A compelling case for keeping tradition alive and up to date – CNET

Posted: Saturday, August 06, 2016

After decades of stagnation, Buick has quietly become the globe’s fastest-growing large automotive brand. A lot of the credit goes to long-term success in China, but as of late, the TriShield has been doing remarkably well in North America, too. Sales are up over 20 percent in the first half of 2016, and after a couple of quiet years, Buick has a slew of new models poised to continue the momentum.

Everything’s coming up Milhouse, right?

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Buick’s new wing grille looks great.


Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Well, sort of. Like a lot of the industry right now, Buick’s sales strength is powered by crossover SUVs. Its subcompact Encore is a surprise runaway success, having cleared a half-million sales worldwide in just 3.5 years. Its aging three-row Enclave is still selling in strong numbers, and its brand-new Envision compact CUV has just entered the industry’s fastest-growing segment.

But Buick’s sedan sales — the type of car this brand is traditionally known for — are going nowhere. For 2016, prices of the slow-selling Regal midsizer were slashed, and in May, it was reported that the marque’s compact Verano will be shown the door after just one generation. The Cascada convertible is finding early success, but the message is clear: Today’s Buick is an SUV company that happens to sell some cars on the side. Against that backdrop, the new 2017 LaCrosse full-size sedan appears to have its work cut out for it.

Good thing it’s a really nice car.

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Big but beautiful, this new LaCrosse stretches 197.5 inches.


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Buick chose to launch the third-generation LaCrosse in Portland, Oregon, exactly the sort of trendsetting, youthful market it’s hoping to make greater inroads in. While it’s admittedly unlikely that free-range, organic hipsters will fall for a large, near-luxury four door (let alone have the mean to purchase one), the point is clear: Buick is intent on changing age-old perceptions, and it’s been notching some considerable successes.

The third-generation LaCrosse enters a shrinking full-size sedan segment, but it does so with an arsenal of attributes that should help stem the sales tide at the very least. Riding atop an all-new platform that’s at once longer, wider, lower and stiffer than before, this new Buick is also some 300 pounds lighter. That’s roughly 10 percent of old car’s mass, or as chief vehicle engineer Jeff Yanssens puts it, that’s a Sears-Kenmore side-by-side refrigerator’s worth of heft.

Better still, the LaCrosse’s svelte new curb weight is cloaked in genuinely attractive sheet metal. Ever since the model was shown at the Los Angeles Auto Show in late 2015, I’ve been seeing prototypes and early-built cars plying Detroit’s roads, and I’m still not tired of looking at it. It’s a striking design from all angles. The new wing-form grille element arrives courtesy of Buick’s Avenir and Avista and concept cars, and a split-line riff on the brand’s trademark Sweep Spear bodyside contour lends this front- or all-wheel-drive sedan a set of rear-wheel-drive-like haunches.

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Clear ergonomics are complemented by rich materials and plenty of stitching.


Chris Paukert/Roadshow

A glance at the spec sheet reveals a 3.6-liter V-6, same as in the last generation. But this 310-horsepower, 282-pound-feet of torque engine is wholly different, having been revamped from the ground up for a new stop-start system. It’s perhaps the best such system I’ve ever sampled, almost imperceptibly extinguishing the engine at stops and quickly refiring when pulling away. It works so well that it’s the first such implementation that hasn’t left me annoyed with General Motors for omitting a defeat button (something that virtually every other automaker includes). I recently sampled the same LGX-family engine in the new Cadillac XT5 crossover, and it was only slightly less refined, but I still wanted one.

The new V-6 is a pleasingly silent partner on the move, too. As a brand, Buick’s sole unique selling proposition has long been its QuietTuning process, a cover/block/absorb strategy to blot out the surrounding world. It’s realized here in spades, and not just by obvious means like more aerodynamic bodywork, additional sound-deadening foams and acoustic laminated windshields. Active noise-cancellation is standard, and even the costly five-link rear suspension transmits fewer load vibrations than the old H-arm setup (the fiddly electronic gearshift lever does the same, as there’s no mechanical connection to the gearbox).

I did notice some tire noise at points along the drive, but much of Portland’s road network is composed of surprisingly coarse aggregate, upon which everything rides noisily. The LaCrosse is very likely the quietest car in an already-hushed class.

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This 3.6-liter V-6 has cylinder deactivation and arguably the industry’s best stop/start system.


Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Given its elderly buyer demographic, you might expect the LaCrosse to lurch off the line with all the rapidity of the Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi that I’m typing this story on, but it actually gets out of its own way in something of a hurry. I’d estimate 0 to 60 mph in a little over 6 seconds, and power is administered without fuss. The new eight-speed transmission is well behaved, even on more technical roads, and there are now paddle shifters for moments when you want to be a bit more involved, or invoke additional engine braking on steep hills.

This engine also has cylinder deactivation to save fuel, with EPA estimates calling for 21 miles per gallon in the city, 31 on the highway, and 25 mpg combined, numbers that better the Nissan and tie the (non-hybrid) Lexus. Opting for all-wheel drive adds a bit more weight and mechanical drag, so economy dips to 20/29/23.

Steering is predictably on the lighter side (but not distractingly so) and accuracy is fine. Pushing well beyond the pace that most LaCrosse buyers will ever drive reveals a chassis that’s rigid and more willing to play on winding, hilly roads than you might think.

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Optional 20-inch wheels yield better handling, but may not be the best choice.


Chris Paukert/Roadshow

I sampled two test vehicles, one with 18-inch wheels and passive suspension, and the other an up-level model featuring HiPer Strut front suspension with computer-controlled dampers and 20-inch wheels. HiPer Strut’s geometry helps to improve steering feel and, most importantly, purge torque steer — that skittishness and wriggling you feel when tromping on the accelerator in a front-wheel-drive car. Unfortunately, it comes at a cost penalty, it has a slightly stiffer ride, and weighs slightly more, too. For the way 99 percent of folks will drive their LaCrosse 99 percent of the time, the less-costly 18-inch setup is the way to go — torque steer isn’t really a problem in the base model, and the 20s don’t suddenly impart this car with sport-sedan-like athleticism.

With a car like this, it’s all about the interior comfort, so it’s nice to know that the new cabin is attractively styled and well-finished, with notably improved sightlines thanks to slimmer A-pillars (poor visibility was the no. 1 complaint among last-generation LaCrosse owners) and plenty of soft-touch materials in a range of color and trim choices.

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The 8-inch touchscreen includes special low-fingerprint glass.


Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Interior tech is not bleeding-edge stuff, but among rivals like the Lexus ES, Nissan Maxima, Hyundai Azera and Kia Cadenza, it qualifies as class leading. A snappy and intuitive 8-inch touchscreen is attractively housed in a bezel-free mount, and the latter features special low-fingerprint glass that works as advertised. All models come standard with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Onstar 4G LTE with Wi-Fi hotspot. There’s an app store for things like audio book readers, too.

General Motors’ thoughtful Teen Driver electronic chaperone is also fitted to every LaCrosse, meaning parents can do things like limit top speed, reduce radio volume, and view password-protected “report cards” on how and where their offspring has been driving.

Cabin demerits? They’re mostly found in the rear seat. While there are air vents back there, even on high-spec models, there’s no optional zone controls, nor are there available rear-seat USB ports or seat heaters.

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Big sedan sales are still slipping, but LaCrosse proves there’s plenty of life left in the genre.


Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Advanced driver-assistance safety minders are present and accounted for, although many such features are only available on higher-end models. The base LaCrosse starts at $33,000 (plus $925 for freight), but even if you only want blind-spot assist and rear-cross-traffic alert added to the standard backup camera, you’ll have to jump to the $39,600 Essence trim and then pony up a further $445 for an option pack. If you want features like forward-collision alert and GM’s nifty haptic-feedback Safety Alert Seat, you’re looking at the $42,000 Premium model. In order to get adaptive cruise control, front auto-braking with pedestrian detection and self-park technology, you’ll still have to spend a further $1,700.

It’s disappointing that increasingly common safety features like auto-brake are available only on fully-loaded models. Likewise, all-wheel drive is exclusively found in the top-shelf Premium trim. Despite this unfortunate equipment bundling strategy, the LaCrosse still manages to feel like a lot of car for the money, especially entry-level models, which are nicely equipped.

GM’s new LaCrosse has all the hallmarks of a winning traditional full-size sedan: Attractive styling, a posh cabin, ample power and a coddling, whisper-quiet ride. Of course, it’d be a tall order to ask it to single-handedly resuscitate Buick’s sedan sales (even if we weren’t in a crossover-crazy market), but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a damn fine four-door.

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