I’m going to wager you’ve gorged yourself at a sprawling Chinese buffet at least once. Back in my college days, Emerald Palace was a favourite: big portions, ample choices, reasonable prices. Sometimes, the proprietors would limit choice, holding back the good stuff for busier, higher-profit nights. It was annoying because you knew — knew! — a few scrumptious menu items were locked away in the kitchen walk-in, just out of reach.
The previous-generation Buick LaCrosse debuted in the dark recesses of 2009, when the domestic auto industry — hemorrhaging red ink and tottering towards bankruptcy — cried and shovelled back tub loads of Ben & Jerry’s. Buick was on the minds of Chinese buyers for a few years by this time. This played a large part in the brand escaping the executioner’s axe seven years ago. The second-generation LaCrosse was Buick’s all-in gambit on The Red Dragon.
Domestically, Buick’s been making a splash lately, and some of that swagger is apparent in the team that worked on the LaCrosse. Not content to simply chase its existing customers, the tri-shield brand plans to make the LaCrosse one of its “conquest models,” drawing buyers’ attention out from behind the wheels of competing marques. To this extent, the LaCrosse is actually two very different cars, depending on how you tick the option boxes.
The 2017 LaCrosse is available in four trims —
Base Standard, Preferred, Essence, and Premium — ranging in price from $32,990 up to $41,990 before à la carte options (all wheel drive is a $2,200 option and available only on the Premium trim). On the top two trims, Buick reps were quick to clarify that the LaCrosse’s available 20-inch wheel option is much more than a $1,625 wheel-and-tire package. The larger wheels are packages together with Continuous Damper Control and HiPer struts in front-wheel-drive models. Unfortunately, LaCrosses that power all four corners make do with MacPherson struts, regardless of the wheel size.
Stuffing 310 horsepower through the front wheels of a large sedan is usually a recipe for torque steer — ask anyone who bought a 2006 Impala SS. In the LaCrosse, there’s no need for torque-steer-countering Feats of Strength. Stomping the loud pedal from a standstill on a deserted stretch of road dumped enough power to the 20-inch wheels to break traction, but the trick suspension kept the elevens straight. That same suspension hardware improves cornering grip. Jeff Yanssens, an affable and outspoken guy who serves as the Chief Vehicle Engineer for LaCrosse, pushed for this more aggressive suspension setup. He also likes and has a history of working on superchargers — wink wink, nudge nudge. If a supercharged Buick coupe has any chance of casting shade on GM showroom floors, Jeff is likely the man to make it happen.
Sampling both an 18- and 20-inch wheel equipped LaCrosses over the same stretch of twisty road through Oregon’s densely forested Mist-Clatskanie Highway, the big Buick acquitted itself well, refusing to roll over and wallow in the corners. No one will mistake it for an MX-5, but the five-link rear suspension with hydraulic bushings tucked the rear into the corners and lent the car a generally planted nature. Buick’s two-pronged goal of targeting big car loyalists with the soft-riding 18 incher and going after conquest buyers with the firmer 20 incher is a sound strategy.
All General Motors has to do is get buyers in the showroom.
The new Buick design language might do it.
Taking several cues from the very pretty Avenir and Avista show cars, the LaCrosse does a good job of integrating Buick’s “sweepspear” curved trim line, which is most pronounced on the fullsizer’s rear flanks. Styling is always subjective, but I’d argue with anyone who thinks an uninspired, slab-sided monstrosity looks better than something with an attempt at flair. The entire expanse of metal from the A-pillar to the C-pillar and around to the sculpted rear quarter panel is a single, 168mm deep stamping. That in itself lends to the car’s quiet nature — and how eager GM is to show off its metalworking chops.
Why’d Buick choose Portland? Well, that area uses some of the biggest aggregate in the country to manufacture its asphalt, with the embedded stones often measuring the size of a quarter. Intending to prove the quietness of its new LaCrosse, Buick engineers encouraged us to seek out the roughest roads and hammer over a few pavement heaves. They proved their point: this thing is quieter than a flea’s hiccup.
Like other luxury car makers (whether you believe Buick is a luxury automaker or not), Buick planned a touch pad for the LaCrosse’s infotainment system. Late in development, the LaCrosse team felt the pad’s surface was too narrow, and yanked it from the car. In its place is a small, oddly shaped cubby to put one’s keyfob or a few coins. This is unfortunate given the Buick team benchmarked the Lexus ES350 in so many other measures.
Despite the challenges FCA is experiencing with its electronic shifter, a similar one appears in the new LaCrosse. It’s shared with the Cadillac XT5 and will no doubt soon spread across GM’s lineup like so much kudzu. Specifically designed to invoke a deliberate thought process, the shifter forces drivers to push up and left to engage reverse gear. Park has its own button atop the shifter. It’s a gamble, especially given the traditional Buick demographic, but electronic shifters remove mechanical linkages, which reduces NVH and frees up console space for storage — yet, not enough for a touchpad. Hmm …
An attractive 8-inch frameless display and fast processor handles infotainment, unlike the sluggish units of the past. For the OCD among us, the touchscreen’s glass surface is engineered to resist fingerprints. Other GM marques currently include a soft cloth for dealing with this issue. However, the new smudge-free screen should make the cloth a thing of the past in other high-end GM machinery in the future.
Additionally and curiously, Buick reps told us that customers were not willing to pay extra for real wood, so the fake trim remains. It is not wholly offensive.
GM’s next-generation, direct-injected 3.6-liter V6 (rated at 21 miles per gallon city and 31 mpg highway in front-wheel-drive models and 20/29 for all-wheel drive) is the only engine offered in North America. The massaged mill boasts 310 horsepower and 282 lbs-ft of twist. LaCrosse tips the scales at a hair under 3,600 pounds in front-wheel-drive guise, about 300 pounds less than the last-generation car — the weight of a Kenmore fridge, the Buick team liked to remind us. All-wheel drive tacks on about 240 pounds. Nearly 150 of that 300-pound weight reduction was taken from the structure of the vehicle.
Acceleration should compare well with the Lexus ES350, given their roughly equal curb weights and the Lexus’s 42 hp deficit. Infiniti’s Q50 also weighs about the same, but has 328 hp. An eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive are standard in the Buick. All-wheel drive is only available in the top-tier Premium trim level, vexing potential customers who may not want their LaCrosses loaded to the gunwales.
Through a twin-clutch torque vectoring differential, the all-wheel-drive system is capable of shunting rear power from left to right as needed. On the return drive, Product Marketing Manager Brian Shipman said the take rate on all-wheel-drive currently hovers around 10 percent for LaCrosse, but he’d like to see that increase to 15 percent with the new model.
Mercifully, the throttle isn’t overly tuned toward fuel economy. Buick engineers instead turned to higher-tech fuel-saving methods, such as active aero shutters hidden behind the grille and an imperceptible cylinder deactivation system. The new 3.6-liter V6 is the first GM engine designed specifically for an automatic stop/start system and it’s the least intrusive system I’ve experienced thus far in stop-and-go traffic. Buick is so confident in the system that it doesn’t even offer an on/off switch for it, although China-bound four-cylinder models have such a button below the passenger side centre air vent.
Speaking of China, Buick engineer Cathy Turzewski, who recently spent time with Buick overseas, tagged along while I piloted a LaCrosse specced in mid-level trim with 18-inch wheels over the freshly paved Oregon Route 47.
For that market, the 20-inch rims are merely an accessory, she said, while Buick offers 17s and 19s as standard and optional equipment thanks to consumer priorities focused on fuel economy and comfort. It’s here I began to pine for the vast menu of options just out of reach, as she described the available bamboo trim with 3D textures and saddle-colored seats with suede inserts. It’s worth noting here that Lexus offers a very pleasing matte bamboo trim in its ES350.
The last-generation LaCrosse had front seat massagers only in the Chinese market. The new LaCrosse offers this feature to North American customers in its Premium trim, but they offer much less aggressive action than those found in the same car in other markets.
While the rear seat is vast in terms of legroom — thanks to 2.7 extra inches of wheelbase for 2017 — this 6’6” author did find headroom at a premium in examples equipped with the $1,550 panoramic moonroof. The seat is well-shaped, but the centre armrest is short, depositing my elbow squarely in the hard plastic cupholder. Overseas, backseat riders are treated to heated and ventilated seats, which also offer massaging and a power recline. Oddly, the North American market does not get rear seat USB ports in any trim, settling for a 12V port (deemed by focus groups to be more versatile) or a 110V outlet in the Premium model. The Chinese market LaCrosse gets twin USB ports in place of the 12V unit.
In comparison, then, our buffet is starting to look a little thin. Maddening, since Buick has clearly paid to develop these features and could have leapfrogged its competitors in terms of unique content. People talk about Hyundais with heated rear seats, creating buzz for the entire brand, even if only a small percentage of Elantras are sold with the option. Do you think people would be talking about the Buick with massaging rear seats? Exactly.
Product Marketing Manager Brian Shipman says LaCrosse is a “conquest biggie,” with hopes to draw in customers stepping out of a Chrysler 300, Ford Fusion, and perhaps even an Audi or two.
“I’ll take whatever customer I can get,” said Shipman on the drive back to Portland in a front-wheel-drive, mid-spec LaCrosse rolling on 20s. Right now, the average LaCrosse buyer is about 62 to 64 years of age. Shipman says they’re aiming for customers in their 40s, particularly for the LaCrosse with the 20-inch wheel and suspension package. This is ambitious, but it’s worth noting that in the last seven years, the average age of a Buick customer has dropped from 64 to 59.
By employing a two-pronged approach of offering LaCrosse with two vastly different sets of handling characteristics, Buick stands a reasonable chance of simultaneously placating the Golden Corral demographic while luring new and younger buyers out from behind the wheel of competing brands. The LaCrosse is an excellent effort, with attractive styling touches cribbed from the Avenir concept car and a phenomenally quiet interior.
Still, if Buick wants to sit at the head table, it’s going to have to bring out the full menu.
Disclosure: General Motors provided travel, hotel, and food for the purpose of this review.
[Images: © 2016 Matthew Guy/The Truth About Cars]