Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Buick marketing pros, engineers and executives alike have made a rather bold statement about the new 2005 Buick LaCrosse. "The Lexus ES 330 was our target while developing this car and we think we've hit the mark." Not surprisingly, we met that statement with a healthy dose of skepticism. But don't start writing your "you're anti-American" letters just yet. It's not that we think Buicks are bad cars — quite the opposite. Domestic brands like Buick, Oldsmobile and Lincoln have been showing up near the top of lists like the J.D. Power initial quality survey for years now. But the problem with Buick hasn't been quality so much as public perception. Long seen as a car built strictly for "old people," many consumers simply ignore Buick because the cars just don't seem appealing when compared to brands like Acura, Infiniti, Lexus and now Chrysler. We can't blame them — Buick has done little to debunk its stodgy image, as cars like the Century, LeSabre and Regal seem almost proud of their blandness. Not so with the Buick LaCrosse.
GM wants you to believe that there's a new wind blowing through the halls of Buick, and the LaCrosse is the latest manifestation of that new spirit. Led by the Buick Rendezvous, then the Buick Rainier and more recently the Buick Terraza minivan (or "Sport Van" as GM likes to call it), the company has introduced enough new products in recent years to bolster the idea that its revival is more than just hype. It's not lost on us that the last three new cars have been truck-type vehicles, but with the debut of the Buick LaCrosse, the company is now turning its attention back to the car side of the equation and it's about time.
But back to that statement about the new Buick LaCrosse sedan matching the Lexus ES 330. Regardless of whether the company has hit the mark or not, Buick is serious about bringing its cars up a notch or two. The two-step process involves giving the cars and trucks higher-quality interiors and incorporating a "Quiet Tuning" package that essentially makes the cars smoother and quieter — you know, like a Lexus.
In Buick's eyes, the road to Lexus-like vehicles is paved with Quiet Tuning technology and in many ways it works. There are many aspects to Quiet Tuning, but the biggest gains are the result of adding laminate to the windshield and side windows, adding a noise-suppressing engine cover, recalibrating various belt-driven pulleys, revising the power steering lines and installing extra sound-deadening material throughout the cabin. A special exhaust system is also part of the package. Unique resonators and mufflers are also employed to reduce exhaust noise.
So has Buick built a real Lexus fighter in the new LaCrosse? Yes and no. If the only goal is to build a car that has a firm but supple ride combined with an ultraquiet interior, then yes, it has done just that: The LaCrosse at least equals the ES 330 in these areas. However, there is more to a great car than just a quiet interior. Some of the essential elements of a premium sedan are simply missing. Although there are plans to add one later, there is currently no navigation system offered on the LaCrosse. Also, the lack of a power-adjustable seat back is a glaring omission. The seat bottoms and lumbar adjustments are power and the seats overall are quite comfortable, but you'll have to adjust the rake of the seat back manually no matter which trim level you choose. That is decidedly un-Lexus-like.
On the plus side, the Buick LaCrosse offers the option of five- or six-passenger seating — five-passenger versions get a center armrest and storage container, while the six-passenger version has a column-mounted gear selector and a center armrest that folds away. The dash incorporates plenty of wood grain and leather with the overall look being very pleasant if not ultra premium. Look closer, though, and the faux wood trim is hardly convincing, as even the Saturn Relay minivan that we drove the same day seemed to have nicer trim. The LaCrosse's center stack works well, but its matte black finish is rather bland, and excessive space on either side of the stereo head unit makes it look like something is missing. It's these little things that conspire to give the LaCrosse a less-than-Lexus appeal when taken as a whole.
Get behind the wheel of the top-of-the-line Buick LaCrosse CXS and you'll find little to complain about. Available trim levels are CX, CXL and CXS. The CXS benefits from bigger wheels and tires (17s versus the 16s on the CX and CXL), an upgraded FE3 suspension and a unique engine. The standard Buick LaCrosse power plant is GM's 3800 Series III V6 that makes an adequate 200 horsepower. The CXS alone receives an all-aluminum, 3.6-liter V6 with variable valve timing that makes 240 hp and provides plenty of silent thrust — just like a Lexus.
All trim levels come with a four-speed automatic transmission. The Lexus ES 330 uses a five-speed automatic, but in this case, the Buick comes out on top by virtue of the fact that its smooth-shifting four-speed is immune to the Lexus unit's propensity to shift hard and "hunt" for the right gear.
Take the Buick LaCrosse around some twists and turns and it doesn't suffer from excessive body roll or that uncontrolled "floaty" feeling often associated with older Buicks. In fact, the LaCrosse is probably the best-handling Buick ever mass-produced. Curiously, the LaCrosse in CXS trim feels sportier than the Lexus ES that was its target. Another indication that Buick may have thrown out the old playbook is the firm and well-balanced brakes. Lacking the excessive travel and mushy feel of many GM sedans, the LaCrosse again comes off as a reasonable "sporty" sedan.
Like most GM cars, the real advantage over the import-branded competition comes into play when considering price. The base price for a midlevel Buick LaCrosse CXL is about $26,000, whereas an ES 330's price starts at $32,000. On the Lexus, items like a navigation system and power-adjustable pedals are extra-cost items, but at least buyers have the option of choosing those things.
Priced more like a loaded, V6-powered Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, the 2005 Buick LaCrosse offers a lot of features for a fair price. Does it ultimately top the Lexus ES 330? In some ways, the answer is yes. The ride, handling, transmission and interior noise levels are all on par with, or in some cases, better than the Lexus. But the beauty of a Lexus, or a Toyota for that matter, is in the details. Although the Buick LaCrosse is a competent sedan with many high marks, it's the lack of attention to the little things that will conspire to keep the Buick a few steps behind its much admired Japanese target.
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