So a Minivan, an SUV and a Sedan Walk into a Bar, and...
Liz Kim, Contributor
Buick's latest advertising campaign has different types of vehicles (an SUV, a luxury car and a minivan) driving into a spooky castle. A bolt of lightning hits, and out comes the Buick Rendezvous. An obvious reference to Frankenstein is implied, that Buick has taken different aspects of these vehicles and made it into one.
Perhaps they should have shunned the Frankenstein analogy. After all, in Mary Shelley's original version, Frankenstein's monster is banned from "civilized" society (actually, he is the only true humanist) for his hideous appearance. Even in the movie with Boris Karloff, the freak meets a fiery demise. In fact, the only time that ol' Frankie enjoys a happy ending is in Mel Brooks' version, Young Frankenstein ("That's Fronk-in-steen").
Does the Buick Rendezvous combine its bits and parts to create a repulsive beast, or is it a successful amalgamation? Will it meet an untimely death, be castigated from society? We've seen how this can happen in the case of the Pontiac Aztek, the Rendezvous' doppelganger. The Aztek may have been a decent enough vehicle, but no one could get past its repugnant visage; it benefits from a restyling one year into its shelf life, which is almost unheard of in the car industry.
The Rendezvous looks a lot better than the Aztek; it's as if the Aztek's skeleton has been glazed over with a translucent coating of shellack. However, the bones are still readily apparent, and the Buick is still afflicted with disproportionate hindquarters (although the rear lights look interestingly enough like those of the Honda Odyssey) and such odd design cues as front turn lights that wrap into the hood above the headlamps. Its body cladding is a bit much, but at least the panels aren't ribbed. The wheelwells house 16-inch wheels, but 17-inchers would go a long way in giving the truck a more planted look. Still, they meld into a whole that's much more pleasant to the eye than the jarring, disjointed lines of the Pontiac. It certainly looks more like a rugged SUV than a minivan, which will appeal to consumers who don't want the stigma of driving (gasp!) a sensible vehicle.
But does Buick successfully blend different aspects of these different types of automobiles? Most crossover cars combine two different types of vehicles; this attempts to coalesce three. In doing so, it hits some targets yet misses out on others. As its focus becomes blurred by trying to be all things to all people, it fails to excel at any.
Let's take its claim for a sedan-like ride. It hits its mark there; driving the Rendezvous does remind you of piloting one of Buick's pillowy sedans, with its suspension tuned for comfort and supple ride quality. It's definitely more carlike than most trucks, thanks to a combination of a long wheelbase and short and long arm independent rear suspension; unique for an SUV-type vehicle. Our test model was also equipped with an automatic level-control system that raises the suspension to the proper level if you should be carrying a burdensome amount of material. Plus, it allows for an air pump to blow up a soft tire or a basketball. On city streets and at moderate speeds on the highway, it's a soothing ride, floating over bumps and potholes with the greatest of ease.
Put it into a corner, however, and plenty of body roll and sway accompanies the movement of the vehicle. It ran our 600-foot slalom in 6.87 seconds at 59.5 mph, a tad slower than most other vehicles in this class. You don't want to tackle curves too aggressively anyway, as the Uniroyal Tiger Paw Touring SR P215/70R16 tires tend to protest loudly and fold over during cornering maneuvers.
Hard braking was accompanied by lots of nosedive, and acceleration resulted in rear-end squat, which is to be expected in a vehicle with such soft suspension tuning. The Rendezvous is outfitted with four-wheel-disc antilock brakes and electronic brakeforce distribution, which aided in achieving a 60-to-0 braking distance of 131 feet, slightly better than average for the crossover SUV class.
Worthy of note is that the car Buick uses in its ads is a luxury sedan. The carmaker took great pains to point out that extravagant items have been used as inspiration for the interior. The color scheme, for example, was supposed to have been influenced by Louis Vuitton luggage. Well, it doesn't quite work, but the tri-tone scheme (in various shades of brown on our test vehicle) is pleasing nonetheless. Materials used fall short of the luxury mark; the leather on the seats is stiff and coarse, the faux aluminum trim (with a pattern that one editor claimed looked like striated muscle tissue) is mere plastic. Various rattles and squeaks infiltrated the cabin, but we couldn't detect any obvious fit-and-finish mistakes. Gap tolerances were narrow and even, although we weren't crazy about the exposed screw heads in the door panel. Most of the dash is composed of soft-touch materials, however, and the plethora of storage bins, most notably the huge center and overhead console, helped matters.
Ingress and egress are made exceptionally simple thanks to a lack of a doorsill and a low step-in height, ensuring that there were no unseemly splay-legged displays, like most tall vehicles require. The power-operated seats (seat and mirror memory and heaters are options) with manually adjustable lumbar support are cushy, but a couple of editors noted a backache after driving it for a while. No one liked the halo-type headrests. The instrument cluster was designed with "an expensive watch or a bracelet" in mind, with white-faced gauges and green numbers. While it looks different and classy, the numbers were too small to be easily referenced.
Our tester was equipped with the CXL package, which gave it an easy-to-use dual climate control system. A driver information cluster provided a trip computer and various ways to personalize the Rendezvous, such as the operation of the automatic locks and interior lights. Our CXL also came with redundant stereo controls for the steering wheel and rear seat audio controls with headphone jacks, complementing the optional six-disc CD changer. Read our stereo review.
Buick is marketing the Rendezvous as a possible alternative to an SUV. Not only does it look more like a sport-ute, its VersaTrak all-wheel-drive system helps to substantiate the claim. Under normal driving circumstances, power is supplied to the front wheels. When sensors detect wheel slip, power is routed to redirect torque to one or both rear wheels. This is useful for those who live in areas where the weather can make the road slippery, but don't plan on tackling any off-road trails. Ground clearance tops out at 7 inches and there's no low-range transfer case, which means that you won't be able to take your Buick on a trail much harsher than a dirt road.
The third vehicle that the Rendezvous appropriates is a minivan and its people-and-stuff moving functionality. Riding on a platform shared by GM's trio of minivans, the Chevy Venture, the Oldsmobile Silhouette and the Pontiac Montana, the Rendezvous possessed appropriate storage figures. Our CXL had the 50/50-split second-row seats. When just two people occupy them, the rear passengers can stretch out in comfort and enjoy the convenience of a fold-down armrest that opens up to reveal a cupholder and a small storage bin. They also get fold down footrests, but most of us agreed that these would rarely be used. Foot room and legroom (at 39 inches) are plentiful, but the middle passenger gets shafted, with only a lapbelt and no headrest. The seats slide fore-and-aft, and the seatback rake is adjustable, but the seatbelts aren't of the automatic locking variety.
The third row holds two in relative comfort with 34.6 inches of legroom, beating most vehicles' second-row accommodations. Mind you, it's no Jaguar Vanden Plas back there, but it's acceptable for an SUV. However, make sure you've got a friend to get you out, because it's difficult to reach the lever to fold the second-row seats and release yourself from your confinement. With the third row in use, don't count on carrying much cargo. There is little space a slender 18.1 cubic feet, to be exact, between the seatback and the door, but you can carry a narrow object that measures up to 4 feet in length. There is a floor-mounted bin to hold small objects, but a minivan will serve you better if you need seven-passenger seating and cargo space. Unlike many minivans, the third-row seat folds flat when not in use, availing 54.5 cubic feet of space to you. Take out the second-row seats and a cavernous 108.9 cubic feet opens up, giving you more space than most vehicles in the category, such as the Acura MDX and Lexus RX 300.
This is a tall, wide vehicle, and the rear parking assist system that uses four ultrasonic sensors is helpful when navigating tight parking spaces. We prefer the kind with variable beeps so that you can gauge your progress rather than a monotone beep that sounds when you're getting too close to another object, however. The thick C-pillars and high beltline hindered visibility, but the Buick's huge side mirrors helped matters considerably.
Pulling this rather portly 4,024-pound package is GM's 3400 V6 engine, capable of producing 185 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque. We felt that GM's choice of engine was conservative; the company could have used one of the more potent powerplants in its stable. But the 3400 is endemic to all of GM's minivans, so they had no choice. Zero-to-60-mph acceleration runs were achieved in 10.7 seconds, one of the slowest times among V6-powered SUVs and minivans. The engine provided good midrange power, but once revs are taken to the higher end of the tach, a high-pitched tone invaded the cabin; it almost sounds like a turbocharger kicking in. For 185 ponies to pull the 4,024-pound vehicle is a bit of a drudge; those taxed horses get tired out mighty quickly. The Rendezvous can be outfitted to tow up to 3,500 pounds, which is a rather paltry sum, but makes sense in light of the anemic engine and the unibody platform. Typically, a body-on-frame vehicle can tow more.
Shifts from the four-speed automatic transmission are reasonably quick and unobtrusive, although one editor deemed it a tad lackadaisical. Steering, as can be expected, was lifeless and numb, but is linear enough, with a tight turning circle of 37.4 feet. All in all, the Buick gives a comfortable, bland ride, unable to provoke any spirited driving, but doing its job competently enough as to not raise much ire.
The Rendezvous is a capable vehicle and people mover; its problem lies in the fact that it doesn't excel in any one area or another. It holds seven, but minivans and other SUVs, like the Acura MDX and Mercury Mountaineer, do that, as well. It has a nice interior, but others have better. It has the security of AWD, but so do many other minivans and trucks, and many SUVs have a low-range transfer case for when the going gets tough. If it's a smooth ride you're after, a Lexus RX 300 gives a buttery one. It has a large cargo area when the seats aren't in use, but it's far less than what a minivan would offer. Other SUVs can outhandle and outrun the Rendezvous. The Buick offers a little of everything, but not enough of any one aspect in particular to recommend it over other vehicles in the class. What it's left with is its price. The Rendezvous comes in at a couple of thousand dollars under comparably equipped competition in terms of luxury crossover vehicles. But will that be enough? If third-row seats aren't a necessity, we feel that the Toyota Highlander is an excellent alternative.
No, the Rendezvous isn't a Frankenstein; it won't be shunned from society or get burned by a lynch mob. In fact, it may have problems getting attention from the buying public. Better shovel some more money Tiger Woods' way to champion the cause.
System Score: 7
Components: This puppy is loaded with scads of features. To begin with, the head unit has more options than a dot-com job offer. There's Song List, Random, Repeat, Traffic, to name just a few. Some of these features are kind of silly, but a few of them are really trick. For instance, the faceplate boasts seven different equalization curves Pop, Rock, Classical, and the like with one of these labeled Custom, meaning you can dial in your own E.Q. settings and save them in memory. (Most of the people we know will use this to turn the treble and bass all the way up and be done with it. Might want to add new speakers to your Christmas list.) Another cool feature is Auto Volume, which works by sensing the speed of the vehicle, then automatically raising and lowering the system's volume setting to compensate for wind, road and engine noise. Great feature especially for stop-and-go traffic. Although the system lacks a cassette player, it makes up for this with an in-dash six-disc CD changer. The head unit also offers a bright display and a "mid" tone control, for increased sonic flexibility.
Now for the bad news. Although the head unit is user-friendly overall, it has a few strange design cues. For one, many of the buttons are on the dinky side. Also, both the tuning and volume knobs are located on the left side of the faceplate. When the gear shift lever is engaged, it blocks the entire left side of the radio, including both of these knobs. Not exactly Phi Beta Kappa designing.
Speakers include a hefty pair of 6x9s mounted in the rear quarter-panels (great for third-row-seat listening) and a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers mounted in the rear doors. The front doors house a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers and a pair of expertly positioned tweeters.
Listening: This is not the Buick your grandpa used to drive. In short, this system cranks. With Oldsmobile already gone, and Buick and Cadillac fighting for new prospects, GM has begun targeting younger customers. The sound system in this Buick Rendezvous may go some distance toward dispelling the myth that Buicks are exclusively for the Geritol crowd. Bass is thumpy and strong, highs are soaring and clear, and overall the setup is a good party system. The designers of this audio system have intentionally trumped up the highs and lows, artificially accentuating boom and sizzle to please young ears. It's enough to roast your eardrums and make your eyeballs bleed and furthermore, your grandpa would not be pleased.
Best Feature: It's really loud!
Worst Feature: It's really loud (but not very refined).
Conclusion: Pass the guacamole and the RC Cola. Let's have a party!
Contributing Editor Erin Riches says: While the Rendezvous inspired little fervor, I was left with the feeling that it is indeed a capable, safe vehicle that could transport six (or seven) in relative comfort without the stigma of a minivan's sliding doors. But it's also evident that GM wanted to put this thing on the road by spending as few development dollars as possible as such, it drives like any of the company's minivans.
The 3.4-liter V6 is mostly suitable for driving around town it makes adequate power in this context and it's relatively quiet at city speeds. At highway speeds, the engine feels lethargic. However, this powertrain does have a 19/26 fuel economy rating, and that counts for a lot in a seven-passenger vehicle.
The suspension provides the smooth on-road ride that prospective buyers surely seek. I observed plenty of body roll when negotiating curves or corners, but the transfer of weight was generally predictable. This certainly isn't a vehicle that will make you want to take the back roads, but when faced with them, the Rendezvous handles them as well as most minivans and more competently than most SUVs. The turning radius is relatively tight, but the steering is lifeless one of the other reasons you won't venture onto squiggly two-lanes by choice. Additionally, the brake pedal seemed overly stiff, with a bit too much effort required for normal braking.
The captain's chair for the driver was rather comfortable, except for the awful donut headrest. You can only increase its height one level, and that still wasn't enough to provide a cushioned place to rest my head or whiplash protection. Worse, the upper edge jutted forward, always catching the back of my large noggin when I leaned back. This seemingly small annoyance would prevent me from buying a Rendezvous, but those with different skull dimensions probably won't have this complaint. I did try out both the second- and third-row benches and found that each provided roomy accommodations for someone of adult size (5-foot 10-inches). Storage space is abundant: I especially liked the two-sided net-enclosed cubby under the center console, the note pockets on the sunvisors and the dual multi-function armrests in the second row.
Overall, the interior materials were impressive for a GM vehicle, including the door release handles and the sport-grain headliner. That said, this Rendezvous was not immune to the build issues that generally mar GM products. I noted a persistent rattle from the center console during my driving. Plus, in an apparent effort by GM to tighten up the gap tolerances, the driver seat fits against the console so snugly that you can constantly hear the upholstery rubbing against the plastic. The lower door panel assemblies were loose and so were the seatbelt housings. On the exterior, I didn't find any serious build problems, aside from huge, if uniform, gaps around the liftgate and taillights. Even though the Rendezvous can carry more passengers than its competitors, it simply won't feel new as long as a carefully constructed MDX or Highlander will something to think about for this kind of money.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says: I can see people being happy, or at least satisfied, with a Rendezvous purchase. I look at the life my parents live. What do they do? My mom commutes to work and runs errands. My dad makes continual trips to the local Home Depot to satiate his need for doing home-improvement projects, even though he's been "improving" their house for 20 years and it doesn't look a bit different. They occasionally drive in the rain or snow. Sometimes, they take road trips or go out with friends to dinner. That's about it. Would a Rendezvous be able to fulfill their automotive needs? Certainly.
Of the editors who drove the Rendezvous, I probably liked it more than most. I didn't think it had any life-threatening flaws. Around town or on the highway, it's suitably comfortable. The interior materials look (though perhaps don't feel) upscale, and I like the functionality of the storage areas. Here's a vehicle than can seat seven, get good fuel mileage and not be too harsh on the wallet. Sure, the power output is low and the suspension is soggy, but it is important to remember that this is a Buick, not a Porsche.
If you're shopping for a functional minivan-type vehicle that doesn't look like a minivan, the Rendezvous could work for you. Buick puts forth the Acura MDX, the Lexus RX 300 and the Toyota Highlander as some of the vehicle's competition. For this class of vehicle, I would suggest a Toyota Highlander, though it's important to mention that it doesn't offer third-row seating. Neither does the RX 300. That leaves the Acura MDX. The MDX is superior in off-road ability and power, but it is more expensive. Asked to choose, I'd still go with the MDX. But would I stop my parents from leasing a Rendezvous? No.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says: Buick claims the Rendezvous blends the best attributes of a luxury sedan, a minivan and a sport-utility vehicle into one do-it-all thingamajig that Tiger Woods wants to drive rather than a golf ball. Ah, marketing. You've gotta love it.
When I think luxury sedan, I think of rich wood, supple leather, and a quiet and composed ride. The Rendezvous offers funky metallic plastic trim, squeaky leather that could double as vinyl, lots of wind and engine roar, and sloppy handling.
When I think of a minivan, I think of unsurpassed cargo space, flexible utility and room for seven passengers. The Rendezvous offers room for seven or cargo space, and with the seats removed provides reasonable flexibility. It mostly succeeds here, possibly because it is built on the same platform and uses the same powertrain as the trio of GM minivans; the Chevrolet Venture, the Oldsmobile Silhouette and the Pontiac Montana.
When I think of a sport-utility vehicle, I think of ruggedly handsome styling, four-wheel drive and the ability to go places where cars cannot. The Rendezvous is quite possibly one of the most imbalanced designs ever to see production, blending familiar Buick styling cues with elements of the Lexus RX 300 and Honda Odyssey minivan in a package that puts far too much weight and emphasis over the front wheels. And during an off-road jaunt, the Rendezvous got stuck on a hill that a Volvo V70 Cross Country covered with relative ease.
Driving down a smooth highway at moderate speed, you might wonder why I dislike the Rendezvous so much. Increase speed, and the engine roars, the wind howls. Slow down and enter a corner to feel the front tires fold over and play dead. Drive over rough or bumpy pavement to hear the dashboard plastics creak and the cheap seat leather squeak. Travel during twilight and see if you can read the tiny numbers on the low-contrast gauges. Then, get out and look at it from a rear-quarter vantage point.
Need I say more? Poor Tiger. At least the advertising whizzes got one thing right: The Frankenstein TV commercial theme hits closer to home than Buick likely wants.
"We have almost 4,000 miles on the Rendezvous and we love it. No problems at all! Excellent amenities: dual-zone climate control, (driver-passenger), rear park assist, separate stereo jacks for the kids in the second row, fabulous cargo space, and an extremely comfortable ride, etc. The car is a winner with better fuel economy than any car in its class." john325, "Buick Rendezvous," #1292 of 1780, Aug. 15, 2001
"I have already proven to myself that the Rendezvous can hustle down the interstate at 90+ mph loaded with six adults and luggage. The suspension is well tuned, and the RDV climbs grades and passes adequately. With my background of driving, riding, and flying all manner of vessels, take my word for it, in this segment, the power of the RDV is completely, utterly, average. A few are better, and a few aren't." fedlawman,"Buick Rendezvous," #1349 of 1780, Aug. 16, 2001
"Just got a Pewter CX with the third row seat. Have three children in car seats. Child seats can be mounted in any position on the middle bench with the following caveats. Latch/Iso-fix anchors are located on either side but not in the middle. Any seat can have a rear tether attachment. What we did was to put the baby in the middle with the seat connected via the safety belt and rear tether. The other kids used their boosters with the vehicle belts. Once we arrived at our destination, we placed the baby in one of the side seats and let the other kids go to the third row seats for towing my in-laws in the middle. Unfortunately, the belts are non-cinching at the shoulder position and require booster seats with a locking belt positioner. The rear seat has a tether on the passenger side only. Overall, the vehicle proved comfortable and versatile." osvaldo, "Buick Rendezvous," #1270 of 1780, Aug. 14, 2001
"I have over 3,000 trouble-free miles on El Trucko. I thought the Versatrak was a waste of money since I do not go 'off-road' but it has come in handy at least four times already. Especially last week when turning around on a paved back road when the front tires went off in the soft mud, they did not even spin as the back wheels pulled it back onto the pavement." buzzbo99, "Buick Rendezvous," #1544 of 1780, Sept. 6, 2001
"After my failure with a Chrysler minivan, I have bought two Japanese-made cars until recently when I bought the Rendezvous. To my surprise, the RDV has performed well and without any problems (three weeks). I had some concerns of buying a brand new model in the same year, but I believed that they would be a little more quality conscientious in the beginning so as not start off on bad ground.... Compared to other vehicles [the 3.4-liter V6] may be undersized, but you need to think if you really need that power or not everyday. On occasional trips to the hills, you can always shift down if needed, but day-to-day, the power is very good. I live on a slightly hilly terrain, and there are no problems in taking off from a light or keeping up with the traffic while going up. The transmission is very smooth, so that sometimes you do not even realize that the gears have shifted. Also the point is that due to the 'adequate' power supply, RDV does give you a lot better mileage than the other SUVs, which actually helps in the long run also.... I am very satisfied with the quality.... I have not had a single problem as of yet, but I do not have a lot of mileage, either." dpatel, "Buick Rendezvous," #1668 of 1780, Oct. 1, 2001
Edited by Erin Riches
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