As we left the ocean-kissed air of the coast behind and devoured the miles of Interstate 10 on our journey through an economic wasteland -- half-expecting to see the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckelberg peering down at us through the smog -- we were grateful to be enveloped in the comfort of the capacious Buick LeSabre.
Driving the LeSabre may age you 10 to 50 years, but it is an undeniably serene experience. The ride is quiet and smooth, with very little wind or road noise intruding into the cabin. Front seats are soft and cushy, with 10-way power adjustments for finding the perfect driving position and a heating feature to thaw your tush during the bitter winter months. A nicely positioned center-console armrest and adjustable lumbar support also contribute to the commodious nature of the Buick. The steering wheel tilts (although it doesn't telescope -- c'mon, Buick) and the head-up display can be adjusted to suit the driver's seating position. Seatback-integrated seatbelts, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and convenient steering wheel buttons for stereo, temperature and cruise control also lend a sedative quality to the inside of the LeSabre.
That's not to say that the interior of this behemoth is perfect, mind you. Sure, it has its coddling aspects, but it elicited a fair amount of criticism from all who sat behind the switchgear-laden wheel. First and foremost was the old-school style, steering column-mounted shift lever. It isn't terribly easy to manipulate and it is insanely short - one of our reviewers at first mistook it for a windshield wiper stalk. Plus, the traction control button is mounted on the end of the thing, which doesn't seem very logical.
The interior design of the LeSabre leaves a lot to be desired as well. Although appealingly utilitarian in terms of ergonomics and intuitiveness, the styling cues are bland and outdated, and the fake wood and cheap plastic materials are aesthetically displeasing and tactilely distasteful. Soft plastic is used only on the doors and the top of the dash, and the switchgear feels cheap and clickety.
The inside of the LeSabre certainly delivers in terms of storage space, on the other hand. The cabin is replete with nooks and crannies, including front doors with two door bins each - one big, one small, seatback pockets and a center console which seems a little overwrought with its myriad doors and compartments. One of our editors really dug the two cupholders that flipped out of the console, declaring that it was the best design he'd ever seen in terms of drink placement. Another asserted that the cupholders weren't big enough to hold larger bottles and cups.
Underneath the center armrest resides a lovely, deep chamber for stashing your purse, CDs and such. The little buttons for opening the console compartments, however, we found to be tiny and painful to use. The console also features a nifty notepad holder and coin holders - a good design for those who like to keep everything close at hand. Unfortunately, gaps in the console make it easy to lose items into its depths. And Buick, might we suggest the addition of a cell phone slot? One of our drivers had trouble retrieving his from the recesses of the armrest after it slid off of the impractical little flip-out tray next to the cupholders.
Front-seat passengers are decently taken care of in the Buick LeSabre. They get a roomy, heated seat with automatic controls (minus lumbar) and their own temperature control, although it's situated where you'd expect to find the window switch. Rear-seat passengers aren't so well off; the seats are soft and roomy with decent foot and legroom and reasonable thigh support, but the seatback may be raked too far back for the tastes of some. A rear-seat armrest pulls down in the middle, revealing two more cupholders. Alas, backseat guests receive no headrests, but they do get two reading lights to match the two up front, and the middle passenger gets a three-point seatbelt.
On the outside, the LeSabre is stately and inoffensive, with graceful, understated lines. Its shape is reminiscent of either an oversized Ford Taurus or a Jaguar S-Type, depending on one's mood. The whole car has a solid look and feel. Doors slam shut with a satisfying "thunk" and, aside from some minor gap tolerance discrepancies, the exterior appeared to be solidly bolted together.
Now that we've thoroughly nitpicked about the LeSabre's design, let's focus on some of its less debatable aspects -- namely, the engine and transmission. We had a good time piloting this thing, especially on long stretches of highway. Power delivery from the 3.8-liter V6 is smooth and rapid; the engine makes 205 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 230 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. The vehicle imparts a solid and secure feel at high speeds, and LeSabre has ample low-end torque for plenty of oomph in passing maneuvers and for drag racing (just kidding). Upshifts are only slightly noticeable, and we liked that we got a tachometer, even with the automatic tranny.
The suspension isn't as soft as we thought it would be, most likely because our tester was equipped with the sporty-intentioned Gran Touring package. The ride is not terribly floaty, although undulations in the tarmac would sometimes set our heads a-bobbing as if we were extras in a Dr. Dre video. The suspension quells bumps beautifully, while keeping wallowy sensations to a minimum. We tested the stability control system with sloppy steering inputs and found that we were able to spin the car on dry pavement, which is a little unnerving.
Steering in the LeSabre is well weighted and responsive, although it communicates very little road feel. The brakes are capable, with a minimum of pedal travel and easy modulation - stopping is neither abrupt nor heart attack inducing. One annoying point worth noting, however, is the discrepancy in placement between the brake and gas pedals - it is necessary to pull one's foot back pretty far to apply the brakes and it feels unnatural.
Outward visibility could be improved. Even though the general sensation within the vehicle is one of vastness, the ceiling feels a little low and the rear window is set too high for optimum rearward viewing. The seatbelt anchor built into the front seat also makes for a massive blind spot. A redesigned greenhouse certainly wouldn't do this Buick any harm.
There were some thoughtful features on the LeSabre that especially wooed us. The remote entry was very hospitable. At night, the car would light up like a Molotov cocktail and beckon to us from across the parking lot. The trunk-opening mechanism on the key fob worked beautifully, as well. Not only would it unlock -- it would open up completely, ready for us to load our burden into its cavernous interior. The liftover is relatively low, thus easing loading and unloading. On the other hand, we're dismayed that Buick has failed to equip the LeSabre with a split-folding rear seatback; all we get is a ski pass-through. Another bit of unpleasantness: the interior materials of the backseat can be seen through a hole in the trunk, which we thought was pretty cheesy. Some build quality issues were also evident inside the cabin, where we discovered improperly secured plastic around the HomeLink controls, an upper dash that could be easily pulled up and a slight bubbling on the passenger-side dash pad.
We enjoyed our ride in the Buick LeSabre Limited. This car certainly cannot be described as sporty or nimble -- but then, it really isn't meant to be, now is it? Smooth and fast, it will protect you from the noisy outside world and the harshness of the road below while getting you where you need to be in a timely and comfortable manner. It doesn't look too shabby, either - this is an attractive, mature sedan that is likely to appeal to more than just the traditional Buick buyer.
System Score: 3.5
Components. The first impression of this audio system is how wonderfully integrated it is into the cabin of the vehicle. This begins with a pair of 6-by-9 speakers along the back deck, which are concealed beneath a light beige carpet that overlays that portion of the car. This theme is continued in the front doors, where a pair of mid-range drivers are concealed in the bottom of the door panel. A pair of tweeters above complete the speaker setup in this vehicle (there are no speakers in the rear doors).
Electronically, the system offers further evidence of solid planning. The head unit has a number of nice design cues, such as an enormous LED readout that you can read from the backseat, a large circular volume knob that is illuminated for night driving, easy-to-locate rocker switches for seek and tune, and a logical layout. You could quibble with the dinky size of some of the buttons (such as bass, treble, balance and fade), but overall the faceplate presents a usable interface. It's a nice effort, and has the advantage of not resembling all other GM radios.
Performance. With all the great comments above, why am I giving this system such a lousy score? Folks, it just sounds really bad. After going out of their way to design a really attractive and stylish audio system that fits perfectly within the vehicle, the designers forgot (or ran out of money from GM) to include good sound. This is one of the thinnest sounding stereos I've heard in a long time. If my ears serve me correctly, the Chevy Cavalier sounds better than this car. Specifically, there is no bass response, high frequencies are harsh and brassy, and the mids, while containing some detail, have no real depth. The main problem, though, is probably the lack of proper amplification to drive the speakers. Whatever the reason, this one sounds just plain awful, and needs some major reengineering.
Best Feature: Integrated design presents a stylish look.
Worst Feature: Subpar sound quality.
Conclusion. This one comes up short. For such a large vehicle, it needs a much larger sound. Scott Memmer