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LaCrosse marks a new direction for Buick

July 09, 2004|by RICHARD RUSSELL/Wheelbase Communications

Buick has set a goal of becoming a more upscale, luxury-oriented General Motors brand and the first fruit of this new vision is the 2005 LaCrosse.

To be released this fall, it will replace both the long-running Century and Regal.

While not exactly ground-breaking, the LaCrosse is a definite step in the right direction for Buick. It's evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The style is clearly evocative of the current pair of Buicks it replaces and the greasy bits beneath that familiar skin continue to be old tech. The platform is a slightly modified version of that found beneath the Regal as is the suspension. The base engine remains the tried-and-true 200-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6, and there are four speeds in the transmission case in an era where five are commonplace.

But look a little deeper and there is some forward movement toward a more premium car. The LaCrosse is clear evidence of a new effort across all GM lines to upgrade interiors, and in almost all areas related to refinement is clearly superior to current Buick product.

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When it arrives, LaCrosse will come in three trim levels: CX; CXL; and CXS. The range-topping CXS will get a 240-horsepower, all-aluminum 3.6-liter double-overhead-camshaft V-6 with variable valve timing as introduced on the Cadillac CTS and, more recently, on the Buick Rendezvous Ultra. This is a decidedly modern engine derived from the 4.6-liter Northstar DOHC V-8 and has drawn praise for its brawn and smoothness. Both it and the base 3.8 are equipped with electronic throttle control for smoother response.

While the exterior is familiar, the interior has come in for an extensive makeover with a clean and simple overall look. Soft-touch surfaces, brushed aluminum, chrome and faux wood trim lend an overall air of greater sophistication, at least compared to the Regal and Century. Tighter panel gaps and higher-quality materials are also evident and the control layout more modern. As with other Buicks, the LaCrosse can seat six when equipped with a front bench. Rear-seat room easily surpasses that of the Regal and Century thanks to a longer wheelbase.

As befits its role as a premium car, even the least-expensive LaCrosse will come well equipped. The CX gets a power driver's seat, keyless remote entry, power windows and power locks. The CXL adds a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, leather interior trim and alloy wheels. Aside from the more powerful engine, the CXS gets anti-lock brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels, a tighter suspension and full-range traction control.

Stability control, which keeps the LaCrosse pointing in the right direction under adverse conditions, is available on the CXS and brings with it the second generation of GM's Magnasteer, which takes into account steering angle as well as vehicle speed when doling out power assist. Other available options include a backup sensor and side-curtain air bags.

Extensive effort has gone into the "quiet tuning" Buick engineers first applied to the Rainier, with additional acoustic paneling and tighter seals to reduce both wind and road noise.

GM's 100-year-old Buick brand is returning to its roots - cars, that is - after spending a great deal of time and effort on vehicles such as the nifty Rendezvous and Rainier sport-utility vehicle.

The LaCrosse replaces two vehicles that account for almost half of Buick car sales and will hopefully attract a younger clientele into stores. Currently, Buick buyers, at an average age of 64, are the oldest in the industry.

Obviously, there's a lot riding on the LaCrosse's four contact patches, not the least of which is Buick's future as a builder of upscale cars.

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