Buick Review

What a missed opportunity
# Buick had a great concept for the LaCrosse. But along the way, things got
... yawn ... boring.

By Dan Neil, Times Staff Writer
As long as there have been high school proms and students with no dates to
attend them, parents have reassured their awkward/chubby/ mouth-breathing
adolescents that it's what is on the inside that counts. I myself was full
of inner beauty, though that beauty was trapped in a sebaceous mutant with
glasses as thick as lighthouse lenses.
I would counsel and console the Buick LaCrosse in similar fashion. It's all
right, honey. Don't cry. If customers don't see what a wonderful car you
are, well, it's their loss.
I would also go around the house discreetly covering all the mirrors.
The LaCrosse - which replaces the Century and Regal in Buick's batting order
- is a nice car trapped in some astonishingly boring sheet metal. I find
myself drawn to meteorological metaphors. If dullness were thunder, the
LaCrosse would send dogs running for cover under porches. If mediocrity were
snow, Detroit's Wayne County airport would have to be shut down.
How big a committee styled this thing? There is some of the Olds Alero, a
lot of the Ford Taurus, the headlights off the Lexus GS300, the decklid from
a Dodge Neon. The front and the back look like different cars and the sum of
it has this strange, worked-over quality, like an in-flight magazine's
crossword puzzle.
You might never guess that the LaCrosse was once a stunning concept car.
According to reports in Automotive News, the production version was delayed
when GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz ordered the designers to tone down the
sheet metal, lest the car alienate Buick's core clientele. Mission
accomplished. It won't alienate them. Now to resuscitate them.
This is car styling with an age-ist agenda. The LaCrosse is a sort of visual
psychographic, representing what the GM brass think older, more conservative
buyers will buy. Come on, they may need glasses, but they aren't blind.
Older buyers appreciate striking design every bit as much as younger buyers
- witness all the gray heads I see in Scion xBs, Honda Elements, Chrysler
300Cs. The LaCrosse, as noted, began life as a gorgeous concept, complete
with Buick fender portholes, at the 2000 auto show in Detroit. Is it the
hive-mind's opinion that older buyers wouldn't have loved that car?
Once inside the LaCrosse, life is good. The roomy LaCrosse gets a good dose
of what GM calls, with its penchant for showroom patter, "Quiettuning," as
in: "This baby's got Quiet- tuning!" Ugh. It is a program of sound deadening
and noise attenuation using dense rubberized inner panels, acoustic-damping
carpets, laminate glass and various other means to stop up holes where sound
leaks into the cabin. The result is striking: The cabin is library quiet and
very well constructed, with no titters, squeaks or rattles even over the
quasi-pavement of the 101 freeway. The Noise- Vibration-Harshness team did a
beautiful job on this car.
The interior styling is handsome and orderly, and there has plainly been
some effort to upgrade materials. The soft-touch switchgear on the doors and
dash feels solid in its settings. The three-gauge instrument panel is
persuasively upscale. The armrests, central console and upper dash are
covered with a nicely figured and reasonably convincing faux wood, and a
chrome bar transects the dash's midpoint. The gearshift is topped with a
handsome polished wood-esque finial that feels warm in the palm. Leather
seats are standard in all but the base model (CX, $23,495). I drove the
top-level CXS (starting at $28,995) with power front seats, equipped with
optional heated seats. Front bench seating is also available.
This is the first vehicle I've driven with the remote starting function,
which allows residents of the frozen north to start the engine from the
warmth of their house. What a great feature. How many ice-scraping-related
heart attacks would this option have prevented over the last week?
Under the fluted hood of the LaCrosse CXS is one of GM's new 3.6-liter,
dual-overhead cam V6s with variable-valve timing, putting out a smooth 240
horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque, routed through GM's entirely
serviceable four-speed transmission. This combination returns a creditable
EPA mileage of 19/28 miles per gallon, city/highway.
The CX and mid-level CXL both use the perennial 3800 engine, a pushrod
3.8-liter V6 producing 200 hp.
The 3.6-liter, 3,600-pound CXS can pipe up a good head of steam, with 0-60
acceleration around the seven-second mark, and if you don't impose too much
on the 17-inch touring tires, the car handles nicely. These "quiet-tuned"
tires don't have a lot of cornering grip, but then strafing canyon runs are
not in the car's mission statement. Vertical body movements over uneven
pavement are well damped and body lean in corners well contained. The
Century/Regal struts-and-links suspension is carried over to the LaCrosse,
but GM says it has stiffened the suspension for more composed handling. The
CXS is the sport-tuned package, with firmer springs and struts and larger
anti-roll bars front and rear, but the ride is plenty cush for the average
The LaCrosse gets GM's Magnasteer II rack-and-pinion steering - "This baby's
got Magnasteer!" - that varies power steering assist depending on speed
(more at lower speeds, less at higher) and the amount of cornering load.
This system is paired with the optional Stabilitrak - "This baby's got ... "
well, you know. At nearly $30,000, the LaCrosse should have stability
control as standard equipment.
However, study "2000 Buick LaCrosse concept car" and you will be
disheartened. What a falling off there was. No one expected suicide doors or
the slide-away rear glass that converted the vehicle into a kind of El
Camino for Rodeo Drive. But why couldn't the production car have had some -
any? - of the concept car's lean urgency and premium authority?
Inner beauty is a fine thing. Outer beauty is even better.
Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil @latimes.com.
2005 Buick LaCrosse CXS
Base price: $28,995
Price as tested: $33,650 (including delivery)

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