Road Test

2011 Buick Lacrosse takes brand in new direction

The LaCrosse offers a lot of want Buick buyers want plus some traits they won't recognize

2011 Buick Lacrosse

Buick is big in China and hoping to recover some lost ground here in North America, where it is no longer as popular as it once was. Let''s be honest, the average Buick customer is "mature" and that''s not a recipe for big sales numbers since this demographic does not trade/buy vehicles all that often.

As the second effort in a drive to attract new customers to the Buick brand, the LaCrosse combines much of what we identify with Buick with some new pizazz. The LaCrosse is quiet, comfortable, a bit garish and has vents on the fenders.

But it also has a tight suspension and steering that feels connected to the front wheels resulting in some pretty impressive driving dynamics.

The Buick is a global effort, sold and built in North America, Korea and China. It will also be sold in Japan. The LaCrosse was engineered in Germany, based on a new global mid-size platform, the stiffest structure ever engineered for a GM passenger car.

The design team responsible for exterior was American and there is no mistaking this car for anything else, thanks to the prominent Buick logos front and rear. In case of any lingering doubts, the designers also slapped some pseudo plastic vents on the sides of the hood. Folks who associate Buick and portholes are likely no longer in possession of a driving licence, so this does seem a bit over the top.

There is also a plentiful supply of chrome on the nose and a great big gratuitous slash of the shiny stuff on the trunk lid in case you thought Buick had forgotten its background. .

Buicks have always been about driving long distances in comfort and this one is no different. Three factors combine to make it an extremely pleasant vehicle in which to while away the kilometres · hundreds of them at a sitting: engine, NVH and interior.

Buicks of the past couple of decades were known for exceptional fuel economy from the division·s 3.8-litre V-6. This engine would produce amazing economy without giving up much in the way of performance. But it did not survive the move into the low emission era.

The base (CX) and mid-level (CXL) LaCrosse come with a 182-horsepower, 2.4-litre four cylinder engine. You can get all-wheel-drive on the CXL which is standard on the line-topping CXS. AWD versions, like our tester, are paired with a 280-horsepower, 3.6-litre V-6.

In all cases an automatic transmission shifts six gears. This is a smooth and silent engine as befits the exceptionally low level of wind and road noise. The engineers and stiff chassis deserve credit for one of the quietest interiors in the class.

But let·s give a tip of the hat to the Chinese design team responsible for the interior. While I might not be the biggest fan of the over-the-top exterior, I love the inside. Elegant and restrained, it is rich with details like French stitching.

The driver is surrounded by all he or she needs to do the job. A sweeping arc, topped by a small rim of wood trim, carries over from the door panel across the width of the instrument panel over a hooded instrument cluster and wide centre console. Window and mirror controls are mounted high atop the driver·s door, the twin analog instruments flank a digital information center and each has a small secondary readout at the bottom. Well lit and highly legible day and night the important stuff is all there.

The steering wheel has cruise controls on the left and audio and wireless phone controls on the right. The centre console is filled with large, legible buttons and knobs for the audio and HVAC system, mounted high, and lesser controls further down.

The parking brake is a push button making more room on the console and in the foot well. The majority of surfaces are covered in soft touch materials, especially where your hands, arms and elbows come into contact with them. Everything speaks of quality of both materials and assembly.

All of this can be found in most vehicles, but the designers did an exceptional job of pulling it all together here.

The rear seat will seat two comfortably but three would be a squeeze. The trunk is wide, deep and well finished, but access somewhat limited by a small opening.

Gripes? I've got a few. The main one was the hard plastic frame on the side of the driver·s seat with which your butt comes into contact when getting in and out of the car. While not exactly sharp, it is unpleasant to sit on when you are expecting to feel a nice soft, leather-covered seat.

The button count on the centre console could be cut somewhat and visibility is restricted by very thick A and wide C-pillars and a tall belt line.

The LaCrosse has a much firmer, but not at all unpleasant, suspension than you would normally associate with the brand. Communicative steering and the ability to stay flat when changing directions are welcome additions to the Buick driving dynamic.

Buick was always near the top of the GM ladder, above Chevrolet and Pontiac and parallel to Oldsmobile. Two of those divisions are gone now, but Buick has resumed its place above Chevrolet and below Cadillac in the hierarchy. That is evident in the quality of materials, amount of standard equipment and price. The LaCrosse starts at the $32,000 mark, the CXS at $42,000 and it can top $45,000 should you opt for most options. That puts it in with some pretty impressive and highly respected competition.

Buick has made a dramatic attempt to get with the times. The LaCrosse offers much of what current buyers want and a lot they will not recognize; but the latter should bring a new bunch of buyers aboard if they can be convinced to include the LaCrosse on their shopping list.

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