Other Editorials

Wouldn't You Really Rather?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Here's some good news about Buick. Now let's hope we can keep the marketing people from damaging what our engineers and designers have accomplished.

Lucerne Trumps Those Annoying Buick Prejudices
USA Today

By James Healey

Jan. 27, 2007

What a fine surprise. Buick has replaced two cars, Park Avenue and LeSabre, with a single big sedan called Lucerne, and it's a honey.

Based on the chassis used for Cadillac DTS, Lucerne winds up nicer than the Caddy  more pleasant to drive, more appealing inside, slicker-looking outside.

In fact, Lucerne is among the best big, front-drive sedans on the market. Yes, better in significant ways than Toyota Avalon, the standard-setter for the mainstream, big-sedan category.

We won't make this totally a one-vs.-the-other discussion, but some comparisons should be made.

Lucerne's interior is more tasteful and roomier than Avalon's. The trunk is bigger. The Buick offers an optional V-8 engine, which the Toyota doesn't. Driving Lucerne is a smoother, more pleasing experience. The Buick's automatic transmission is a four-speed instead of the Toyota's modern five-speed, but Lucerne's gearbox is smoother-shifting than Avalon's.

Where Avalon rules is efficiency. It weighs about 400 pounds less, and its 3.5-liter Toyota V-6 puts out 71 horsepower and 21 pounds-feet of torque more than Lucerne's base 3.8-liter V-6. Lucerne needs the optional General Motors Northstar V-8 to outdo the Avalon's V-6 power ratings.

Avalon's fuel-economy rating is better. In government tests, it gets 25 mpg in combined city-highway driving. Lucerne's V-6 is 22, and the V-8 is 20. The Buick V-8 needs premium fuel to get the advertised horsepower. The Toyota and Buick V-6 engines use regular.

To properly regard Lucerne, we need to address three prejudices.

Detroit models have inferior quality.
Get over that one, folks, especially in this case. Buick outscores Toyota, Honda and some other highly regarded brands in J.D. Power and Associates' surveys.

Power's 2005 tally of things gone wrong the first 90 days of ownership showed the Buick brand was fourth, behind Lexus, Jaguar and BMW and ahead of Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota.

Buick also places fourth in Power's 2005 study of problems with 3-year-old vehicles behind Lexus, Porsche and Lincoln.

Toyota can do no wrong.
Get over that one, too. The 2005 Avalon was recalled last year, its first on the market, because somebody forgot to weld the steering mechanism together on some cars, meaning the driver might not be able to steer, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The auto industry, in its frenzy of cost-cutting that's become corner-cutting, has sunk back into the first-year bugs of the old days, so Lucerne could have some teething problems, too. So far, though, NHTSA files show no complaints, investigations or recalls involving Lucerne, on sale since October.

Buicks are fogey cars.
Man, are you out of touch. No, Buick's not a young, hip brand like Scion. But it has a high-performance heritage that is decades old and is being renewed in Lucerne. There's even a sports Lucerne model, CXS, that has bigger wheels, tires and brakes than the others and a firmer suspension for more agile handling.

One trade-off of the big wheels is a 44-foot turning circle diameter, as big as a full-size pickup. That makes it clumsy in some parking lots.

Yes, Buick has had stinkers. But the 1953 Skylark convertible and the 1971 boat-tail Riviera are collectible classics. The 1960s Wildcats offered enough power to spin the tires almost at will. Grand National and GNX turbocharged models of the '80s were blisteringly quick. More recently, supercharged 3.8-liter V-6s have been punchy enough to substitute for V-8s.

And since when are a comfortable ride and pleasant amenities bad things? Been in a Mercedes-Benz lately? Or a big BMW or Lexus? Buicks by another name.

Let's just enjoy the marvelous package Lucerne is.

The V-8 model, powered by a 275-horsepower version of the 4.6-liter Northstar engine used in Cadillacs, is more fun than the model with the 3.8-liter V-6. But the 197-horsepower V-6 is no dog. It's just that the mildly tuned Northstar seems right in the Lucerne, giving it the kind of oomph that once made large Detroit sedans such marvels of quick comfort.

The V-8 gurgles and growls softly, reinforcing your impression that the car will do about what you ask it to with your right foot. The V-6 sounds and feels a bit coarser, but is more than adequately powerful.

Inside, back-seat leg and knee space are adult-size. And the car is wide enough that three child seats can be strapped across the back seat, not just two. Or, if you hook your kid seat in the middle of the back, there's room on either side for grownups (as long as they don't make a living playing in the NFL).

Interior trim, fabric, controls, the way parts fit together are all premium. Front seats are comfortable without requiring the tinkering that some chairs need to fit you right. Proper driving position is easy to find.

Lucerne wraps the goodies in a smoothly drawn body. You have to accept the Buick tradition of portholes, though. The V-8 model has four on each side of the hood; the V-6, three. They are faux vents, meant to suggest exhaust outlets. Some folks will think they're stupid. But they've always been a Buick signature.

Lucerne might not be for you, but if you decide that ahead of time, powered by prejudice, you're cheating yourself.

Watch your back, Toyota.