrosse also went on a significant diet such that it only weighs about 10 pounds more than last year’s model despite carrying a 65-pound battery pack behind its rear seats.

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