Buick Rainier SUV reviews

Review Notes: Buick Rainier CXL with AWD and 5.3 Liter V8
PersonalityBig-SUV towing capacity and thirst, with minivan manners and noise control
AdvantagesHeavy duty towing/hauling capacity doesn't interfere with good manners; nicer interior than Lincoln Navigator
EPA Gas Mileage15 city, 18 highway as tested
NotesPassed driveway test easily; written by David Zatz; similar to GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Avalanche

The near-luxury SUV market is becoming incredibly crowded, with entries from BMW, Mercedes, Cadillac, Chrysler, Lincoln, Infiniti, Lexus, and others. Even within General Motors, there is a large array of mid-sized SUVs from Chevy to Cadillac. The Buick Rainier distinguishes itself with an interesting mix of true-SUV capacity, a deep, throaty optional V8 (duly noted in large type on the rear gate), and suspension tuning that lets you either tow a trailer or pretend you're in a minivan.

Based on the popular Chevrolet TrailBlazer, whose hydroformed frame provides exceptional stiffness for better handling and less noise, the Rainier loads on sound insulation to reduce noise in the cab. Special glass laminates cut back on interior noise and strengthen the window glass, and extra insulation keeps the engine noise under the hood. A tasteful tan interior helps to bring a lux aura, in contrast to the GMC Envoy's utilitarian dark gray. The suspension is tuned so that its exceptional handling and towing capabilities do not impact too badly on the ride; you may feel road imperfections, but you won't be hurt by them. Broken concrete roads are nicely smoothed out, and very little noise from that type of surface ever gets into the cabin.

Cornering is surprisingly good, with traction around sharp turns at fairly high speeds, to the point where some drivers may well become overconfident. Brakes are fortunately also good.

Given that the base in-line six-cylinder engine has 275 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque, and that the optional V8 has 290 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, we expected - and got - instant, rapid acceleration from just about any speed. While we were disappointed in the Envoy XUV's automatic, the Rainier V8's automatic was fairly responsive and not at all indecisive. The 5.3 liter V8 is luxury-tuned, with instant response and a muted, deep roar that would not be out of place in a traditional Cadillac; unlike many modern engines, it doesn't reserve its power for high speeds, but delivers good torque from just off idle through to redline. Either engine is capable and quick, with very little difference in their EPA gas mileage ratings; but the V8 costs $1,500 extra, and we suspect it extracts a greater gas mileage toll in real life. Admittedly, it comes with a nice, large V8 badge on the rear gate.

Like its brethren, the Rainier has a good ride height, tall enough to provide a good view of the road, but not so tall that you have to climb in. The interior has good head room, and the front occupants will have plenty of leg and shoulder room as well. The back seats are good for shoulder and head room, but leg room is not as generous as it could be in an SUV of this size. The cargo bay is quite large, but you can't move the rear seats back into it. (You can fold them down to expand the cargo bay.)

Unlike the GMC Envoy, the Rainier has relatively few gee-whiz features. There's the standard GM OnStar system, integrated into the rearview mirror; the standard automatic headlights, this time with a sensible switch (you can move from automatic to driving lights only or headlights on, and you can shut them all of, albeit once each time you start the engine, by moving the switch to the left); and a bunch of underhood and chassis features that don't make themselves known except through their effects on noise reduction, power, and handling.

Our test vehicle had the optional driver information center, which we strongly recommend, not only because of the information it provides but also because it allows you to easily control your vehicle's features - door locking, perimeter lighting, headlight delay, and such. Operated from four steering wheel buttons, it's an easy system to learn, and it has a nice large readout on the instrument panel. We tend to leave it on gas mileage (in our case, 15 mpg, with mostly city driving), but there are several other options. Outside temperature is provided on the dual-zone thermostatic climate control with automatic fan, and compass heading was on the mirror.

For the most part, the interior was comfortable, though the seat-mounted front seat belts can be a little hard to grab, and may be too low for taller drivers or too high for shorter drivers. The rear seats have a clever flap system that covers up the child seat retaining loops, but leaves them easily accessible when needed.

The interior is relatively well designed, with a quiet and attractive natural-leather-oriented color scheme. In the instrument panel, a large speedometer dominates, with a large tachometer on the left and four smaller gauges arranged in two groups on the right (oil and antifreeze temperature, gas, and voltage); it's a clear basic design, but the silver color scheme makes the numbers a bit hard to read, and they tend to get washed out in twilight. Underneath all of it is the odometer / driver information package display. The gauges are tastefully outlined in shiny chrome, as are the four very large vents, which are able to move massive amounts of air with very little noise - a substantial achievement.

Controls are sensibly clustered with each other - all the light buttons and knobs in one panel, climate control in another, stereo in a third. The traction control shutoff sensibly lights a warning that clearly shows that traction control is off, while the rear wiper/washer is easy to see and use. The basic climate control itself includes dual zone climate control, and a traditional vent knob along with pushbuttons for recirculation and air conditioning, for flexibility. OnStar is integrated into the mirror for those who buy it, and a universal garage door opener is above the mirror.

Interior lighting is very good, with dome lights by every door and in the cargo bay. Each dome light is paired with an individually touch-operated personal light.

As with all recent GM vehicles, all surfaces on which you might put coins or other objects are lined with a rubbery plastic. There are two front cupholders, one deep and one shallow, both with rubber stickout thingies that hold smaller cups in place. A larger bay under the center stack can be used for EZ-Passes and such objects, and large map pockets in the front doors are standard. Back seat passengers can use foldout cupholders from the back of the center stack.

The rear has a traditional SUV gate, with glass that pops up at the press of a button. The carpeted cargo area has small side storage compartments and one shallow underfloor bin for extra storage. Visibility is far better than the Envoy XUV, because there are no major blocks to the rear passenger side; it's not at all hard to back into parking spaces. The doors thoughtfully have lowered sheet metal so you can look down sharply on either side. Large side mirrors (which can be folded in) complete the package.

Our test model, a Rainier CXL with all wheel drive, listed for $37,245. The V8 added $1,500, the Bose premium sound system another $500, and then $450 for chrome assist steps along the side (not really needed in a vehicle with such a reasonable ride height) and heated front seats for $275. The CXL includes such luxury amenities as heated turn signal mirrors, rear air suspension with load levelling, locking rear differetial, a towing package capable of pulling over 6,000 pounds, four wheel antilock disc brakes, theft prevention system, eight-way power front seats with memory, automatic dual zone climate control, driver information center, rear seat audio controls, compass, and thermometer. Those who do not need the large cargo space may prefer a Jeep Grand Cherokee, while those who do not need to tow may prefer the Pontiac Montana, Chrysler Pacifica, BMW X5, Subaru Outback, or others, which provide SUV styling with better gas mileage and a more attractive price.