Driven: 2010 Buick LaCrosse
By Tom Martin
July 21, 2009
On several occasions during this bleak period for General Motors, we’ve pointed out that GM has the engineering talent to go toe-to-toe with other high-volume car manufacturers (we already know they can do trucks). Exhibit A is the Cadillac CTS. Now we have Exhibit B: the Buick LaCrosse.
Last week we had the opportunity to drive several versions of the LaCrosse over a variety of roads in southeastern Michigan. The LaCrosse offers three engines, a 3.6-liter V-6 with 280 horsepower, a 3.0-liter V-6 with 255 horsepower, and a 2.4-liter inline-four with 182 horsepower. Normally, these engines power the car through the front wheels, but an AWD system is optional with the 3.0-liter engine. We drove both V-6s and sampled FWD and AWD drivetrains.
We came away from this rather surprised. Frankly, we often look at GM’s top efforts and think "almost." Usually, the exterior looks great, but the interior is a letdown. Or the engine is great, but the transmission is clunky. Or the drivetrain is good, but the handling is insipid. The LaCrosse isn’t like that. There is essentially nothing significantly wrong with this car, if it is viewed through the eyes of the target customer. In other words, the LaCrosse is fully competitive with the Lexus ES350 and Acura TL. No excuses, no "almost." Whether the LaCrosse is better than an ES or a TL is a matter for another article, but the significant point is that anyone shopping for an ES or a TL could legitimately cross-shop the LaCrosse.
LaCrosse shoppers will want to know about the design. Styling is always a matter of the eye of the beholder and all that. But having looked carefully at the LaCrosse, we’d say it is far less bland than the ES (or the slightly out of segment Infiniti G37 and BMW 328i sedans). At the same time, it isn’t as edgy and weird as the Acura TL. The most controversial part of the LaCrosse is probably the grille, and we can only say that it looks better in person than it does in photos.
The LaCrosse interior is also very well done (interestingly, it was conceived in Buick’s Chinese studios). The shapes are fresh and pleasing, lacking the conservative concept of the Lexus without seeming odd. More surprising is that the quality of the materials seems better than on most of the competition. A little less glossy wood and chrome would be more to our taste, but given the example set by Lexus perhaps this is a category necessity. Again, final judgment awaits direct comparison, but nothing about the Buick design jumped out as an important faux pas, whereas we’ve been put off by materials and detail design on many a Lexus and Infiniti of late.
Interior comfort is also excellent, with firm and supportive seats (these aren’t sports seats, but they aren’t supposed to be). Over several hundred miles, we didn’t really think about the seats, which is a compliment. Rear seat room is also very good, and is certainly better than in the BMW 5-Series, our standard mid-size whipping boy. Headroom in the LaCrosse works for six-foot or slightly taller adults, and legroom is very good. The rear feels spacious as well because the front seats are fairly far away. Our only complaint was that the foot space under the front seats was a little tight. The other interior issue that we noticed was that the A pillar (around the windshield) was rather thick and slightly intrusive, a common problem on swoopy designs in our safety-obsessed world.
Design and comfort are nice, but the question on your mind is probably “But does it drive like a Buick (e.g. marshmallow, bowl of Jello, land yacht etc.)?” And as you probably guessed by now, the answer is “No."
The LaCrosse ride and handling mix is modern and in a way outstanding. First of all, springs and dampers are nicely firm. The car doesn’t roll much, and certainly doesn’t float or wallow. The suspension definitely has a stiffer setup than the typical Lexus fare. Like almost all modern cars, the LaCrosse will understeer when pushed, but the predominant sensation from the car is one of balance.
There are choices in the handling package, as well. We drove the maximum supreme CXS with adjustable damping and compared it to the mid-line CXL. The CXS in sport mode is clearly firmer, and in normal mode is still not soft. CXS ride quality is quite good, with excellent isolation of crumbly pavement. By comparison, the CXL is well damped, but on the soft side and gives a slightly better ride on horrible pavement. We tried at CXL with AWD and found the balance to be enjoyable. None of these suspensions is even vaguely reminiscent of the LeSabre.
With all this goodness on the table, don’t be confused into thinking the LaCrosse is a BMW 3-Series competitor. It isn’t. The LaCrosse handling has too much FWD weight bias, and the wheelbase that gives that nice rear seat room takes a little agility away.
The V-6 engines that we sampled work very well. Both are direct-injection powerplants, and thus mix decent power with acceptable fuel efficiency. While the 3.6-liter has somewhat more torque and a little more top end power, we thought the 3.0 was almost as good and would be the preferred engine for the target market. Neither engine makes the LaCrosse into a rocket sled, and like most V-6s the engines need to be wrung out a bit to really get moving. No four-cylinder engines were on hand (this is a fourth quarter addition to the line), but past experience says that a four can work very well in this kind of car, and Buick believes this DI powerplant can deliver 30 mpg on the highway. We’d wait to try that one if we cared at all about fuel mileage and price.
The LaCrosse CX (which we didn’t drive, but it is a CXL with different trim) starts at $27,835. The CXL with AWD starts at $32,570. A top of the line CXS loaded with options will be around $39,000. As usual, you have to actually configure a car the way you want it to be able to compare prices (we’ve noticed for example that mid-line domestic cars often have a list of standard equipment that requires checking option boxes on a BMW).
All in all, the LaCrosse is an impressive car. It shows what GM can do, and is a direct counter to those who whine about the cars themselves (though one or two cars does not a trend make). Unfortunately, it is still a Buick, and it remains to be seen if GM can make owning a Buick as sexy as it was in 1953.