Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
The "eAssist" badge on the 2012 Buick LaCrosse is a quiet announcement that comfort, luxury and roominess can coexist with fuel efficiency.
The LaCrosse, quiet and smooth at highway speeds, not only seats five comfortably but its backseat offers limousinelike legroom. And yet this attractive sedan is capable of attaining 36 mpg on the highway thanks to its mild hybrid system, known as eAssist. The EPA rates the new 2012 Buick LaCrosse at 29 mpg on the combined driving cycle. We, however observed a somewhat lower 24.1 mpg over 700 miles of stop-and-go highway driving.
General Motors has chosen to not trumpet this car's mild hybrid powertrain, a reaction to GM's first use of this technology with several Saturn models, which brought a backlash of negative publicity when fuel economy was boosted by only about 2 mpg. This time around, GM is under-promising even as it is over-delivering by improving the LaCrosse's mpg rating by nearly 25 percent. The eAssist is standard in the 2012 Buick LaCrosse, although a V6 engine is an option. In the 2012 Buick Regal, the eAssist system is available as a $2,000 option.
The LaCrosse starts at $32,440 (our loaded, top-trim test car stickered at almost $38,000) and competes against the powerful, rear-wheel-drive 2012 Hyundai Genesis or the refined and more expensive 2012 Lexus ES 350. Shoppers set on getting a hybrid should also look at the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, which gets even better fuel efficiency.
The LaCrosse's eAssist combines a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a mild hybrid system to post impressive fuel economy numbers (25 city/36 highway) for such a roomy sedan. The mild hybrid system is essentially an automatic stop/start function that shuts down the engine at a full stop and then smoothly brings the engine to life again when you put your foot on the throttle. This feature (rapidly being adopted by lots of car manufacturers, notably those in Europe) works with this LaCrosse model's improved aerodynamics to boost fuel efficiency. The auto-stop feature might strike some drivers as unusual at first, but it is intuitive and turns the car's gas engine on and off without hesitation or shuddering, and indeed, it's the best example of this technology that we've experienced.
The hybrid system recaptures energy through regenerative braking and stores it in a lithium-ion battery pack. The gas engine gets a 15-horsepower boost from an 11-kilowatt electric motor to develop a total of 182 hp, which is sufficient to propel the LaCrosse from a standstill to 60 mph in a respectable 9.4 seconds. The four-cylinder engine has to rev pretty hard to make its power, offers modest torque (developing only 172 pound-feet) and can sound a bit harsh under strong acceleration. Still, the smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission efficiently manages power to the front wheels and provides an overall pleasant driving experience.
The LaCrosse's steering is light and effortless, and while there's little feedback, it seems appropriate for a luxury sedan. In Edmunds testing we learned that the Michelin P235/50R17 Energy Saver all-season tires provide less cornering grip than conventional all-season tires, which is reflected in the skid pad tests and an average speed of 61.5 mph through the slalom. The suspension is particularly soft, providing a pleasing highway ride but allowing noticeable body roll through the corners.
The LaCrosse's antilock disc brakes, with brake assist, provided excellent stopping power, bringing the sedan to a stop from 60 mph in only 114.9 feet. Among other safety features are stability and traction control, front-seat side-impact airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and the OnStar telematics system. Our test car also came with the radar-based blind-zone alert system that displays an icon on the outside mirrors when there is a vehicle in a blind spot on either side of the car. This is a welcome feature for driving on increasingly congested multilane highways.
Previous Buick owners who are stepping up to this new-generation LaCrosse will likely be impressed by the driving dynamics of this elegant sedan. However, those preferring a firm, responsive ride should either opt for the nimble Buick Verano or a sport-oriented competitor such as the Hyundai. Yet there's no denying that the LaCrosse comes into its own on the open road, where it is remarkably stable and confident. Around town, the LaCrosse accelerates adequately and the auto-stop feature reduces stress at long lights where, otherwise, sitting still and burning gas would seem horribly wasteful.
Thanks to Buick's use of extra acoustic insulation and thicker glass, the cabin is ultra-quiet and well insulated. The front driver and passenger power seats provide excellent lower back support and are very comfortable. Meanwhile, the backseat legroom is a full 2 inches longer than in competing cars.
The center console is attractive and well laid out. The Bluetooth connection was easy to establish and worked flawlessly. There is a surprising lack of storage compartments in front of the shifter. Most modern consumers have come to expect a handy place to park their wallet and cell phone while driving. The only spot for storage is in a roll-top compartment that's awkwardly placed too far back. No sunglasses compartment is provided above the rearview mirror and the door storage compartments, which are expandable, are narrow and provide little practical use.
The LaCrosse's gauges are subtle and pleasing and the interior mood lighting (including a glowing line of light blue across the dash) is quite elegant. However, the video screen for the rear back-up camera is grainy, and it's also slow to appear once the car is placed in Reverse. One other ergonomic failing lies in the ignition key, a conventional, square-tipped key that is hard to insert in the ignition in the dark (no courtesy light helps you guide it into the ignition). One would expect a car of otherwise high quality to have a smart key and push-button start.
Virtually the only real compromise of the hybrid system appears when the trunk is opened. A boxy intrusion, labeled with a battery icon, shows that much of the storage room is taken up by the hybrid's battery. However, the trunk does permit two golf bags to be stored without much difficulty, while one rear seatback folds down for a pass-through opening. The front-facing visibility is somewhat compromised by the A-pillar, though this is a common design — and problem — in many modern cars. The rear visibility is also less than ideal.
Design/Fit and Finish
In carbon black metallic, our test car looked long and sleek, with pleasing lines evoking something of the 1960s, a measure of the tasteful yet modern design that is coming from GM these days. Inside and out, this LaCrosse felt solid and well-constructed thanks to both the quality of the materials and an excellent standard of build quality. Dual DVD screens for the backseat passengers mean that even families with small children could be happy in this car on long road trips. The low monthly cost of fuel — estimated at $143 as compared to $179 in the Hyundai Genesis — reduces the True Cost of Ownership ® substantially.
Who should consider this vehicle
The roomy interior, hybrid powertrain and acceptable cargo space make the 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist either a useful family car or a great calling card for executives. Moreover, it might give former Buick owners motivation to return to the brand and even attract eco-leaning buyers with its combination of fuel efficiency and comfort.
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