Three things you didn't know about Buick: Buick General Manager Steve Shannon's weekend car is a 1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Arianna Kalian, line manager for the Buick Lucerne, grows organic tomatoes in her garden. And the 2006 Buick Lucerne is fun to drive.
That's right. Fun. And we didn't drive it at sightseeing pace, either. Instead, we hustled this full-size, front-drive sedan along some of the twistiest two-lanes in central California and found it up to the challenge.
Predictably, the Lucerne is also comfortable, quiet and secure. Its seats are wide and accommodating. And its controls are large and simple to use. But for the first time in a long time, Buick has built a large sedan that will appeal to buyers in their late 30s as readily as it will to those in their early 60s. We liked it and we're decades away from collecting a Social Security check.
One for Two
A replacement for the Everyman's LeSabre and the upscale Park Avenue, the Lucerne represents a change in strategy for Buick. For years, GM's conservative upscale division was content to offer a low-cost alternative to the expertly packaged, wonderfully refined Toyota Avalon, a car often described as "Toyota's better Buick." But Buick's engineers didn't build the Lucerne to be an alternative, they built it to be an equal.
"The Lucerne helps us address the two reasons why people might not consider a Buick," says Shannon. "One is quality. And two is the idea that American cars have low technology."
Upgraded interior materials and tighter gap tolerances should satisfy buyers on the quality front, he notes, while features like GM's double-overhead-cam Northstar V8, Magnetic Ride Control suspension, dual-depth front airbags, a nine-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, heated and cooled seats, heated windshield washer fluid and a smarter stability control system should be enough to convince them that Buick has moved beyond the age of the Commodore 64.
Exterior styling might do it, too. The Lucerne, which is about 6 inches longer than the Toyota Avalon, isn't a retro revival like the Chrysler 300, but it departs from the sleepy lines of the Park Avenue and LeSabre. Portholes on the front-quarter panels are the only throwback cue: V6-equipped Lucernes have three on either side, V8s have four.
Trim levels cover a wide range. The base CX gets you in the door for $27K and provides a 197-hp, 3.8-liter V6; 16-inch alloy wheels; cloth upholstery; a six-way power driver seat; a CD player; full power accessories; front-seat side airbags; full-length side curtain airbags; and OnStar. The Lucerne is also the only car in its class other than Cadillac's DTS to offer front airbags with two deployment sizes. Sensors monitor crash severity, occupant weight, seatbelt usage and seat position to determine the optimal airbag inflation size. Front bucket seats are standard; a 40/20/40-split front bench is a $250 option.
Opt for the midlevel CXL and 17-inch wheels, leather upholstery, a power passenger seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, MP3-capable stereo with an auxiliary audio jack (think iPod) and rain-sensing wipers are included, plus you get your choice of the V6 or the 275-hp, 4.6-liter V8. And for a hair under $36K, there's the CXS, which has the V8 standard along with 18s, Magnetic Ride Control, stability control, the Harman Kardon stereo and seat memory.
New, but Not Totally New
Despite its new name, new look and new features, the Lucerne is not a ground-up redesign. It rides on the same platform as the Cadillac DTS, and even shares that model's 115.6-inch wheelbase.
The two also share the same fully independent suspension, with struts in front and semitrailing arms in back, but the tuning is different. "The DTS is tuned to be a bit more aggressive, a bit edgier," Vehicle Performance Manager Bill Peterson explains. "On the Lucerne we didn't want to sacrifice isolation."
Front and rear stabilizer bars are standard on all Lucernes. Spring rates are the same on all trim levels, but the damping and bushing rates differ. The CX gets twin-tube shocks all around, while the CXL upgrades to monotube rear shocks, which Peterson says improve wheel control without compromising ride quality.
In keeping with its sportier mission, the CXS has the semiactive Magnetic Ride Control dampers. The fluid in these shocks contains magnetically charged particles that continually adjust the fluid's viscosity to respond to road conditions and vehicle loads quicker than conventional shocks.
Steering is also quicker than it was on the LeSabre and Park Avenue, with a 15.1-to-1 ratio on V6 models with a traditional hydraulic rack and pinion setup and a 14.2-to-1 ratio on V8 models, which have GM's Magnasteer variable-assist setup. The Lucerne also has larger brake rotors than its forebears, and V8 models equipped with stability control include BrakeAssist, which maximizes brake pressure in emergency situations.
Drives With Purpose
Acceleration won't overwhelm you, but with 227 pound-feet of torque available at 3,800 rpm, the iron-block 3800 V6, which has been around since knickers were in style, rarely comes up short. An alert four-speed automatic transmission is standard, and zero to 60 mph takes 9.5 seconds, according to Buick. Power delivery is reasonably refined despite the engine's old-tech design, while fuel economy is above average at 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway.
Response from the all-aluminum V8 is brisk off the line, and the engine sounds great under full throttle. We aren't as delighted with its midrange response, however — surprising with 295 lb-ft of torque on tap. We suspect it has something to do with the fact that the V8, too, is paired with a four-speed auto. Now that we've experienced the Northstar in the rear-drive Cadillac STS with a closer-ratio five-speed automatic, acceleration seems a little soft in this front-drive sedan with a four-speed. Besides that, the high-output version of the Northstar, which makes 291 hp in the DTS, is not available on the Lucerne, as GM has decided to keep it a Caddy exclusive. Nevertheless, Buick quoted us a 7.6-second 0-60 time, a respectable number for a 4,000-pound car. Fuel economy rates 17 city/25 highway.
Extra power aside, the main reason to get a V8 Lucerne is because the steering feels wobbly on-center in V6 models, sullying an otherwise enjoyable driving experience.
We didn't get to sample the base CX model, but the CXL delivers a downright plush highway ride with minimal float over bumps. Although the midlevel Lucerne also exhibits a fair amount of body roll, it responds predictably to driver input. Choose the CXL V8 and these reflexes are complemented by firm steering that's responsive on- and off-center. We were even more impressed by the CXS, which rolls less through the turns and provides a better connection to the road. It's not as nimble as Shannon's little Alfa, but for a two-ton front-driver, it's surprisingly composed. Ride quality is a tad less plush in the CXS but still very comfortable.
Quiet and Inviting Interior
Simple but attractive, the Lucerne's interior design feels much more modern than that of the LeSabre or Park Avenue. A console-mounted shifter and a sleeker dash with individual gauge pods provide aesthetic improvements, while GM's new audio and climate controls look better and are much easier to use.
Materials quality is a step or two behind the Avalon, but this is still one of the best efforts we've seen from GM to date. The leather upholstery looks and feels the way leather should, and designers took care to match the grain patterns on the dash, doors and console. There's even cloth trim on the A-pillars. Unappealing vinyl on the steering wheel hub and brittle plastic on the console are among our few complaints.
Buick's comprehensive QuietTuning measures, which even include the design of the windshield wipers, have resulted in some of the lowest noise levels we've ever experienced at highway speeds.
Amidst the serenity, Kalian tells us the front seats were benchmarked against the Lexus ES 330's, and we're not surprised as they're both luxurious and supportive enough to keep us content for two-hour stints. The driving position is perfect for someone with a 5-foot-10 frame, though we're dismayed to learn that Buick won't be offering adjustable pedals or a telescoping steering wheel.
Cushioning and legroom are equally abundant in the backseat. Yet, we're puzzled by the absence of adjustable head restraints.
Not Quite Complete, but Likable
As satisfying as the Lucerne is to drive, we can't help but notice a few holes in its equipment list. A navigation system will join the options list midyear, but you can't get xenon headlights, adaptive cruise control or Bluetooth wireless capability, all of which are available on the Avalon. Add to this the lack of a five-speed automatic and telescoping steering wheel, both standard items on the Toyota, as well as on the Chrysler 300 and Hyundai Azera, and it seems Buick's product planners may not know their buyers as well as they think they do.
Missing features aside, the 2006 Buick Lucerne is far and away the best car in Buick's lineup. It's roomy, quiet, comfortable and surprisingly entertaining to drive. It's also ready to take on the Avalon.