As I pull out of the hotel in downtown Portland headed north toward our midpoint in Astoria, Oregon, the jingle from Buick’s cheeky “That’s a Buick?” ad campaign starts playing on a loop in my head.
Are the tatted-up hipsters and chic urban dwellers I’m passing doing a double take as I roll by in Buick’s all-new 2017 LaCrosse full-size sedan? I don’t notice any neck snapping nor head-scratching at the mere sight of it, but that’s clearly what Buick hopes for—that its commercials portraying people in disbelief over the company’s new look will play out in real life.
The Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly a part of the country where boatloads of Buicks roam, especially big sedans like the LaCrosse. But Buick is on the hunt for new buyers outside of its core demographic and traditional sales comfort zones. Whether it can acquire those customers is anybody’s guess, but everyone associated with the brand is upbeat at the prospect. They have recent successes to point to, specifically that some 50 percent of new Buick buyers are coming from outside the General Motors universe.
Acquiring customers in China, where the majority of Buicks are sold, isn’t as much of an issue. Buick’s extensive history in the country certainly didn’t hurt its cause when GM decided which brands to shutter after its bankruptcy. Jeff Yanssens, the LaCrosse chief engineer who has been to China dozens of times to work with Buick’s operations there, expects the new car to sell about the same as the outgoing one does, at about a 3-to-1 ratio between China and North America. The LaCrosse is Buick’s third-best seller internationally, trailing its two newest crossovers, the compact Encore and the midsize Envision, the latter of which caused a bit of a stir (at least within the UAW) when it was announced it would be built in China and exported here.
So the news out of China is good for Buick. All things considered, things aren’t bad on the home front either. Total sales through July 2016 are flat (best among GM brands), and that’s with the LaCrosse about to change over and the full-size Enclave crossover overdue for a makeover. Buick outsells Acura, Infiniti, and Lincoln in the U.S. As is the case in China, the Encore is Buick’s best-seller in America, with sales up 16 percent year on year. And there’s more new product on the way, with Buick saying it will debut seven all-new or significantly revised vehicles by 2018.
The latest vehicle in the Buick product assault is the new LaCrosse, aimed primarily at the Lexus ES. Yanssens made it clear at the outset of the drive that it isn’t a sport sedan and isn’t trying to be. But the key development everyone wearing a gray Buick shirt pointed to is the LaCrosse’s new five-link rear suspension, which is fitted to every flavor of the car, from the base, 18-inch wheel/front-drive package to the sportier, 20-inch wheel/all-wheel-drive model complete with continuous damping control.
The setup gave Buick’s engineering team some flexibility to dial in a modicum of handling prowess. “The benefits of the five-link are huge. It’s done a lot for this car. It helps the car turn-in, it helps on impacts, it helps rolling over bumps,” Yanssens says. Judging by my drive, the man speaks the truth.
It’s a slightly more sporty approach than before, augmenting the LaCrosse’s “quiet tuning” and ride-comfort elements that were already in a good place and are even better with the new model. There is one powertrain, a version of GM’s new-generation 3.6-liter V-6 with 310 horsepower, mated to an eight-speed automatic. While GM will offer 2.0-liter and 1.5-liter turbo versions of the car in China, Yanssens said those engines don’t make sense here and one package allowed the team to focus on perfecting it for the car.
Then there’s the LaCrosse’s exterior style, featuring multiple elements of the Buick Avenir concept from 2015, a design our own Robert Cumberford called “a near-perfect expression of the traditional American car.” It’s a handsome, lower, wider look with signature elements, including the winged, harp-like grille with Buick’s prominent red, white, and blue logo (although I’m over the faux portholes). We’ll take it over the Predator-look grille of the Lexus ES.
While I was impressed with the LaCrosse, I’m not so sure most Portland area residents will be down with it. But chances are they’re giving Buick’s vehicles, especially its crossovers, more than a passing glance, and this bodes well for its future products. That is, if they realize they’re looking at a Buick.