2004 Buick Rainier First Drive

2004 Buick Rainier First Drive

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2004 Buick Rainier SUV

(4.2L 6-cyl. 4-speed Automatic)

Your Father's Oldsmobile Replacement

The gentrification of the SUV continues apace, and the trend is hitting something of an attitudinal apogee, some might say it's approaching royal standing, as Buick's latest entry comes to market.

That would be the Rainier of the five-seat, V8-powered variety, not the Rainiers of the ruling-Monaco-from-a-castle-on-the-Riviera variety.

Connoisseurs of mountains will know that the Rainier name also applies to a noteworthy peak near Seattle. In Buick's eyes, this all ties together quite nicely in an enlightening and evocative manner, helping SUV shoppers to understand that the Rainier will offer something unique and worthy of its premium-priced position.

The overall marketing posture would be ''rugged elegance,'' and a test session with a preproduction version of the 2004 Rainier suggests the old ''doctor's car'' division of General Motors is onto something.

Rainier's ability off-road is a given, since it shares the midsize SUV architecture that already carries the GMC Envoy, the Oldsmobile Bravada and the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, which won this continent's most prestigious award in 2001 when it was named North American Truck of the Year by a group of independent automotive journalists.

This is serious street cred, or, in this case, off-street cred. So if you're really inclined to expose your SUV's undercarriage to dirt and rocks and mud and other yucky stuff, go right ahead.

A much likelier scenario is that the only non-pavement time the Rainier will see is when it goes up the gravel drive to the clubhouse at the country club, and this is the sort of experience Buick has crafted the Rainier to excel at.

Buick has always been one of GM's upscale brands (it's most famously known as ''the doctor's car''), but with Cadillac going farther upscale into the fight for world luxury car domination (''Escalade rules, Dawg''), this leaves a lot more room for Buick to offer premium products to a discerning clientele.

Bob Lutz likes to say that Buick is going to become America's Lexus, and the marque's executives smile and nod indulgently at this description because he is GM vice-chairman and product Pooh-Bah. But there's no chance of seeing that as Buick's official tagline, so instead we will be asked to appreciate the value of QuietTuning as an engineering philosophy.

Anyone who's ever been exposed to the more recent Lexus models will immediately see (and not hear) the connection and understand the appropriateness of the term, since Toyota's luxury brand is rightly famous for building the quietest cars in the world. This is a very important attribute in a car with a premium price tag because North American consumers widely believe that a quiet car is critical if a vehicle carries a bigger sticker. Consumers also tend to equate quiet with quality, though this is not always the case. It is in Lexus, however, and GM hopes to make the same claim with Buick.

On the strength of our time in the Rainier, we think Lutz and company may have a shot at it.

As much as we appreciate Rainier's SUV siblings, it's difficult to envision them in the same league with the Buick in terms of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), at all speeds and in all situations. Bridging this NVH gap involved considerable effort to reduce the noise at its source, and to block it out if that didn't work. So there is considerable use of sound-deadening material, including laminated glass on the windshield and the front side windows.

The overall sense of QuietTuning in the Rainier is that of a more refined and substantial car, and that's a good thing for a premium vehicle to convey. If Buick can replicate this with the next SUV it has coming (joining Rendezvous and Rainier) and the three sedans it wants to build, then it will clearly be onto something good.

It doesn't hurt Rainier that it's the only member of the midsize GM SUV family to get the Vortec 5.3-liter V8 in the short-wheelbase, five-seat configuration. With those other models, you have to go to the longer and heavier seven-seat versions to upgrade from the 4.2-liter inline six.

The 4.2-liter six puts out 275 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 275 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm, and it must be pointed out that 90 percent of that torque is available at virtually all points on the tachometer. Anyone who knows this engine well is a big fan, and that would include us.

But the V8 delivers 290 hp at 5,200 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, with most of that available across a wide rpm range, and that is simply more power at any given time, which is attractive to a lot of people, also including us.

Both engines are attached to the same transmission — a four-speed electronic automatic, which has been wired to deliver seamless power in the V8 as well as in the inline six.

You can't go wrong with either powertrain in the Rainier, but the V8 is particularly sweet.When it comes to style, Buick and GM have also done a solid job in elevating the Rainier to a level equal to its QuietTuning ride.

This is most obvious from the front end, where Buick's signature grille works very well with an overall package that will be distinct from GM's other SUVs, turning Rainier into possibly the best-looking truck-based SUV on the market.

Inside you'll find a rear seat that folds down to create 85 cubic feet of storage space. The front seats are heated and equipped with a memory feature, and dual-zone climate control is standard. GM's OnStar service and a DVD-based navigation system come standard as well. Options like a DVD video player and XM Satellite Radio can further heighten the Rainier's premium status. On the whole, there's a rich and expansive feel to Rainier's interior, which fits the tone the company is trying to strike.

This naturally leads to the question of pricing, for which Buick has so far not announced. We can expect it will be more expensive than any of the five-seat models from Chevy, Olds and GMC, however, since Rainier is a genuine premium product.

Thankfully, it isn't just badged as such, but actually feels that way.

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