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Over the years, we've driven cars that disappoint, cars that irk, cars that thrill. We've even sampled a few that made us laugh. But the 2006 Buick Lucerne CXL V8 is the only car we've ever driven that has caused us physical pain.
Our Platinum Metallic test vehicle was packed with options, including heated and cooled front seats that cost an extra $1,075. The cooling part of the package was fine, but using the seat heaters turned the Buick's front seats into torture devices. Now we know what it's like to sit on an open flame.
Logbook entries on the subject included: "Call the burn unit, I just used the seat heaters."
After a few days we all learned to avoid the seat heater button on the door panel, but the Lucerne's botched bun warmers aren't the only thing about Buick's newest sedan that left us cold.
To create the Lucerne CXL V8, which is the brand's first full-size, front-wheel-drive, V8-powered luxury sedan, Buick essentially rebodied the Cadillac DTS and shaved a few grand off the sticker price.
Sound idea. Buick needed to replace its long-in-the-tooth Park Avenue, and the new model would have a V8 engine, a novelty for its class. Problem is, the DTS isn't exactly a spring chicken. The bulk of its hardware has been around since the late 1990s and it's all showing its age.
Even the 4.6-liter Northstar V8 is graying around its temples. In the Lucerne, it's rated at 275 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 290 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. Impressive numbers five or six years ago, but the much smaller V6 engines in the 2006 Hyundai Azera and 2006 Toyota Avalon nearly match that output.
At 3,869 pounds the Lucerne is also heavy for its class, and to make matters worse, Buick backs the V8 with a four-speed automatic transmission, which is about as cutting edge as a cassette deck. It shifts smoothly enough for a luxury car, but its gear ratios are too tall to give the Lucerne an alert, ready-when-you-are feel.
As expected, the Buick's acceleration times aren't really any better than the times posted by its V6-powered competition. The Lucerne isn't slow, but it isn't the banker's hot rod its V8 would lead you to believe. At the test track 0-60 mph took 7.7 seconds and the quarter-mile was completed in 15.5 seconds at 92 mph.
On the same day at the same strip we tested an Azera and it ran from zero to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and matched the Lucerne's quarter-mile performance. The last Avalon we tested was even quicker. Buy a Lucerne with the standard V6 and you should expect to be shut down by the ice cream truck.
Of course the V6 Hyundai and Toyota are without the Lucerne's throaty V8 soundtrack, which is certainly worth something, but they're much more fuel-efficient than the Buick. We averaged less than 14 mpg during our week in the Lucerne, 21 mpg in the Avalon and 17.7 mpg in the Azera.
Where's the power steering?
Order the top-of-food-chain Lucerne CXS and you get the V8 standard as well as Cadillac's Magnetic Ride Control suspension, and larger 18-inch wheels and Bridgestone tires. This is the setup we praised in our first drive of the Lucerne.
This midlevel CXL model, which goes without the magnetic suspension and 18-inch rubber, isn't nearly as well sorted. For starters, its 17-inch Continental tires struggle under the mass of the oversized sedan. They howl in protest every time you turn the wheel and provide little grip. The suspension, which features load-leveling air shocks in the rear, is also tuned too softly and relies too heavily on the electronic stability control to get the car around corners. StabiliTrak is a good system, but can only do so much. Our best run through our slalom test was just 59 mph, which is 3 mph slower than the Azera tested on the same day.
With that big engine sitting between its front tires, it shouldn't be a surprise that understeer is the Lucerne's preferred cornering attitude. In tight bends the outside edge of its front tires takes quite a beating, and there's torque steer if you wood it on the way out.
Like its tires, the Buick's magnetic steering system doesn't like the turns much either. Its ratio is quick enough, but there's too much assist and off-center response is oddly abrupt. Its power assist also stopped working for about an hour after we drove the car hard through a series of corners. Cooked its fluid is our guess. It had been awhile since we drove a car with manual steering, and we hope it's a long time before we experience it again.
On open road, the Lucerne is happier. In long, fast sweepers, the Buick's soft suspension leans over slowly and takes a nice set. And the ride, while a little floaty for our taste, is agreeable if you like that kind of thing.
Its light steering helps hide the Lucerne's size around town, but the car's huge 42.2-foot turning radius (44 feet with the 18-inch wheels) makes parking and U-turns a problem. Grave Digger, the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe and the USS Ronald Reagan all have tighter turning circles.
Its brakes are also inexcusably deficient. Pedal feel isn't bad, but its best stop from 60 mph took up almost 138 feet, which is worse than most of the SUVs we've tested lately.
Inside, the Lucerne is a tranquil place. Interior sound levels at full throttle and at 70 mph are lower than we recorded in the 2007 Lexus ES 350 we tested recently.
The rest of the Lucerne's interior, however, doesn't hold up against its competition. With the exception of its chrome metal door handles, which are appropriately upscale, the Lucerne's interior doesn't have the premium feel we expected. Seat comfort is average, the cupholders are laughably shallow, and forward vision is blocked by A-pillars the size of railroad ties. Our test car also had several fit and finish issues, including a loose headliner.
Yes, there's an abundance of wood and leather, but the materials are average for a car with a $35,000 sticker price. As is the Lucerne's equipment list. Despite its sticker, our Lucerne did not have a sunroof, a telescopic steering wheel or one-touch up windows. Those in the Snowbelt, however, will appreciate its optional heated windshield washer fluid and its remote vehicle starter system. Six airbags and OnStar are standard.
We are, however, fans of the Buick's dashboard. Although it's strange that the tachometer is without a redline, the gauges are laid out simply and easy on the eyes. The same can also be said for the Lucerne's sound and climate controls, which feature large knobs and minimal buttons.
Three fit in back without much elbow wrestling, and the trunk is large enough for another couple of acquaintances. Too bad Buick still uses the old-fashioned trunk hinges that intrude into the cargo area.
Just not our thing
So aside from its blowtorch bun warmers, and perhaps its warmed windshield washer fluid, the Lucerne isn't exactly a hot one. It looks good on paper and in the flesh (Buick deserves bonus points for doing the portholes and doing them right), but out on the road, and in the cutthroat $28,000-$38,000 luxury sedan market, the 2006 Buick Lucerne CXL V8 just doesn't have the depth of execution to fight off its long list of new competition.
Cars like the Hyundai Azera, Lexus ES 350 and Toyota Avalon may have six cylinders under their hoods, but they deliver more completely on the promise of a premium sedan.
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our test was a Lucerne CXL equipped with the optional Entertainment Package. That package costs $795 and upgrades the sound system with a 280-watt amplifier and nine Harman Kardon speakers. It also includes XM radio with three free months. The standard system has a mini-jack for connecting handheld MP3 players, Radio Data System, speed-compensating volume control, preset equalizer settings, steering-wheel-mounted radio controls, and a CD player that will play MP3 CDs. If you want a six-disc CD changer, that will cost you an extra $300.
Performance: The Lucerne's optional system with Harman Kardon speakers sounds very good. We're not sure it's worth the extra $795 but it does deliver very good sound quality.
The bass is punchy and actually has some kick at times, and there is little distortion even when the volume is turned up. Separation is also good with highs, mids and bass remaining distinct through all types of music. Our complaint with the sound quality is that the system overall sounds a little bright. The highs were more of a distraction than anything, and on some rock tracks there was just too much high-end sound. Also, of the system's nine speakers, five are up front so the sound is very front-biased.
We really like the great-looking head unit and display. The knobs feel nice and the display screen is easy to read day or night. Also, the redundant controls on the steering wheel feel nice and work well with the head unit — most functions can be accomplished via the steering wheel.
Best Feature: Bass response.
Worst Feature: Highs can be shrill.
Conclusion: The bummer with this system is that if you want the nice nine-speaker stereo and a CD changer, you'll be spending over $1,000. However, the sound quality is very good and exactly what we would expect from a premium-branded car. — Brian Moody
Managing Editor Donna DeRosa says:
I like it — perhaps for the wrong reasons. I love big, comfortable, dare I say, old-man sedans. It floats down the road with attitude. It picks up speed quickly, brakes smoothly and handles responsively. This is why people still want to buy American: V8 engines and lots of space. It's the perfect example of unapologetic American excess.
This mammoth is nearly as long and an inch wider than our long-term crew cab Nissan Frontier. It's bigger than my old New York apartment. If it had a bench seat in front, I would swear I quantum-leaped back to the 1970s. It reminds me of the kind of cars my dad used to enjoy driving, but with a few modern touches.
When I turned, the A-pillars blocked much of my view, but that's a complaint I have with a lot of today's cars. I loved its unwimpy heated seats that have three levels: hot, hotter and burn-my-butt. Have no fear, when things get too toasty, there is a cooling feature, too.
I really liked it until I found out how much it costs. Our test car came in at $35K-plus, which is about $10,000 more than I would be willing to pay for it. And that, my friends, is the domestic automakers' problem in a nutshell.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I'm not ashamed, I like the Buick Lucerne. If I had to narrow it down to exactly why I like it, I'd have to say there are two key factors. The exterior and the car's highway ride. I also like that the Lucerne is a V8-powered sedan that can be had for about $30,000; $35K with some decent options. Granted, the Lucerne's not necessarily very quick but I still like the reassuring purr of a V8 under the hood.
I also like the car's highway ride. There is a plushness to it that I find comforting; it feels substantial. I know, it's no Audi or BMW 5 Series, and the Touring version of the Toyota Avalon probably handles better but I still like the smooth, quiet nature of this Buick. Inside, the seats are wide and accommodating and the dash is attractive with simple and well-laid-out controls.
Judged on its own merits, the Buick Lucerne is a fine car. The problem is that the car is not outstanding, not an out-of-the-park home run, and there are few, if any, compelling reasons for it to exist. I like the Lucerne better than the Toyota Avalon but the new 2007 Camry will probably be priced under $30,000, and our test car was priced close to $35,000. Plus, add the all-new Hyundai Azera to the mix and, at $29,000 for a loaded car, it gets pretty ugly for the Lucerne. When I compare the Lucerne and Azera in my mind, I just don't see an extra $5,000 in the Buick.
If it was my money we're spending here, I'd simply get a Chrysler 300C and call it a day.
"I've driven Cadillacs, Park Avenues, Grand Prixes, Lincolns and others. This is the best of the best. All I have to do is get in and steer, it pretty much does everything else. It sets my seat, turns to my favorite radio channel, turns on the lights when needed, turns on the wipers when needed, the radio automatically increases the volume as your highway speed increases to adjust for any slight increase in noise level due to engine speed, etc. What more do I need? The V8 engine is amazing, far superior to the V6. I may not get 28 mpg, but 25 mpg with this better performance is worth it. For those who want a luxury car without the luxury price, look at the BUICK LUCERNE." — Ron Mosley, March 8, 2006
"We took delivery on Dec. 15 and have driven 2,000 miles since. We drove an Avalon, and the Lucerne is way ahead in styling and equal or above in comfort. The rear assist for parking is very handy and being able to turn the heat on the back of the seat is very comfortable for a bad back. Everything is positive except for two minor details. The trunk release is very inconvenient to access in the glovebox, and the placement of the compass needs to be back on the rearview mirror. Other than that I'd rate it a 10." — Oldguy, February 2, 2006
"I waited for months to buy this car. I've always owned GM and been pleased, so I was really excited to see the Lucerne come along. I bought my loaded CXL V8 one week ago and am embarrassed by the attention it generates. This car is tight, beautiful and very fast — really. During the first two days I found each feature was exactly what I would have wanted and smiled to myself knowing I had made a really satisfying purchase. It is important that you drive a V8 Lucerne and then perhaps a Lexus or Infiniti. All of your senses will tell you that this is the one." — TBP, January 3, 2006
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