Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
In response to the growing backlash toward ill-handling, gas-guzzling SUVs, just about every major car company has responded with the development of so-called crossover vehicles. These occasionally misshapen hybrids are an attempt to combine the positive aspects of SUVs (great visibility, all-terrain capability, adaptable cargo room) with the superior handling and fuel economy of sedans and wagons. Sometimes this works: for example, the Lexus RX 300 and Subaru Outback; sometimes it doesn't: can you say Pontiac Aztek?
With the release of the Rendezvous, Buick is hoping to capitalize on the mounting interest in this hot new category, while at the same time broadening its customer base beyond the AARP crowd. Although it shares its platform, engine and transmission with Pontiac's Aztek and targets a similar market young, active-lifestyle families the Rendezvous sports tasteful exterior styling and an upscale interior that's infinitely more palatable than its garish corporate brother's.
Like most modern sedans, the 2002 Rendezvous is built on a unibody chassis for superior structural rigidity and handling. Unlike the Aztek, all Rendezvous get a fully independent suspension utilizing coil springs and struts up front, and cast-aluminum control arms and coil springs in the rear. Front and rear antiroll bars keep the tall body from rolling excessively in the corners, and standard 16-inch wheels wearing P215/70R16 tires provide the grip.
Tooling around the city streets of Palm Springs, Calif., at the recent press introduction revealed a surprisingly taut and controlled ride. Gone is the pillowy ride quality so typical of Buick's sedans, replaced by a pleasantly firm but never jarring feel that should please both loyal and first-time Buick buyers alike. We wouldn't go so far as to call it sporty, but trying to make a top-heavy, two-ton utility wagon handle like a sports car is an understandably fruitless task, so we can forgive the Rendezvous in that regard.
Less forgivable is the somewhat breathless V6 under the hood. Borrowed from GM's minivan lineup, this 3.4-liter V6 pushrod powerplant drives the front wheels with 185 horsepower and 210 foot-pounds of torque, and is backed by a four-speed overdrive automatic transmission. Although the engine does manage to move the chunky sport-ute with ease around town, the acceleration at higher speeds could best be described as leisurely. The power delivery is smooth and constant, but the crescendo of noise and vibration at higher rpms isn't quite befitting of a vehicle so calm and composed otherwise. Considering that the Rendezvous' direct competition, the Lexus RX 300 and Acura MDX have 220 and 240 horsepower, respectively, Buick would be well advised to up the ante in the horsepower department in future upgrades. We've got a feeling they're already well aware of that.
To reinforce the idea of the Rendezvous as a vehicle for "active-lifestyle" families, Buick will offer GM's new Versatrak all-wheel drive. Under normal driving conditions, the Versatrak system sends power to the front wheels only, but should the weather get ugly, or you decide to test the limits of the Rendezvous' measly 7 inches of ground clearance, the Versatrak system will automatically engage the rear wheels for additional traction when wheel slippage occurs. The real beauty of this system is that it requires no driver input, engaging transparently with no knobs to turn or levers to pull.
Test-driving the Rendezvous in the balmy high desert of Southern California didn't exactly call for all-wheel traction, but just knowing that it's there when you need it is likely the biggest draw of this system. Off-colored body cladding around the lower portion of the vehicle does gives the Rendezvous a more rugged look, but there's no doubt that this sport-ute is intended for pavement duty only. The aforementioned ground clearance is barely enough to clear minor obstacles, and the lack of low-range gearing further reinforces the urban nature of this semi-SUV.
So it can't tackle the Rubicon trail so what? Much more important to our evaluation of Buick's latest crossover entry was its ability to tackle the day-to-day demands of an active family, the one they're so precisely targeting with the Rendezvous.
Competing against minivans and monster sport-utes requires supreme adaptability when it comes to the handling of passengers and cargo. The Rendezvous delivers with seating for seven that can be easily reconfigured for additional cargo space. Bench seats are standard in the second row, optional in the third, and both are easily foldable with simple levers. Second-row captain's chairs are optional, leaving room for one less passenger, but they can be fully removed to provide maximum cargo space. With the second row taken out and the third-row bench folded flat, the Rendezvous boasts a whopping 108 cu. ft. of cargo space. Compare that to 105 cu. ft. for a Chevy Tahoe and 110 cu. ft. for the Ford Expedition, and it's easy to see why the Rendezvous makes a sensible alternative to larger, less efficient sport-utes.
We found the front- and second-row seats in our bench-equipped tester easy to manipulate and quite comfortable. But like most midsize vehicles with third-row benches, actual passenger room in the final row is fairly limited. Kids might have fun with the hideaway feeling of the rearmost seat, but with limited legroom and an intrusive low-hanging seatbelt anchor on the ceiling, adults would be well advised to stick to the front rows. Our only other gripe concerns the third-row release lever on the back of the seat that can be a little hard to reach from the rear when the seat is folded flat, but this is typical of such setups.
The Rendezvous comes in two trim levels: base CX and top-of-the-line CXL. Base CX models come standard with front-wheel drive with the Versatrak system or traction control as options. Standard features on both include front and side airbags for the driver and passenger, remote keyless entry, an AM/FM stereo with a CD player, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the usual assortment of power-operated goodies. CXL models add the Versatrak all-wheel-drive system as standard in addition to leather seating, dual-zone automatic climate control, aluminum wheels, an in-dash CD changer and body-colored side mirrors.
Regardless of the trim level, the interior of the Rendezvous is stylish and comfortable. A unique gauge cluster is the most noticeable highlight, featuring silver-faced gauges with green backlighting that is both readable and attractive. Dash clutter has been kept to a minimum, but a three-tone color scheme and metallic accents mix things up enough to keep the interior from looking too bland. The audio and climate controls are canted toward the driver for good visibility and a short reach, and the CXL's steering wheel audio controls are well placed for quick adjustments.
The large center console between the driver and passenger is a thoughtfully designed unit that provides enough storage space to swallow a laptop or large purse and still have room left over for CDs or a cell phone. Additional side pockets, an underside storage area, and four cupholders make the console extremely useful, and the soft-touch lid provides a comfortable armrest. If only the rest of the dash could be finished in such luxury. Instead, you're faced with cheap-looking and hollow-feeling plastic that wouldn't be so bad if there weren't so much of it.
Since the Rendezvous is set to do battle with luxury marques like Lexus and Acura in this specialized segment, Buick offers several additional options for those looking for maximum safety and security. GM's OnStar satellite communications system can be added to provide navigation help, concierge assistance and emergency paramedic service (in the event of an airbag deployment). There's also an optional head-up display (HUD) that projects a full range of instrument readings onto the windshield to help keep the driver's eyes on the road. The Rendezvous can also be ordered with a rear parking aid system that alerts the driver to objects behind the vehicle with audible signals and interior indicator lights. If you think you might want to do some light-duty towing, an optional trailer package allows the Rendezvous to tow up to 3,500 pounds, while an automatic load-leveling system (also optional) will maintain a level ride height under heavy loads.
Cramming all these features and options into a single vehicle is one thing, but delivering it all with a competitive price is another. Buick is looking to "set the benchmark for value in premium crossover vehicles" by pricing all-wheel-drive-equipped Rendezvous CXLs at $28,027, significantly less than similarly equipped Acura MDXs ($34,850) and Lexus RX 300s ($36,150). Consumers shopping those vehicles have probably never even thought twice about a Buick, but the Rendezvous certainly presents an interesting package for them to consider. Our brief test drive indicated that while it's certainly not going to win any stoplight shootouts, the Rendezvous does provide substantial cargo room, all-weather traction, a tasteful and functional interior, and just enough style to make people forget about that other GM crossover.
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