By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Buick survived the Great Culling. No more Pontiac, no more Saturn — definitely no more Hummer. But Buick soldiers on.
No, Buick thrives.
It’s one of the best-selling brands in … well, China. But the brand is doing ok here, too.
It ought to.
These are nice cars — and not Old Man Cars, either.
Let’s take a look at one of them, the 2014 LaCrosse.
WHAT IT IS
The LaCrosse is Buick’s “big car” — the largest sedan in the current lineup.
It’s slightly larger than other entry-luxury competitors like the mid-sized Lexus ES350 and the full-sized Hyundai Azera/Kia Cadenza twins — and unlike those cars, offers the option of a fairly fuel-efficient (36 MPG highway) four-cylinder engine, with a powerful (306 hp) V-6 available, too.
Probably the closest-shave competition for the LaCrosse is the Toyota Avalon — which in addition to being about the same size overall (full-sized) also shares the LaCross’s emphasis on quietude and calm.
The Avalon also offers the option of exceptional economy if you select the available hybrid powertrain (40 MPG in city driving). But, the Toyota lacks one thing the Buick comes standard with: A Business Class brand — and dealer experience. Toyota is a Blue Chip brand — and the Avalon is a superb car. But the Avalon shares floor space with Corollas. Things are a cut above at the Buick store — and that may be worth something to you.
Also, the Buick is available with all-wheel-drive, a feature not even the lux-badged Lexus ES offers. Neither do the lesser Toyotas (the Avalon — and the smaller Camry) nor the Hyundai-Kia twins.
Those car are all FWD-only.
Prices for the ’14 LaCrosse start at $34,060 for a base trim fitted with the 2.4 liter “mild hybrid” powertrain (this is not a “full” hybrid like the Avalon hybrid or other such models; the gas engine does almost all the work of propelling the car, with the battery merely operating accessories when the car is stationary) and top out at $40,810 for a loaded Premium trim with V-6 engine and AWD.
A suite of GM’s latest technology is now available in the LaCrosse — including a collision warning system that alerts you to potential fender benders by buzzing your buns — the left cheek or the right cheek, depending on where the threat is coming from (more on this below) as well as adaptive cruise control and lane change alert. There is also the latest generation of GM’s big-screen LCD touchscreen interface.
The 2014 LaCrosse is also available with twin rear seat DVD flat screen players, unusual in this segment (they’re not offered in the Azera or the Cadenza or the Lexus ES or the Avalon) and a Heads-Up Display (HUD) that projects vehicle speed and other info holographically in the driver’s line of sight.
Powerful optional engine — economical standard engine.
Available AWD — rare in this class/price range.
Mild-hybrid version costs thousands less up front than “full” hybrid competition.
Higher-end features than competition.
A bit more gravitas at the curb.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Optional HUD (and highly reflective dash top) can, under some conditions, interfere with your view of the road.
Collision warning system is over-cautious. (It will flash angrily at you if you fail to hit the brakes long before it is really necessary to do so, or execute a snappy pass it believes didn’t leave the DMV-mandated 50 yards of air gap. Yeah, I’m exaggerating — but only a little bit.)
Base engined LaCrosse is a bit slow-pokey for a luxury-minded car.
UNDER THE HOOD
Buick is one of the few brands still selling “mild” hybrid powertrains.
What is a mild hybrid? It’s a car with a conventional gas-burning engine that does most of the work of getting the car going. The battery pack and electric motor are there for a supplemental assist only and to keep electric accessories (radio, heat and fan, the electric-assisted power steering) running when the engine is off and the car is stationary. As in full hybrids, the car’s computer automatically turns off the engine when the car comes to a stop — and automatically restarts it when the driver pushes down on the gas pedal. But unlike full hybrids, which can be set in motion using just the power of their electric motors and battery pack, a mild hybrid can only be driven with the gas engine running.
This has its pluses — and its minuses.
On the plus side, the mild hybrid layout is simpler — and so, less expensive. At just over $34k, the mild hybrid version of the LaCrosse costs $2,305 less than the hybrid version of the Toyota Avalon($$36,365) and $6,200 less than a hybrid Lexus ES ($40,260).
That $2,300 saved up front buys a lot of gas down the road.
However, the mild hybrid layout is also less fuel-efficient because the majority of the work of getting the car moving is done by the gas-burning engine. The Avalon and Lexus ES hybrids, in contrast, are capable of operating much of the time on just their batteries (and electric motors) which means their gas engines are often not running — and so, not burning any gas at all. Which is why their gas mileage is considerably better: 40 city and 39 highway for the Avalon and Lexus ES hybrids vs. 25 city, 36 highway for the Buick.
It’s possible — maybe even probable — that you’d end up saving more money down the road with those cars, even if they do cost more up front.
The other issue is more cut and dry. The mild hybrid Buick has a bad case of The Slows. Because it depends almost entirely on a small four cylinder gas engine to get going, it does not get going very quickly. With just 182 total hp on tap (which ain’t much for a full-size car pushing two tons at the curb) the mild hybrid LaCross needs about 9 seconds to haul itself to 60 — which is under par for cars in this class. The Lexus ES hybrid can do 0-60 in 7.8 seconds. The Toyota Avalon hybrid is slightly quicker than that ( 7.7 seconds to 60).
But the hybrid Buick is still quicker than a Prius (10-11 seconds) and of course, a lot nicer than a Prius.
The V-6 powered version, meanwhile, can’t be faulted on either performance or economy. It is actually slightly quicker than most of its V-6 competition: Zero to 60 in about 6.7 seconds vs. about 7 flat for the Azera and Cadenza and just under 7 seconds for the Avalon.
This is not surprising given it’s got a bit more engine (3.6 liters vs. 3.3 for the Hyundai and Kia, 3.5 for the Toyota Avalon) and a bit more hp (303 hp vs. 293 for the Azera-Cadenza cousins, 268 for the Avalon). The Lexus ES — equipped with the same 268 hp V-6 as the Avalon — is a bit quicker than all of them. But it’s also a smaller (mid-sized) car, so there’s that to take into account.
MPG-wise, the V-6 Buick with front wheel-drive rates 18 city, 28 highway. This is dead heat with the others in this class such as the Azera/Cadenza (20/29 and 19/28 respectively) and only marginally worse than the class-leading Avalon (21 city, 31 highway).
Don’t forget that none of those competitors offer AWD. You will lose a few MPGs if you go that way (17 city, 26 highway) but this is offset by the everyday traction/handling advantages of AWD.
Interestingly, both of the Buick’s engines are teamed up with conventional six-speed automatics. Hybrids — and even conventional cars that are mileage-minded — tend to use inherently more efficient continuously variable (CVT) automatics in lieu of conventional (geared/hydraulic) automatics.
So how come Buick doesn’t — especially with the hybrid? Probably because CVTs are — usually — noisy. And while a bit more sound and fury might be ok in a Prius, it’s not ok in a Buick.
I think it was a smart move, even if means the hybrid LaCrosse only gets 36 on the highway instead of 38 (what it would probably get if it had a CVT instead of the conventional six-speed automatic). Mileage matters — but not uber alles.
Another solid: Both LaCrosse engines are Flex-fuel (E85 compatible) and are set up to run best on regular unleaded.
ON THE ROAD
This car is what it ought to be — which is soft and smooth and very quiet. Triple seals — even acoustic laminated door glass. Probably lots of insulation in the various nooks and crannies.
But no excessive (early onset) body roll — or springiness when you hit a bump. Those unfortunate traits — which characterized the AARP-mobiles Buick used to build — have been very effectively dialed out, without dialing in the over-firmness that characterizes all-too-many cars and in particular, luxury-sport cars. The LaCrosse is a luxury car, a fine road car — the one you want for a 1,000 miler on the Interstate. In motorcycle terms, it’s a Goldwing — not a Gixxer. In backside terms, it means you’ll still be able to feel your cheeks three or four hours into your trip.
Speaking of which… . Buick offers an interesting method of alerting you to potential obstacles. The Driver Confidence package includes “safety alert” butt buzzers built into the driver’s seat. Actually, they vibrate — on the left side if (for example) there is a car coming at you from that side as you’re in the process of backing out of a parking spot — or on the right side, if the opposing car is coming from that direction. It sounds a little weird, but it’s actually very intuitive — and not at all intrusive. I like it a lot better than the flashing light show in other cars with similar systems. Buick’s method is gentler — and very arguably, much less distracting.
I don’t like the collision avoidance warning system — which arguably is both distracting and unsettling. An angry red graphic display will suddenly flash in the driver’s line of sight if he has not applied the brakes when the system believes he ought to. The problem is the system is extremely over-cautious. Let’s say a car up ahead is turning off the road; he has his signal on and he is already beginning the turn. You know he’ll be out of the way by the time you get there, so no need to hit the brakes. To be safe, of course, you’ll cover the pedal with your foot so you’re prepared to brake if need be. But it will probably not be necessary to actually brake — and lose your momentum, waste gas and wear your brake pads. The system begs to differ — and will let loose with the light show. It’s unsettling — and gets to be annoying.
The lane change warning is another mixed blessing. It may be of use to cell phone gabblers who fail to notice they’re wandering over the double yellow. But it’s an annoyance to people who pay attention, because it issues the same urgent warning whenever the vehicle changes lanes, even when it’s on purpose — and under complete control. The system cannot tell the difference between a double yellow and a broken yellow. Luckily, you can turn the system off — or elect not to buy it.
One other thing I ought to mention relates to the Heads Up Display. Driving home one day in heavy fog, the reflected glared from the recessed projector box (which is mounted forward of the gauge cluster, on the dashboard’s upper surface) created a ghost image about the same size as the box — about 6×6 inches — directly in my line of sight. The dash itself also reflected glare — and the combo made it hard to see the road clearly. To be fair, this was in weird weather (I Iive up in the mountains, where Scottish highland-type fog you can cut with a knife is common) but it was disconcerting and I feel obliged to tell you about it.
AT THE CURB
One trait this Buick shares with ancestor Buicks is elegant but not-too-flashy styling. It says upper middle class — but not McMansion.
Luxury car touches include the LED brows for the headlights (and LED accent lighting on the inside), the tasteful use of chrome, real wood trim, accent contrast-color stitching (if you order the leather-appointed version), power rear sunshade and a suede headliner. Naturlich, you can order GPS, an 11 speaker surround sound Bose audio rig as well as heated and ventilated seats. There is a very slick-design center console cover, which slides open silkily front to back instead of clunkily popping open and closed.
But what separates this car from its competitors is the availability of the dual LCD display rear seat DVD entertainment system. This is something you typically have to move up to the $50,000 and higher class to get — to even be able to order as optional equipment.
If this is a must-have for you, then you must have this car.
The other unusual feature is that Heads-Up Display (HUD). GM was among the first to offer HUDs in passenger vehicles and has the most experience with them. Derived from military aviation, the HUD projects critical info such as vehicle speed — as well as information of secondary importance, such as the radio station you happen to be listening to at the moment — in the form of a holographic display that’s projected in the driver’s line of sight. The image seems to be floating in space about two feet in front of the windshield — the concept being to help you keep your eyes on the road instead of glancing down at the gauges. You use a toggle/push button to the left of the steering wheel to pick what you want displayed and there’s a another control adjacent to that to adjust the holographic image up or down to suit.
GM’s latest gen touchscreen monitor in the center stack is outstanding for usability. The buttons are large — and so easy to read as well as use. Ditto the touch-type “Haptic” controls for the optional seat heaters and coolers to the lower left and right of the main panel. A very cool feature is the real-time updating weather report — which tells you how things are now as well as how things will be later in the day, tomorrow and the next day, too.
Interior space in both rows stacks up favorably — in absolute terms as well as relative to the competition. Backseat legroom — 40.5 inches — is very generous (and more than in the Avalon, which has 39.2 inches — and much more than in the Kia Cadenza and Hyundai Azera, which only have 36.8 inches). The Kia and Hyundai do have class-leading front seat legroom — an incredible 45.5 inches (almost four full inches more than the LaCrosse’s 41.7 inches). But this difference is more academic than practical. Anything more than 40 inches is more room than anyone not an NBA forward will truly have need of. In fact, most people (and this includes 6 ft. 3 me) will find it necessary to slide the driver’s seat forward. On the other hand, the Buick’s extra 4 inches of rearseat legroom is a practical advantage — and not just a talking point. It is the difference between Coach — and Business Class.
But there is a proverbial hair in the soup. To get that room in the second row, you are forced to give up room in the trunk. The LaCrosse has a tiny — for a full-size car — 12.8 cubic foot trunk. For some perspective, the much smaller (mid-sized) Lexus ES350 has a 15.2 cubic foot trunk. The same-size Avalon has a 16 cubic foot trunk. The Hyundai Azera has a 16.3 cubic foot trunk.
This lack of trunk space is arguably the LaCrosse’s most blatant weakness.
I mentioned earlier the upmarket brand advantage you get with Buick vs. say Toyota or Hyundai/Kia. Since Buick doesn’t sell budget-priced cars — and because Buick is working hard to establish its bona fides as a near-luxury brand — you can expect a more attentive dealer experience, both when shopping and when you bring your vehicle in for service. Probably the waiting room will be nicer- and you may find that the Buick store is more likely to provide accommodations such as free loaner cars (as Lexus and other established prestige brands routinely do).
Buick also tosses in free routine service for the first two years/24,000 miles and the standard four-year/50,000 mile comprehensive warranty is better than average (and better than Toyota’s three year/36,000 mile coverage).
Kia and Hyundai are, of course, still the gold standard when it comes to both the basic and the powertrain warranty: Five years, 60,000 miles on the whole car — and ten years, 100k on the powertrain.
THE BOTTOM LINE
More than just another nice car, the LaCrosse offers more options (and features) than several of its key competitors — and other than a too-small trunk, doesn’t have any significant negatives relative to those competitors.
If Buick keeps ’em coming like this, Buick ought to be around for some time to come.