The new Buick LaCrosse sedan is a pet project of General Motors' product czar and car buff Bob Lutz, who delayed introduction of the car for more than a year until he thought it was suitable for production.
The LaCrosse is the first car totally developed under the colorful Lutz, who joined GM three years ago after top management stints at Ford and Chrysler.
Buick had to be careful with the LaCrosse because it replaces Buick's venerable Century and Regal sedans, which had combined sales of 204,493 units in 2002, but only 117,956 units last year. Unfortunately for Buick, many Century/Regal loyalists are in the over-60 crowd and don't represent a "sales growth group'' for Buick, which would like far more customers in their 30s and 40s.
Lutz thinks Buick's future is important to help revitalize GM; it's been depending more on its consumer finance and mortgage unit, General Motors Acceptance Corp., rather than vehicle operations to get profits -- and has been losing market share.
When GM ruled the U.S. market from the 1950s to the 1970s, Buick traditionally was a revered make positioned closely behind top-dog Cadillac in the GM pecking order. The GM game plan was to move customers up from a Chevrolet to a Cadillac as their lives progressed, although many stopped at Buick because they thought a Cadillac was too ostentatious -- and really not that much better than a top-line Buick.
The aged Park Avenue is the top-line Buick, but the less costly LaCrosse is expected to be a much higher-volume model. The result of the long wait for the LaCrosse is a smoothly styled sedan that looks much like the Regal and Century, which are reliable, unexciting cars with high quality marks.
Quality of the LaCrosse promises to be even better, and it generally seems more expensive than it is. That's a good thing because many older Buick buyers are cost-conscious.
While slicker and better than the Regal or Century, the LaCrosse isn't the kind of exciting car that draws younger customers to showrooms, as does the new Chrysler 300.
"But Buick really didn't want a car with a radical new design because such an auto wouldn't appeal to loyal older customers,'' said auto analyst Ray Windecker, of American Autodatum in Michigan. "Buick knows the LaCrosse won't be exciting to auto buff magazine journalists, but that's OK with it.''
Car magazines have given the LaCrosse moderately good reviews. None has called it exciting, but most Buick buyers don't read car magazines, anyway.
The LaCrosse comes in three trim levels, but delivers two different driving experiences: One experience is provided by the $22,835 CX and $25,335 CXL versions, which have an old-style 200-horsepower V-6 and Buick's traditional soft feel.
The other experience is provided by the $28,335 European style CXS, which has a modern dual-overhead-camshaft V-6 and such things as a sporty "Gran Touring'' suspension and 55-series tires on 17-inch wheels, versus smaller 16-inchers and narrower 60-series tires for the CX and CXL.
The LaCrosse seeks to satisfy old-line Buick loyalists with the CX and CXL and attract younger (thirtysomething) new ones with the CXS.
Buick calls the front-drive LaCrosse "all new,'' but that's not true of any version of the car. The CX and CXL use the third-generation version of GM's 3.8-liter pushrod V-6 and ride on the familiar "W'' platform also used by the Pontiac Grand Prix. The CXS has GM's more modern 3.6-liter V-6 with 240-horsepower.
Both engines work with a responsive four-speed automatic transmission, although a more modern five-speed unit would be preferred.
Estimated fuel economy is 20 mpg city and 29 highway with the 200-horsepower V-6 and 19 and 28 with the more potent engine, which has variable valve timing for better throttle response.
The LaCrosse provides seating for five with front bucket seats -- or for six with the CX and CXL if they have a $195 "flip-and-fold'' front center seat suited for children. There's good room up front for two 6-footers, but not much room to spare in the rear with the front seats pushed back more than halfway.
The LaCrosse has impressively precise body fits and a very quiet interior, except for some highway wind noise. Mostly high-quality materials are used in the interior, which has nifty instruments with chronograph styling and aluminum bezels. However, there's also marginal-looking fake wood trim.
Densely clustering the small sound and climate system buttons won't endear the LaCrosse to older buyers accustomed to large controls, although younger buyers probably won't mind.
The trunk is large with a low opening and nonintrusive lid hinges on hydraulic struts. The hood also has such struts, instead of an old-fashioned prop rod, and the tidy engine compartment has easily reached filler areas.
The base CX is fairly well equipped, with such items as air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player and a power driver's seat, windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry. The CXL adds leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control and a split-folding rear seat. The CXS adds anti-lock disc brakes and traction control.
The CX and CXL provide pleasant transportation, but steering, ride and handling of the CXS are considerably better, as are acceleration and braking -- although one wonders why Buick didn't give this version more supportive bucket seats. The variable-rate power steering of the CXS has a sharper feel, and its suspension has thicker anti-sway bars to reduce body sway in curves. The CSX also is offered with a $495 stability control system.
LaCrosse options include upgraded sound systems, power sunroof, satellite radio, chrome alloy wheels and a remote engine start -- a first for a Buick.
Safety options include $395 curtain side air bags, although front torso side air bags aren't offered.
The LaCrosse -- particularly the CXS -- is a good step forward for Buick, which will follow it with other new cars in 2006 and 2007.
2005 BUICK LACROSSE
Euro-style CSX model. Smooth styling. Quiet. Good fit and finish.
Unexciting lower-line versions. Wind noise at highway speeds. Front seats need more lateral support.