I’ve always had a soft spot for Buicks, based largely on driving a Regal two-door, brown, with a sweet velour interior and a strong V6 motor, back in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, I was the odd man out for a few decades, as the Buicks brand languished in General Motors’ hierarchy. Buick was a “near luxury” marque, one rung on the ladder below Cadillac. The 1990s and 2000s weren’t kind to mid-luxe brands, as the German and Japanese luxury vehicles — Mercedes, BMW, Lexus — began to dominate and undermined the traditional move up that American consumers were accustomed to.
You didn’t start with a Chevy and graduate at Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks before getting that Caddy. Instead, you bought a Toyota and jumped straight to Lexus.
The residue of the old idea was a hangover for Buick, as it saw its average owner age creep up to be the highest in the auto industry. Then the financial crisis hit, just as Buick was in the process of a reinvention. There were serious discussions about killing the brand — only Buick’s important role in China, where it has retained a luxury aura, saved it.
GM had begun a product shift into crossover SUVs before the financial crisis, and that effort set Buick up for success. The Enclave was an early arrival in the premium crossover space, and at last it enabled Buick to get away from the sedan-heavy mix that previously defined its lineup.
But Buick without sedans isn’t really Buick. And that’s a good thing, as I discovered recently when I borrowed a 2017 LaCrosse, fully loaded in Premium trim and priced at $48,395, but with a base sticker of $41,065 (the cheapest LaCrosse available, by the way, is only $32,990).
A decade of refinement
The LaCrosse has been around for over a decade, debuting in 2004. It was then a mid-size sedan that Buick developed to replace Century and LeSabre in the lineup, as it also phased out Park Avenue, the top four-door, full-size offering, and transitioned Regal (a car I really enjoyed) to a new engineering platform. Later, LaCrosse would graduate to full-size status, and that’s what I drove in the 2017 model.
The new LaCrosse is a mechanical evolution, but it isn’t complicated. It’s a nice, big four-door with a generous trunk, and reasonably pliable suspension, front-wheel-drive (all-wheel-drive is available), and a 3.6-litre V6 making a respectable 305 horsepower, absent any turbocharging or supercharging. Fuel-economy is 25 mpg combined city/highway, which is pretty good for a car this size.
The bottom line is that there isn’t much to go wrong with the LaCrosse — only a new eight-speed automatic transmission could be an issue, and during the week I drove the car, it wasn’t. Multi-speed autos have been cited by Consumer Reports as a source of reliability problems for cars and trucks, but Buick ranked high on the publication’s lastest reliability survey. I didn’t care for the shifter, a confusing departure from the traditional PNRD, but that’s a minor complaint.
You might say that the total LaCrosse package sounds pretty boring, but it’s the opposite: it’s exciting to experience a car that is reassuringly unlikely to let you down, all while delivering a level of comfort, technology, and refinement that’s about as close to a proper luxury vehicle as you can get for under $50,000. The bottom line is that I liked the LaCrosse so much that I didn’t want to give it back.
Just enough luxury
The near-luxury “content” that your fifty thousand bones buy you isn’t on the same stratum of plushess that a lot of BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus owners will be accustomed to. But the LaCrosse interior compares favourably with, say, a Tesla Model S. The luxury is low-key, un-blingy. But most of the boxes are checked off.
There are eight-way power seats, heated and cooled, and with a massage function for the driver and a lumbar support (which saved my bad back when I put the support on 11 and cranked up the seat heaters).
The leather upholstery (“Ebony” in our tester) strikes a nice balance between firm and cushy. The steering wheel is heated, a feature I think is now expected rather than desired among well-heeled buyers. The familiar blue-green Buick lighting gives the straightforward instrument panel a nice dose of throwback Buick-ness. The heads-up display is futuristic and useful. And the back seat is commodious, with ample space for adults.
And the overall fit and finish is excellent — superior in many ways to a BMW 3-Series that I recently checked out (in fairness, the 3-Series isn’t in the same segment). This is exactly what you’d expect from a Buick, plus a little more, but not so much that you’re starting to feel that the brand overdid it. The overwhelming impression is tasteful, and an improvement on the mechanically similar and also superb Chevy Impala. Fire up the 11-speaker Bose audio system, find a nice stretch of open highway to cruise on, point the LaCrosse down the asphalt, and you’ll be in 21st-century American-car heaven.
How about the exterior? Well, the design is stately, with just enough gentle curves thrown in to keep it from being cookie-cutter or uninspiring. The trio of chrome ventiports on each fender is a classic Buick touch, and the car looked just great in the “Quicksilver Metallic” paint job we sampled. In a nice change, Buick has gotten rid of the abstract, all-chrome Tri-Shield badge on the grille and brought back a version of its old-school, red-white-and-blue cloisonne-style emblem. (Sadly, the old badge still lives at the center of the steering wheel.)
A great technology package
The technology package is impeccable. In my book, GM currently has the best overall infotainment offering in the auto industry (called “IntelliLink” in Buicks), combining an intuitive touchscreen interface with 4G LTE wifi connectivity, seamless Bluetooth integration, and OnStar, which among other things forever eliminates the requirement to fiddle with the GPS navigation system or wrestle with a voice commands. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto availability tops everything off.
Driving a Buick sedan is nothing like driving a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes four-door, or even an Acura or Infiniti saloon, but that’s the way it should be. For over a decade, Buick has been steadily tightening up the suspension with making its cars too taut, so in sportier driving modes you can get a dose of peppier performance. Our test car features paddle-shifters to allow to semi-manual piloting, but in practice, I didn’t use them much. There’s no slosh in the LaCrosse, and the big sedan can handle corners capably, even though you aren’t going to want to push your luck in any way.
Not that you would be induced to. With advanced “QuietTuning” soundproofing, the LaCrosse cabin is a peaceful place to spend time, even as the car propels itself to 60 mph from a standing start in about six seconds (another complaint: a engine auto-stop-start feature helps with fuel economy, but unlike on many other vehicles with the tech, you can’t turn it off with the LaCrosse). At cruising velocities, the LaCrosse is brilliantly placid without without ever feeling like a large rolling couch. A set of advanced cruise-control and driver-assist features makes extended freeway journeys a joy.
A Buick for the ages
What I’m talking about here is a cluster of obvious Buick brand values, the marque’s DNA, stretching back over a century to the founding of General Motors. Radically reinventing them isn’t part of the game plan. But continual refinement has become something that Buick has gotten good at, and nowhere is this more apparent then with the LaCrosse, which competes most directly with the Lexus ES on price, if not on pure luxury brand cred (Buick has had its sights set on Lexus forever, but so has Cadillac, GM’s proper luxury badge, so you could say that the true comparison should be between the LaCrosse and the Toyota Avalon).
I’m not sure Buick can produce a better sedan than this, for around $50,000 with plenty of options. With the brand now more than saved — an “Avenir” sub-brand to serve up more luxurious trim levels is the next step — it’s been perfected, in its latest incarnation.
And the market was ready for a very good Buick. Not everyone wants a stiff, high-strung German luxury car. Buyers both young (but not too young) and old appreciate the Great American Car aspect of a vehicle like LaCrosse. It’s a deeply satisfying set of wheels.
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