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Published: 02/19/2004 - by Erin Riches, Deputy Editor
With Oldsmobile out of the way in a few short months, General Motors will finally be in a position to simplify its luxury branding efforts. Well, sort of. Cadillac will be GM's answer to the German brands Audi, BMW and Mercedes. More conservative Buick will go after would-be Lexus buyers. And Saab will be around for those who conclude that they'd really rather have a European vehicle.
From a distance, Buick might seem like a natural competitor for Lexus. After all, both brands are associated with older buyers who have a tidy nest egg and place a high priority on comfort and quiet. But to cast the two as equals at the present time, one would be obliged to ignore a few important facts: One, the utter refinement of Lexus vehicles, both in terms of ride dynamics and interior accommodations. Two, the Lexus reputation for reliability, which dates back to 1989 when the first LS 400 rolled off the line. And three, the broad-ranging appeal of most current-day Lexus models (think RX 330, IS 300 and GX 470). Although the family-oriented Rendezvous crossover SUV has helped Buick attract younger buyers, neither it nor the sedan lineup comes close to meeting Lexus standards for quality and refinement.
For 2004, Buick is trying again with a more traditional SUV called the Rainier. It's built on GM's body-on-frame midsize SUV platform already used for the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada and Isuzu Ascender. We've driven almost all the variations of these vehicles, and our experience tells us that Buick could have picked better underpinnings for its second sport-utility vehicle. Our choice would have been the unibody Cadillac SRX platform (even at the expense of some off-road capability), but we suspect that cost considerations ruled out this option.
Is it possible to make a genuinely luxurious SUV from a mediocre workaday SUV? Obviously, Buick hopes so. Standard equipment levels increase slightly compared to the Envoy, as the base CXL model supplies leather upholstery, power seats (with memory settings for the driver), dual-zone automatic climate control, a rear load-leveling air suspension and 17-inch wheels. CXL Plus models like our test vehicle add Bose speakers, an in-dash CD changer and satellite radio. Features like a V8 engine, side-impact airbags, heated seats and a rear DVD entertainment system still cost extra. Chief competitors include the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Lincoln Aviator, Mercury Mountaineer and even the Dodge Durango Limited on the domestic side, and the Lexus GX 470, Toyota 4Runner Limited and Volkswagen Touareg on the import side. Upscale soft-roaders like the Acura MDX, Lexus RX 330, Mercedes M-Class and Volvo XC90 also fall into this cutthroat price territory.
To help distinguish it from its GM siblings, the Rainier has taken on an elliptical Buick grille and unique headlights and taillights. More importantly, it benefits from something called "QuietTuning," whereby additional sound-deadening material has been applied in various trouble spots (engine compartment, doors, quarter panels). Further, the windshield and front side windows are coated in acoustic laminate, while the C- and D-pillars have reinforced seals. Buick even goes so far as to describe the vehicle's standard 255/60R17 all-season Michelin tires as "quiet tires" on the window sticker.
Quiet tires? Well, that's a stretch, but we can confirm that the Rainier's cabin is more serene than that of the average SUV. The sound level is just 72 decibels during full-throttle acceleration, and when cruising along at 70 mph, it drops to 68 decibels one of the lowest noise levels we've ever measured at this speed. Once you exceed 70 mph, a fair amount of wind noise begins to come in off the side mirrors, but keep your speed in check, and you will enjoy a very quiet ride.
But silence isn't the only ingredient that goes into a luxury SUV, at least not the top-rated ones, and the Rainier disappoints in other important areas. For one thing, its cabin furnishings are heavily derivative of GM's lower-line SUVs and fail to provide the authentic luxury ambience required in a $43,000 vehicle. The leather upholstery is soft in feel and handsome in appearance, but it's used only on the seating surfaces. Ordinarily, this would be acceptable (if nothing else than for the sake of durability), but in the Rainier, designers resorted to the cheapest of all vinyl for the sides and the backs of the seats. It looks terrible, particularly on the back of the front seats where a single layer of vinyl is the only "padding" between the hard seat frame and rear passengers' knees.
The soft, textured material applied to the top of the dash has an inviting look to it and running your hand over it imparts a sense of quality. Unfortunately, its grain pattern clashes with that of the other materials used on the dash and door panels. Look closer, though, and it's hard to pick out any one consistent grain pattern in the Rainier the décor looks as though it was developed on a piecemeal basis. Wood grain trim appears in trace amounts, and it's such an unconvincing substitute for the real thing you'll be glad there's not more of it.
The design of the controls is equally uninspired: The jet black gear selector jutted out like an insistent weed amidst our tester's Cashmere interior, and the dull-looking center stack buttons and dials might as well have been used in a TrailBlazer. The gauges provide a welcome break in the monotony; as in the Rendezvous, they have stylish silver faces and turquoise needles. Good as it looks, though, the speedometer can be difficult to read due to the close spacing between the numbers and the hashmarks. Ergonomics aren't the greatest, either: The climate controls aren't well organized, and GM's convoluted three-on-one signal/wiper/cruise stalk has no place in a luxury vehicle. Minor complaints include the tiny black nub used for power mirror adjustment, and the lack of auto-up convenience for the front windows.
Materials quality isn't what it should be in the Rainier, but we were cautiously optimistic that extra effort and expense would be taken to assure that everything was put together well in the high-line model. Initial inspection returned a generally solid feel none of the panels were loose enough to come apart in our hands. But the more time we spent in our test vehicle, the more fit-and-finish flaws we found. A number of the dash panels were misaligned; the fit between the center stack and the console was particularly poor with uneven gaps of up to 1/4 inch across. We were also dismayed by the number of rough edges on plastic surfaces that drivers are likely to come in contact with the control stalks, for example. The situation wasn't much better on the outside of the vehicle, as inconsistent body panel fits and wide gap tolerances were readily apparent.
So the Rainier is quiet but not elegant. Well, what about comfort? With its ultrasoft suspension tuning, the Rainier is certainly capable of providing a comfortable ride. Cruising down the freeway, it floats over life's mild discomforts. Larger ruts and bumps aren't quite as unobtrusive, as the suspension wallows disconcertingly while trying to regain its composure. It's nothing too bothersome, but most of the Rainier's competitors (both import and domestic) are better behaved in these situations while providing equal amounts of comfort.
Comfort levels are average inside the cabin. The front seats are broad and soft, and thus suited for a wide range of body types. A long seat bottom ensures adequate thigh support. But although the seats are perfectly acceptable for weekday commutes, there's little in the way of firm support to keep you comfortable on long drives. After two hours behind the wheel, we were ready to get out of the vehicle. Additionally, the total lack of side bolstering makes it difficult to stay planted in the seat when going around corners. The steering wheel offers tilt adjustment only; adjustable pedals are optional. As this is a luxury SUV, you and your front passenger may wish for adjustable armrests; however, in the Rainier a rubber-coated console top is the only respite for elbows.
In back, this Buick offers decent accommodations for two adults, provided they can negotiate the narrow rear door openings. A short, low-mounted seat bottom forces anyone over 5 feet 8 to sit with his legs splayed, but there is plenty of legroom and foot room to go around. Storage space is not as plentiful. A single map pocket is all that's provided in back, while front occupants make do with an average-size center console container and tiny door bins. Where cupholders are concerned, the rear passengers do better: They score a pair of average-size holders that can hold larger beverages than the undersized wells up front. In terms of safety, the Rainier is one of the few luxury SUVs that fails to protect its passengers with full-length head curtain airbags.
GM's 275-horsepower, 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder comes standard in the Rainier. This engine should be adequate for most drivers and it delivers over 20 mpg on the highway. The inline six doesn't feel particularly strong at lower rpm, though, so those with more flexible budgets may want to upgrade to the 5.3-liter V8. The V8 is rated for 290 hp and a generous 325 pound-feet of torque. There is, of course, a penalty in gas mileage, as all-wheel-drive V8 models are rated at only 15 mpg city, 18 mpg highway. The Rainier is currently the only short-wheelbase midsize SUV in GM's lineup eligible for this engine (a Denali version of the Envoy will get it for 2005). Tow capacity is 6,500 pounds on AWD models (6,700 with 2WD), which puts the Buick behind the 4Runner, Aviator, Durango and the Mountaineer.
As we expected, our V8-equipped test vehicle had more than enough power to get around quickly. There was plenty of juice for errand-running in the suburbs, and extensive use of insulation in and around the engine compartment made the 5300 V8 a quieter companion than we ever thought possible. Highway passing maneuvers came easily as well, even on steep uphill grades. Our sole reservation about the engine has to do with the Rainier's ride dynamics: Its structure really isn't stiff enough to give the vehicle a confident feel when you put the accelerator pedal to the floor. Rather, going at it full throttle makes the back end feel loose and unstable. In consequence, we didn't enjoy this V8 as much as we have in the larger but better balanced Chevrolet Tahoe. During instrumented testing, the Rainier turned in a 7.8-second 0-to-60-mph time, which is competitive for this segment.
The Rainier's poorly controlled back end is also a liability when it comes to handling. Although truck-based SUVs are still not expected to have the reflexes of cars (or even car-based SUVs), the Buick and its GM stablemates fall well behind peers like the 4Runner, Aviator, Durango and Mountaineer. When asked to make rapid directional changes in the slalom, our Rainier test vehicle quickly transitioned to unnerving oversteer situations (when the tail end starts to rotate). This, of course, held down slalom speeds our best was 54 mph, which is slow even for an SUV. More importantly, this kind of behavior does not bode well for real-life emergency maneuvers when the driver attempts to steer around a potential accident.
On public roads, the Rainier handled capably in normal driving situations, but every so often, we were reminded of the narrow margin for error this SUV gives its driver. Short of redesigning the Rainier's rear suspension, we'd like to see Buick add GM's StabiliTrak stability control system to the equipment list. Almost all of the Buick's peers offer stability control, and now that you can get StabiliTrak on a less expensive Tahoe, there's no excuse for a $43,000 Rainier to be without it.
Steering is another problem area for the Rainier. It's sloppy on-center and requires too much correction when you're headed straight down the freeway. Road feel is basically nonexistent, and response to driver input is slow. None of this is anything new if you've ever owned a truck-based SUV, but now that the 4Runner, Aviator, Durango and Mountaineer are doing it better, there's no reason to settle for this. Braking ability is about average for this class. The pedal is stiff, but with a little practice, the brakes become easy to modulate in traffic. Our stopping distances from 60 mph were all in the low 130-foot range, about average for the segment.
Limited ground clearance (just 7.7 inches) and an all-wheel-drive system (without a low-range transfer case) restrict the Rainier to light-duty off-roading. As our test vehicle was equipped with optional running boards mounted barely six inches off the ground, we decided to stick to paved roads. Fortunately, the Rainier offers plenty of utility when you're ready to load it up with cargo. There's just under 40 cubic feet of capacity behind the rear seats; folding down the seats doubles that figure.
Of course, there are plenty of SUVs that can haul this much cargo. Most of them aren't as whisper quiet as the Rainier, but in exchange you get vastly superior driving dynamics, a longer list of safety features, a more cohesive cabin design and, more often than not, better build and materials quality. To us, that's a fair trade. Building a good luxury SUV isn't just about making it quiet. It should also be elegant and refined on the inside. It should handle with confidence out on the road. And it should protect its passengers with all the latest safety equipment. Until GM understands what's required at the $40,000 threshold, the Rainier must resign itself to the back of the pack.
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our CXL Plus model came with a six-speaker Bose sound system powered by a 275-watt amplifier. Drivers are mounted in each of the four doors right at floor level, which obviously isn't an advantageous location for listening purposes. Tweeters are housed in either corner of the dash, allowing them to reflect sound off the front glass. There is no separate subwoofer in the cargo bay.
The head unit includes a six-disc CD changer but does not offer a cassette deck. Satellite radio (XM is your only choice) comes standard in the CXL Plus, and there are 12 satellite presets. Additionally, you'll find the usual 12 FM/6 AM presets. The head unit provides the expected bass, treble, balance and fader adjustments, as well as auto equalizer settings ("Normal," "Driver," "Rear" and "Spacious) and automatic volume leveling. The head unit isn't pretty to look at, but its organization is straightforward. The steering wheel controls are not quite as easy to use, due to their like shape and size, but they cover a wide range of functions.
Performance: Despite the poor speaker placement in the doors, sound quality is impressive. The drivers produce powerful bass that does not distort at higher volumes, and the tweeters produce crisp, clear highs. Everything in between sounds good, too. The auto equalizer settings are a nice bonus. Put it on "Driver" and you'll never have difficulty hearing a news report or a book on CD. Put it on "Spacious" and you'll feel like a hard rock concert is occurring all around you.
Best Feature: Upward-firing, dash-mounted tweeters.
Worst Feature: Mediocre steering wheel controls.
Conclusion: It's the same Bose stereo you'll find in the TrailBlazer and Envoy, but it still sounds good enough to be in the higher-priced Buick version. Erin Riches
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
It's really hard for me to think of the Rainier as a Buick. Sure, it's comfortable inside and has a gentle ride quality, but so does the TrailBlazer. And the Envoy. And the soon-to-be-departed Bravada. GM's drive to badge-engineer new products is perfectly understandable, but when you have three similar vehicles already on the market, a fourth seems senselessly redundant.
I would take the Rainier more seriously if it really was different from its siblings, but after spending some time behind the wheel, I found it to be a familiar experience. There's plenty of power under the hood, the ride is comfortable in a straight line but sloppy around corners and the interior is functional but a little rough around the edges. The effort to reduce noise and vibration in the Rainier makes for a serene highway cruiser, but it also begs the question, "Don't Envoy and TrailBlazer buyers deserve a quiet ride, too?" It's nice to see that GM is adding more refined products, but it would be better off building them like that in the first place rather than introducing improved "new" models like the Rainier.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Since its introduction, I've liked the Oldsmobile Bravada and even considered buying one for myself. Still, for $33,000, the interior just looked too cheap. Buick has taken the TrailBlazer/Bravada/Envoy platform to new heights with the Rainier. Thankfully, the company's "QuietTuning" is not just a bunch of PR bull, as the truck does feel more solid with a smoother, quieter ride than its stablemates. It's even smooth and quiet at highway speeds. This is a really great truck and deserves to be considered alongside brands like Lexus and Lincoln. My only complaint is that the super-soft suspension results in a rear end that feels like it's barely attached to the vehicle. The ride is supple and almost Escalade-like, but I would prefer to feel more in control. That being said, the labeling of "quiet tires" on the window sticker may be taking things a little too far. OK, we get it, the car is quiet now let the market decide.
The leather is suitably luxurious and the dash area is covered with soft-touch material designed to impart a real sense of luxury. Again, success is Buick's. I like the way this car looks and I find no faults with the styling. Once you can accept the idea of Buick building a truck, the Rainier is decent choice.
On the downside, a $39,000 car should have one-touch up and down windows on all four positions. Like the even pricier Escalade, the Rainier misses the mark in this regard.
"Poor quality exterior finishing, grille misaligned. Lightweight metal is too light, bends in and out while washing and waxing. Interior has poor design of center console, shift, cupholders. High wind noise, even higher pitched on windy days. Passenger door actually moves in and out with vibration on very windy days. Front hood emblem position forces you to have to pull hood up holding this plastic piece. A rod to hold up hood? This is a top-of-the-line vehicle. Should have gas charged openers. Just another example of cheapness along with the carpet grade. Favorite features: Ride, quiet engine. Suggested improvements: Bring this vehicle inside and out up to a Buick luxury standard." Pa, Dec. 12, 2003
"The ride is excellent, as well as the handling. Had running boards installed but they still do not give much of a platform to enter or exit vehicle on. The rear doors are very restrictive for getting in or out. Wind noise is more than I expected at highway speeds. Fuel economy is only about 13.8 in town. Have not been on the highway yet. Rear seatbelts are difficult to connect because of a very short anchor strap. Rear-seat heater is OK at low speeds but makes too much noise if it is turned up. Brakes feel somewhat spongy right now will have to have the dealer check them. Favorite features: love the heated front seats." palex, Dec. 23, 2003
"This is the 5th SUV we have owned in the last 7 years and so far, the best!! We have owned 3 Ford Explorers and a Mercedes-Benz. They all ride hard; the Benz being a little more comfy but still not adequate. The Rainier is very smooth riding, which is paramount to us in an SUV. The heat/AC system is perfect no fooling with knobs and adjusting temps all the time. The cabin is extremely quiet, supportive but comfortable seats, excellent audio (we didn't opt for the Bose) and a joy to drive. Car steers and handles very well. The exterior design of the car is classy. Buick has come through with a gem." annettem, Jan. 10, 2004
"Great smaller SUV. Easy to handle, fits nicely in garage, very comfortable and the new insulated glass is a big plus in reducing outside noise. We also own a Denali and it's comparable, just on a smaller scale. Favorite features: Laminated glass to eliminate outside noise. Also the V8 engine which has plenty of zip." Claude Sparks, Jan. 13, 2004
"Midsize SUV is ideal for comfort and performance. Very nice to drive. I weigh 235 and am very comfortable in this SUV. My wife is 100 lbs less and is very comfortable as well. XM band Bose sound is awesome. Would like to have seen a bit more contemporary design inside but it is nice as is. Side airbags are not standard and should be along with curtain airbags. However we feel very safe in this vehicle. Six-cylinder has plenty of get up and mileage on the road is between 21.5 and 22.5 mpg at 65 mph. Favorite features: Sunroof, leather seats (heated and all-way electric adjustable), Bose sound system with XM radio, computer monitoring system. Suggested improvements: Should be able to obtain 30 mpg with six cylinders, especially since our Buick Park Avenue gets better than 30 on the highway. As mentioned previously, side/curtain airbags should be standard and hood [should be held up with gas struts, not a prop rod] tacky design for this class vehicle." Joe Kurzweil, Jan. 15, 2004
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