Buick LaCrosse car reviews

Review Notes: 2005 Buick LaCrosse CSX
Personality Plush, largeish mid-size
Quirks Lighting controls
Unusual features Optional electronics
Strengths Looks
Weaknesses Cornering, gas mileage
Driveway test Passed
Gas mileage 19 city, 27 highway (3.6)
20 city, 29 highway (3.8)
With a high-tech variable-valve-timing 3.6 liter V6 in place of venerable 3.8 liter V6, gobs of GM technology from OnStar to XM Radio to stability control, the LaCrosse throws in a good deal of corporate electronics, which can help to make up for the less than stunning cornering and the power gap between gears in the four-speed automatic transmission.The interior retains an old-style luxury look, the kind that has been abandoned by Cadillac but is still loved as the mark of luxury by many. Our CXS model (a premium trim line) was adorned with faux wood on the doors and dashboard, as well as the center console (between the seats) and gearshift lever. Large, elegant letters on the PRNDL and instrument panel helped to minimize the impact of the standard new-car gray and charcoal plastics. Generous use of curves helps to keep the interior from looking too squarish, and a chrome strip across the dashboard both separates the woodgrain from the gray plastic and adds a touch of class; bright chrome is also used around the gearshift and the three gauge rings, not to mention the logo on the steering wheel itself. Overall, the interior is classy and pleasant; the gauges are imaginatively decorated, with the dashboard PRNDL following the circular speedometer outline and the gas and heat gauges tucked into a larger right-hand faux gauge. All that's missing to make the package complete is nicely tapered pointers, something rarely seen outside the Chrysler 300M due presumably to their cost. The exterior has the swoopy lines of a Jaguar, with a modified second-generation Neon rear, but is clearly recognizable as a Buick.

In the center (on cars so equipped) is a row of buttons for the trip computer, which is restricted to a trip odometer on lower-line cars. On the CXS, the trip computer includes separate buttons for distance and average speed, gas mileage and distance to empty, oil life and battery voltage, preference-setting (e.g. locking and lighting behavior), the traction control shutoff, and the hazard flashers.(The oil life indicator is a standard GM technology that should have gained some national recognition for the huge amount of oil it may save over time by extending oil change intervals from every 3,000 miles to every 6,000 to 10,000 miles without, according to GM, any damage to the engine.)

The stereo follows a similar pattern, with two rows of nearly identical buttons; the top row has the seek button, six presets, and a display button, while the bottom row, between two large knobs, has band, CD, preset equalizers, information, categories (for XM), and speed-controlled volume. There are three settings for speed-controlled volume (it raises volume as you drive faster), and all are too high; the LaCrosse has very little wind or engine noise, and while some volume adjustment is handy, even the minimum amount is too much for this quiet car. The stereo itself has good sound, with boomy bass that becomes annoying when listening to voices, and lowering bass to its minimum level doesn't solve that, but the stereo separation and clarity are both quite good. (We had the optional XM radio.) 

Speaking of quiet, the LaCrosse has a surprisingly quiet interior, the result of quite a bit of planning and engineering; the windows are a special laminate, the steel is designed to be quiet, and sound reduction measures were taken at various points as well. That means no subsonic booms on bumps, very little engine and wind noise, and a more pleasant driving experience.

We had the optional dual-zone thermostatic climate control, which continues the lines-of-square-buttons approach; the buttons are awkwardly hard to push, but at least there is a choice of running the air conditioner compressor or not. The system is fairly straightforward, though the use of buttons means you lose some fine control over the vents (as in the Cobalt and Neon). The fan is surprisingly noisy for a car of this appearance and price, and the air conditioning not as powerful as we expected.

Other controls include the new standard for GM headlights, one of those corporate moves that makes us wonder what they were thinking. In addition to the standard daytime running lights, GM makes most of its new cars stick to automatic headlight operation as an unchangeable default, so that you have four choices: switch to no lights each time you drive, switch to driving lights, or put the headlights on manually. Do the GM lighting people live in the Arctic?

The center console is generously sized and placed well for use as an armrest, and includes a conveniently designed coinholder that can be used quickly (but only has three coin sizes). There are also two rubber-lined bins (one of which doubles as a fairly primitive cupholder for those who don't turn corners too quickly) and map pockets on each of the front doors.

The interior is also generously sized, with good headroom and comfort in each seating position and plenty of legroom for front and rear passengers; the trunk easily swallows up large amounts of stuff. Visibility is good overall, with the usual rear quarter blind spot taking up less room than usual.

The ride is a mixed bag; in the city, the soft suspension easily soaked up pavement problems, potholes, rough surfaces, and the like, with broken concrete surfaces only coming through as a distant clacking. However, on smooth highways at modern highway speeds, there seemed to be a far busier ride than on bumpy streets, and cornering was less than ideal, with sharp turns accompanied by shrieking tires and  activation of Stabilitrak, which turned out to be more useful than usual. Because of the front-wheel-drive configuration and suspension tuning, acceleration on turns tended to activate the traction control and Stabilitrak. The CXL and base models both have a softer ride, with less able cornering.

Acceleration in the CXS model is swift and easy, as one would expect, though the 3.6 V6, despite variable valve timing, seems to have more of a power drop between gears than the old 3.8 (which is still available on the base model). That power drop doesn't seem to hurt much; 0-60 acceleration is a bit over 7 seconds. The base 3.8 liter takes a little over 8 seconds to get to 60, a substantial difference which shows the effectiveness of variable valve timing (or perhaps those extra 40 horses.)

The 3.8 has 200 horsepower; the 3.6 boosts that to an impressive 240 hp and 225 pound-feet of torque. As with many modern engines, it seems to make much more power at higher revs, and less right off idle. The smooth automatic transmission is responsive and quickly but gently drops a gear when acceleration is needed; it generally guesses intent quite well and is usually in the right gear at any given time. Gas mileage with our test car was surprisingly poor, but it does take regular gasoline, and the EPA figures are not bad (19 city, 27 highway for the 3.6). We never got over 18 in the city or 24 on the highway. (The base model has a less powerful engine than the tested CXS.

The nicely loaded CXS model starts at $29,000 with destination, which includes the automatic, ABS, variable-assist steering, traction control, OnStar, remote entry, fog lights, power remote mirrors, 17" aluminum wheels, six-speaker CD stereo, dual zone climate control, trip computer, leather, power driver's seat (though tilting the back requires a manual control), power locks and windows, and tilt-telescope steering wheel. Our test model had the $1,150 gold package, with leather steering wheel incorporating radio and temp controls, universal garage door opener, auto-dimming rearview mirror, heated power outside mirrors, power passenger seat, and rear park assist. Rear park assist sounds like a bit of a frill until you read about how many children are killed each year from drivers backing up out of their driveways.

We should say a few words about the steering wheel with radio and climate controls; the cruise control on this wheel is relegated to near the bottom of the wheel, where it is not as accessible as it could be. It's the new GM corporate control, which has no built-in cancel feature (you're supposed to tap the brakes), and the stereo mute is just below the on button. We never did quite get the hang of it in its unusual location, and would rather have the radio controls in the less accessible location.

Another $650 will buy chrome-plated wheels that look truly snazzy, while $500 more gets Stabilitrak, the stability control system which on this car is particularly useful and well worth the extra cost. Side curtain airbags add $400 but can save lives in an accident with an SUV, while XM radio adds $325 (plus a monthly charge). Finally, the remote starting system, which is fun for surprising strangers but also rather useful for getting the car warmed up or cooled down before you get in, is another $150. It shuts off automatically after ten minutes, and won't start the car until you've locked the doors for safety. All told, our test model was $32,160, which is a far cry from the base model ($23,500).

Some traditional Buick owners will be fond of the LaCrosse; it retains the traditional straight-line performance and, at lower highway speeds or on the street, comfort, along with a generally friendly and classy interior that's nice and soft. Unfortunately, we were a bit spoiled by the Cobalt, which combines a comfortable suspension and swift engine with good cornering and a much, much lower prices (albeit in a smaller body). Some former Cadillac owners may even want to look at the LaCrosse, which offers more of the traditional Cadillac plush interior than current Caddys do (the Park Avenue is still an option as well.)

Generally, this is a crowded segment, with the Toyota Avalon, Chrysler 300C standing out at opposite ends of the spectrum - the Avalon providing more traditional American softness, and the 300C being harder and more spartan but much more capable in cornering and acceleration. For the base model, competition includes the Toyota Camry, Mitsubishi Galant, and Dodge Charger, among many others. Overall, the LaCrosse, despite poor gas mileage and a tendency to resort to tire squeals and Stabilitrak when pushed, seems like a nice comfortable package, with an elegant, quiet interior and good enough cornering for most buyers.