When General Motors went through bankruptcy and decided to shed some of it’s brands, not too many tears were shed for Saturn, Hummer and Saab, but the the loss of Pontiac rubbed peoples rhubarb the wrong way, when, it was also announced that brands like GMC and Buick would be kept. Here was the nasty secret that wasn’t getting out to those people, Buick was paying for it’s self and GMC was making money, the same couldn’t be said for any of the brands that were being dropped.
Lets set the argument about GMC aside for another time and drill down on the Pontiac vs. Buick argument. Many people lament the loss of Pontiac as the performance division of General Motors, but that history was long dead and buried. Other than the G8 which was a fabulous car, but didn’t really sell that well till it was heavily discounted in GM’s fire sale to shed inventory, Pontiac was badge engineering brand. This WAS an upgrade though of what Pontiac was before that, the pre Bob Lutz era of GM, and that was the plastic body cladding brand. Performance at Pontiac was about as was a further memory from GM then the Detroit Lions were from being a winning football team that went to the playoffs.
Somewhere in the mid 70’s Buick lost it’s way. It was, for most of it’s history, the brand you bought when you really wanted a Cadillac but just couldn’t afford or justify one. It was a respected brand, and if you drove a Buick, people knew you had had a good measure of success in your life. What the brand evolved into though was one that catered to Septuagenarian and older crowd. Dealers liked this to a point because they were loyal buyers and there were rarely any issues getting them financed, the problem was, there were less and less of those buyers every year as they moved on to the next realm of existence. Buick has made a few efforts to trend their demographic to one less than those collecting Social Security, but until the Enclave came out a couple years ago, it was pretty hit and miss.
The Enclave was a Crossover that signaled two important movements for Buick. The first was strong turn to focus on being what it once was, a brand for those that wanted a luxury car, but didn’t want, or could reach to the Cadillac price point. The second was a styling direction to have a fluid look with a rounded look and few hard edges. This also worked nicely as a contrast to the hard edge Art & Science design of Cadillac as well.
It’s been said that General Motors want to position Buick as a competitor to Lexus, and most people thing that’s a pretty big ask. One of the questions we had when the Lacrosse was dropped off for review was could they go toe to toe with Toyota’s luxury brand.
One of the reasons we’ve waited to post this review was we wanted to spend some time crawling around the Lexus ES350 and the best opportunity was going to be at the North American International Auto Show here in Detroit. We’ll get to our conclusion about how the Lacrosse stacked up shortly, but lets dive in and have a look at it.
From a design point the Lacrosse is a conservative design, but it is also handsome. It has some lines that are subtle but do give the body some character to prevent it from being Toyota like bland and forgettable. There are also a few angle from a high rear three quarter view which we weren’t able to capture on camera that are very fluid and quite attractive. Some people have argued about the placement of the portholes on the car, should they be on the fenders as is the heritage of the brand, is it OK to have them on the hood, I would say get rid of them all together. Fake portholes and vents have become such a fad, that in trying to redefine the brand Buick needs to stay away from anything hinting of a fad.
When you move to the interior you are greeted by a IP that has a spacious feel to it. Now, depending on if your first stint inside the car is in the day, or at night, it may have to different feels to it. During the day the interior has an entry level luxury car feel to it. Materials are of good quality, fit and finish were spot on and even the wood interior trim was tastefully done.
The controls on the steering wheel and the center console are well laid out and are for the most part pretty intuitive. To get the full measure of the touch screen system and some of the voice command functions, you WILL need to pull out the manual and spend some time with it. You can figure out about 70% without the manual, but there were a few things that the manual was needed for.
One of my favorite parts of the interior were the seat heaters. I know it seems odd that I would choose that as one of my favorite things for the interior but hear me out. First, most of the seat heaters in cars right now, across many brands, take forever to warm up to the point you can feel them, then, what they call the top setting, I call “I guess it’s on”. Not so with the Buick. The seats here come up to temp pretty quickly, important since during our week stint with the car the high temps for the days were in the single digits Fahrenheit! When the seat heaters were on the high, not only could you tell they were on, they were warm enough that I was tempted to grab my cast iron dutch oven and toss in some beef short ribs for a nice braise! Part two of this is the fact that not only were the seats heated, but so was the steering wheel. Almost as bad as sitting on cold leather on a 4ºF morning is holding on a leather wrapped steering wheel. Why this feature isn’t standard on any car north of thirty five grand is beyond me.
With all the touch screens and small buttons in new cars trying to do anything with gloves on is a near impossibility. So while voice commands will work for somethings, there is an actual tactile touch that is needed for others and that can’t be done with gloves on. So when you grab the wheel then on a cold day before the cabin is up to temp, it’s not comfortable.
When the day turns to night and the lights come on, the interior of the Lacrosse takes on a different feel. There is a cool blue light that wraps along the wood trim from the doors and through the dash. I was told third hand that it was supposed to give a bit of the lighting feel of a hip South Beach club to the Lacrosse. Not being a regular on the South Beach club scene, I couldn’t speak to that, however, I did like this mood lighting implementation better than I have liked similar treatments from Ford.
Out on the road the car drives nicely. The ride is not the sofa lounge feel of large Buicks of the 80’s and 90’s, but it’s not European firm either. It’s stuck somewhere in that middle ground that as long as you don’t try and fling it around on a track day you’ll be fine, but you won’t be probably won’t be cutting diamonds in the back either. For 90% of the way most people drive today, the ride is more than fine. The engine is strong as well. Ours had the optional 3.6L V6 with 280 horsepower and 259 lb/ft of torque, it’s a retuned version of the motor in the CTS and Camaro. While both peak numbers are fairly high up in the RPM band, power doesn’t feel lacking. The only issue is that there is a good amount of torque steer in this car, so you have to be a little careful at lower speeds when you stomp the gas and the wheel is turned.
Lets circle back and bring up how this car stacks up, at least interior wise to the Lexus ES350. I have to say after spending a solid 10 minutes in the Lexus touching and feeling all the materials and surfaces, then heading back over to the Buick display to double check some things in the Lacrosse, then back once again to the ES350, that hands down the Buick has a far superior interior on every level. There, I said it. Go ahead call me mad, but, before you do, go check for yourself, then let me know.
Finally where I think the Buick Lacrosse can really seal the deal against not only the ES350 but against quite a few other cars is on price. Our loaded up CXS (the top range model) stickered out at $36,755. I don’t think there were many, if any, options boxes that weren’t checked off on this car. While almost $37K may sound like a lot of money for a car, and I’m not saying it isn’t, compared with many other vehicles we’ve driven lately for the level of content and quality, this is very well done.
For Buick to succeed going forward they have a big challenge in front of them in changing peoples perception of what a Buick is in 2010 and beyond. The challenges are many, but there are also some fairly easy solutions, and if GM wants to bring me on full time at a reasonable salary, I’d be happy to point them out.
The first thing that they must do is get people in the door and behind the wheel. It is only there that potential customers will begin to understand just how far Buick has come in a short period of time. The Lacrosse should do for Buick what the CTS did for Cadillac, and that’s redefine what the brand is going forward.