Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By Sajeev Mehta

Electra Waggoner Biggs was born a Texas cattle and oil man’s daughter, but left the Lone Star State for Bryn Mawr, Columbia and the Sorbonne. Upon her return she became a revered sculptress, best known for her work “Into the Sunset,” memorializing cowboy actor Will Rogers. In 1959, the President of Buick (and Electra’s husband’s brother-in-law) named a flagship sedan after the middle aged Texan. Today's Buick Lucerne is named after a quaint Swiss tourist trap, with only a failed peasant’s revolt to its name. And there you have it: Buick has tossed away decades of brash Americana for subdued Euro-style. That's beyond stupid.

Of course, Lucerne is a beautiful town, and the Lucerne CXS is a beautiful car. Truth be told, the comely Lucerne is a pastiche of the Audi group’s best sedans– a bit of Audi A8 here (rear three quarter) and a bit of Phaeton there (pillars, rear)– with a healthy dose of Buick’s polarizing Velite concept roadster (front). Fortunately, it works. There’s no question the Lucerne is its own machine; the Buick’s portholes are as authoritative a brand statement as Mister T's mohawk.

It’s all very dignified and elegant in a vaguely European way– until you open the door. Then you discover that the Lucerne is cursed with GM's latest interior initiative: strategically placed quality. For example, the Lucerne’s dash is fashioned from a polymer that’s less forgiving than a Taliban elder. And yet, only millimeters away, you encounter GM's finest door panels to date. They’re superb examples of industrial art: a Lexus-like mix of triple-stitched vinyl, padded plastic and convincing wood grain. But aside from the swank door trimmings, richly textured headliner and hip cobalt blue gauge faces, the Lucerne's interior is the Buick brand’s Bay of Pigs.

The optional Harman-Kardon boombox is the cabin’s saving grace. Play that funky music [white boy] and you unleash both top-notch imaging and skin-tight bass response. The noise is most welcome; the Roadmaster-esque seating rivals memory foam mattresses for sybaritic somnambulism. Mobsters looking for a place to stash rivals heading for the big sleep take note: the Lucerne’s trunk is a thing of beauty. It’s large and accommodating, replete with plastic modesty panels hiding the decklid's dogleg hinges.

Fire up the Lucerne CXS’ Northstar 4.6-liter V8 and the mixed messages continue. Dial-up a few revs and the hunky Lucerne rumbles like an old muscle-bound big-block Buick GSX. (Buick’s “Quiet Tuning” obviously doesn’t apply to Cadillac-sourced powertrains.) Drop the hammer and the de-clawed 275hp Northstar helps the Lucerne slide to sixty in a tick under seven seconds. Yes, but how many front-wheel drive V8-powered luxury cars can you name? And how many have you bought? There’s a reason for that…

At sensible speeds, the Lucerne hides its wrong-wheel drive roots commendably. Eight mild-mannered cylinders render torque steer a minor issue. But awaken the beast at the wrong time and the Lucerne counters with smoking rubber and a completely wayward helm. Fortunately, the iron filings floating in the Lucerne’s shocks deliver a reasonable imitation of dynamic fluidity; Magnetic Ride Control suspension keeps the two-ton luxobarge flat during cornering. Yes, really.

But to what end? The big Buick fails to impress one's "land yacht" Ying or "grand touring" Yang. For Type-A personalities, the Northstar's "take-a-number" throttle response, uncommunicative and overboosted steering and lazy four-cog slushbox infuriates. Even with Magna-charged dampers in full suppress mode, mundane Continental rubber, cushy springs and planar seats deny sporting satisfaction. Grab a lower gear for upcoming corners and the flimsy floor-shift quivers in anticipation.

For the Type-B folks, the Lucerne rides comfortably enough on most surfaces, but nails surface imperfections like an economy car chassis, lacking the brick-house swagger of Mercury’s mighty-mighty Marquis. No matter what your tastes, the Lucerne's coarse underpinnings prove GM half baked this auto-culinary treat.

The Lucerne certainly outclasses its clueless Park Avenue predecessor, but what does this sub-$40k whip do that a fresher-looking Camry can’t? De-ice its windscreen with heated washer fluid? Seriously, when a carmaker promotes its flagship model with a relatively minor gadget, you know it’s a “pay no attention to the car behind that curtain” affair. The fact that the portly Lucerne’s standard mill is a positively ancient pushrod V6 shows that even GM knows they’ve over-priced and under-delivered. While entry-level Lucernes face the prospect of rental car Hell, the CSX goes nowhere fast.

More than that, the Lucerne’s lack of soul proves that Buick is a dead marque dying. One could argue that Electra Waggoner Biggs’ sculpture and the car named after her were tacky– nothing more than American populism with a continental twist. But their unabashed spirit demanded your attention. If the Lucerne is as good as a Buick gets, it’s only a matter of time before the entire brand follows its Swiss namesake into historical irrelevance.


By Sajeev Mehta

They come from around the world to duke it out in the US of A: mid-size sedans from Germany, Japan and South Korea. Each arrives armed with a unique selling point: German engineering, Japanese quality and South Korean value. Their upbringings differ but their mission is the same: capture the hearts and minds of Middle American car buyers– and keep them. The clear winner in this automotive Battle Royale is the American consumer, who’s never enjoyed so much quality and choice for so little money. Meanwhile, once stalwart American brands and models are falling by the wayside, as their “foreign” competition continues their ceaseless campaign for mid-market hegemony. One such victim is the Buick LaCrosse CXL.

Appearances deceive; for Buick has mad coach building skills. The LaCrosse blends feminine curves and masculine edges with continental flair. Buick's ovoid adaptation works at every angle that the last Ford Taurus failed: gentle creases accentuate the toned quarter panels, while the rakish c-pillar puts the Ghost of LeSabres Past to rest. Witness the minimalist approach to body cutlines, a lost art in these days of excessive plastic ornamentation. (Never mind the dorky fender-mount GM badge: five minutes with a hairdryer and they’re a memory.) The LaCrosse' true visual appeal lies in its perfect proportions: badges, lights, trim, glass and sheetmetal all know their place, harmonizing like a barbershop quartet on ecstasy.

Fine proportioning continues within, as economy of line ensures that the LaCrosse’s interior elements complement each other perfectly. Unfortunately, the cabin makes no bones about Buick’s state of the union: this economy is deep in recession. It’s littered with portal trimmings befitting a Chevrolet. Comically placed wood accents are about as convincing as Buick's tagline, and attract jewelry abrasions like a magnet. The Buick’s standard six-speaker audio system delivers mega bass and crystalline treble for front seaters, and nothing sonically stunning for backseat bombers. The tiller's stiff leather wrapping begs Calgon to take it away, away, away.

All is not lost. Peep the wood and chrome accents surrounding the LaCrosse’s headlight controls: the vinyl, chrome and woodgrain dash proclaims “tres chic” (even if the slick console sits on a house of cards foundation). Seating is standard Buick decadence, with the handy addition of fold-flat, pass-through, split-decision rear seats. Pop the finely chiseled decklid and there’s room for both golf bag and golfer. Once properly stowed, the lid's double-linked hinges and zero-leverage grab handle ensures a clean palm print on dirty sheetmetal will finish the job.

While the trunk fails high school physics, torque multiplication is the favorite subject of ye olde 3.8L V6. The 90-degree six-pot provides pure pushrod satisfaction. The powerplant’s 230lb-ft of torque assures gratuitous grunt from the git-go, while 200 horses whip the LaCrosse CXL to redline at a moment’s notice. Yes, but– with only four speeds in play, the LaCrosse needs all the Grand National heritage it can muster. The mill’s trashy tenor at high revs quickly kills Buick's luxo-muscle image. Although the CSX' 3.6-liter VVT DOHC engine stables an 40 extra horses, it's still not enough to lift the Lacrosse’s acceleration above more-than-merely-adequate.

Put the moves on the LaCrosse CXL and it’s clear this Prom Queen won't tango. The car’s steering system walks the line between responsive and relaxing, but moderate understeer and nautical body roll are a total buzz kill. When it’s time for the "fun" to stop, monumental nosedive threatens to trip the airbag sensors. The cushy dampers and mundane Goodyear donuts make it clear the LaCrosse CXL is aimed at elderly drivers who prefer a quiet library to a discotheque (that’s a club to you and me). Which brings us straight to “Quiet Tuning.”

The Buick on the QT delivers a smooth ride and a hushed ambiance (marred only by the pissed-off 3.8L's presence at part throttle). It's quiet fo-sho, but that’s not what you call “sizzle” in the highly-competitive, mid-size sedan market. In fact, cruising down the freeway in the CXL, two words seemed to distill the experience: rental car. It’s easy on the eyes, sports a proven powertrain and possesses the kind of dynamically challenged demeanor that takes the trouble right out of a "troublemaker.”

As Bob Elton reported, Buick dealers are currently shifting a handful of new cars per month. “Value Pricing” or not, there’s no question that superfluous LaCrosse inventory will finds its home in the rental car market. Meanwhile, Hyundai is busy selling conservatively styled, value-added sedans aimed squarely at Buick's niche. A country that's been a democracy all of 19 years makes rides that hand David Dunbar Buick's legacy its collective ass. Sorry, but today's market needs more than a pretty face and reasonable reliability. The LaCrosse is a solid, good-looking dog– that won't hunt.


By Michael Karesh

Engineers will tell you, “Quick, cheap, good: pick any two.” For its first whack at a three-row crossover, GM opted for quick and cheap, and gave us the Buick Rendezvous. Admittedly, the model sold in decent volume– but not because it was quick or good. For 2008, we have Take Two. The Buick Enclave’s styling has already generated far more buzz than the Rendezvous elicited during its entire six-year run. But does the rest of the vehicle measure up to the sensuous sheetmetal?

For once GM has created two (but not quite three) entirely different looks off a common platform. While the GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook are Suburban square, the Buick Enclave is all curves. Bends often render a design feminine, but the Enclave’s massive streamlined prow and flared fenders add enough aggression to extend its appeal to both genders– provided it’s fitted with the CXL’s optional seven-spoke 19” wheels. GM has shod the base-trim CX with 18’s, whose size and styling complement the Enclave’s boldly arched fenders about as well as Keds complete an Armani.

The Enclave’s interior also employs organic curves in place of its siblings' angles. Scads of wood and chrome suggest elegance, even opulence. Unfortunately, it is just a suggestion; the materials deployed are so obviously fake that they make a mockery of the Enclave’s luxurious aspirations. Although the quality is about the same as in the Acadia and Outlook (i.e. good), the Buick’s fancy interior styling promises a much more luxurious vehicle. In this case, “good” is not nearly good enough.

The Enclave's class-exceeding exterior dimensions translate into an unusually commodious interior; all those curves do not reduce interior space by a significant amount. The driving position is very good for those of at least average height. The windshield isn't raked too far back, and you don't sit so high above the IP that you feel like you're driving a minivan.

The Enclave’s front seats aren’t especially supportive or comfortable. GM offers better ones in its large SUVs. As in past GM people-haulers, the second row seats are positioned too low to provide anything resembling thigh support. Their main claim to fame: they collapse to provide an extremely wide walk-through to the third row.

The third row, while also low to the floor (aren’t they all?), is actually more comfortable than the second row. Small side bolsters that extend when the seat is deployed effectively avoid the "park bench" feel of most third-row seats. How odd that the Enclave’s best lateral support can be found in the third row.

A top priority for GM: providing class-leading cargo room behind the third row. In this, they succeeded. The cargo volume is substantially greater than that of any competitor. Both the second and third rows fold flat without removing any headrests to further extend the cargo area.

The Enclave only became feasible for GM this year; the 275-horsepower 3.6-liter DOHC V6 requires stump-pulling gear ratios to adequately accelerate 4,800 pounds of crossover (a full five large with AWD). Last year, every automatic transaxle in GM’s cupboard possessed only four ratios, the first of which would have been hopelessly tall. This year’s new six-speed, while occasionally indecisive and generally slow to react, at least provides suitable ratios.

In short, the Enclave is not slow. Some will argue that “not slow” is not quick enough. But does Mercedes’ R63 AMG make any sense whatsoever? In general, people-haulers need to haul people, not light-up tires.

The Enclave’s handling feels confident and intuitive in high-speed sweepers. Body motions are well-controlled, understeer and body lean are moderate, and transitions are fluid. Tackle some tighter twisties and the picture changes. The Enclave suddenly feels cumbersome and out of its element. The CX’s SUV-spec tires are a mixed bag: they scream early, but not loudly. Enclave drivers are well advised to keep their speed down in the bendy bits.

Better yet, hit the Interstate, where the Enclave shines. Ride quality isn’t quite luxury sedan smooth, but it’s closer than you’ll find in most tall vehicles, with little bobbing about or minor impact harshness. Best of all, even at 80mph the Enclave’s interior remains hushed. The Acadia and Outlook are hardly noisy inside, but the Enclave sets a new standard for quietness. Your eyes may attest that the Enclave is no American Lexus, but your ears will want to argue the point.

So much of the Buick Enclave is so right— the sensuous exterior, the roomy versatile interior, the smooth silent ride— it’s a shame the interior lacks genuine class. Similarly equipped, the Enclave sells for nearly the same price as the GMC Acadia, with which it shares showrooms. If GM had put another grand into the Enclave’s interior, they could have kicked-up the MSRP and brought some major glory to the Buick brand.


By Michael Martineck

Normally, driving a car with a stonking V8 engine powering the front wheels is like watching Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh make out. It's so wrong on so many levels. Can you squeal like a pig? Just so. Will that pig's snout dart about like an amphetamine-crazed truffle-sniffer? Uh-huh. But here's the kicker: what if it doesn't? And what if you, uh, like it? Does that make you a deviant pistonhead? No, it makes you a closet fan of the quietly nutty, deeply cool Buick LaCrosse Super.

The LaCrosse Super is not cool in the traditional sense– as in sex-on-wheels or race-car-for-the-road. It's got that James Dean/Steve McQueen thing happening: effortless, been there done that, I don't need to show you shit (but I can and will). Alternatively, you could say the Super Buick has a large dose of that ineffable "WTF did you buy THAT for?" appeal.

There is no flash. The Super's sheet metal offers clean, feline haunches, graceful proportions, a porthole or eight and some dual stainless steel exhausts– with chrome tips! Everything is round and fluid to a rental car lot fault. There is so little drama in the design that nothing grabs your attention. It flies completely under the radar; no bad thing for lead foots.

Some say the Buick LaCrosse is ugly and cross-eyed. I'm not going to argue. Why spoil the hushed vibe inside the Super's cabin? Buick has touted its QuietTuning technology– but not loudly enough. Baffles, foam filler, sandwich windows and exhaust note-sculpting create a tomb-like still. Insert octogenarian Buick drivers remark here. And it's true: noise reduction isn't exactly a sexy selling point. It's got to be like tenth on most shopper's list (right after change holder). But the aural placidity certainly creates an impression of quality.

Unfortunately, first impressions don't last. This is a Potemkin cabin; the Super only looks sumptuous. The burled wood is buried under more plastic than a fetishist at a PVC party. Gary Wright fans will rejoice in the abundant DreamWeave leather, but the good stuff went to Lexus. As with most GM products of the past quarter century, the plastics are harsh and brittle. (Yes, it's important.)

On the positive side, the Concert Sound III nine-speaker audio system will have you believing Sean Hannity is in the back seat (making out with…?) And there's a lovely set of buttons across the center of the dash that are as easy to manipulate as BMW's iDrive (after you take the 10-week course). But push those buttons and the whole housing moves ever so slightly. It squeaks ‘weak.'

Not so the Super's 5.3-liter 300hp (323 ft.-lbs. of torque) V8 engine. As a good little TTAC reviewer, I jumped on this rolling couch's throttle, making the tires squeal like a guest on Hardball. And yet, no torque steer. The LaCrosse Super goes like Hell– zero to sixty in a reported 5.7 seconds– directly forward. No steering wheel squirm to rattle the ice in your Manhattan.

I know, I know: every single review of this car bemoans the LaCrosse Super's massive torque steer. But, like so many GM products, The General's lieutenants have sorted this shit out– after the press pool party was over. It's a shame…

In the corners, the LaCrosse Super is plenty fast and not much fun. A large front wheel-drive car is always going to be less of a hoot than a rear wheel-drive sedan. And yes, discerning drivers will certainly feel the difference in the curves. But the big Buick's biggest bugaboo has been beaten. Floor it, tighten your biceps and nothing. Buick achieves this without any obvious tricks (i.e. fatter tires on the front). The unobvious ones: closer-fitting gear teeth on the steering rack, tighter bushings, a stiffer torsion rod controlling the variable-effort power assist, and a tweaked Stabilitrak system.

Buick's magnetic steering is not what I would call track worthy, or feelsome, or engaging, or reassuring, or fun. It works well in enough. For parking or emergency lane changes, the amount of effort you don't need is astounding. If this is a deal breaker, buy a Subaru WRX STI. Same price, same power. (Cough. Different driven wheels, different weight.) While you're working up a sweat, the guy in the LaCrosse will give you a half smile.

Clearly, Buick's fastest-ever car (150mph top end) makes no sense. How many of the GM faithful want a vehicle that costs $3470 less than a Cadillac CTS V6; a prestige product that offers the same horsepower, a six-speed tranny, slightly better mileage, no need for premium fuel and fewer tumbleweeds blowing through the dealership? Or how about a cheaper, rear wheel-drive Pontiac G8? Or anything else, really. Not to mention the fact that the LaCrosse is a lame duck, slated for 2010 replacement. I mean, how many ways can you say depreciation?

The Super is super though: a stealth near-wealth machine that makes a coherent case for itself. Providing you're sick or senile. Or, preferably, both