Review: 2004 Buick Rainier CXL


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DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

    Buick is the mid-luxury division at General Motors, and SUVs 
are what is happening at all levels in the American luxury vehicle 
market. Not having much of a truck heritage - the only previous 
Buick truck was made in 1923 - Buick tested the sport-utility 
market with the crossover Rendezvous in 2002. The Rendezvous 
was successful, and so the Buick SUV lineup expands this year with 
the recent introduction of the Rainier.
    The two vehicles complement each other. The Rendezvous 
combines elements of a car, a minivan, and an SUV in a package 
aimed at what once would have been the mid-size wagon buyer. 
The Rainier is somewhat larger - but not too large - and is a real 
body-on-frame truck.
    But ``truck,'' even with body-on-frame construction, doesn't 
mean what it once did. If a quick glance at the Rainier gives you a 
sense of deja vu, you're right. It's the Buick implementation of the 
newest GM mid-sized SUV platform that has given the world the 
Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy. As with GM's platform-
sharing mid-sized sedans, each of the SUVs has a distinct 
personality and is aimed at a different market.
    The Rainier is the traditional American luxury implementation of 
the siblings. Offered in one well-equipped trim level on the short-
wheelbase version of the chassis, with rear- or all-wheel drive, it 
has something that its short-wheelbase platform mates don't - an 
available V8 engine. As with the other mid-sized GM SUVs, the 
standard engine is GM's latest 4.2-liter twincam aluminum alloy 
inline six. To get the 5.3-liter ``Vortec'' V8 in the others, you must 
get the larger, heavier long-wheelbase models.
    I've been driving an all-wheel drive Rainier V8 for the past week. 
As good as the six is, the V8 makes a difference. Power was never 
a problem, and the ride quality was pure contemporary Buick. The 
extra power will be especially welcomed by anyone who needs to 
tow a trailer, with capacity up to 6700 lbs. Get in blindfolded and 
you'll be hard-pressed to tell that you're in a truck. There is plenty 
of room for five real people inside, or large cargo with the rear seat 
folded. And the short wheelbase means better maneuverability and 
ease of parking in the Rainer's natural habitat, the urban/suburban 
shopping mall parking lot. Buick may be late to the SUV party, but 
with the Rainier it arrives in style.

APPEARANCE: What would a Buick SUV look like?  Most likely, 
exactly like the Rainier. There is only so much that can be done 
with a two-box SUV, so its basic shape is shared. But there is no 
difficulty telling that the Rainier is a Buick. Even without the 
company's triple-shield logo prominently displayed in its center, the 
heavily chrome-trimmed oval waterfall grille is the giveaway. Car-
type complex headlights under aerodynamic fairings and character 
lines in the hood that give the impression of fender lines add to the 
upscale, carlike image. The body-colored bumper fascia, 
incorporating foglamps, is the final touch to distance the Rainier's 
styling from ``truck'' to ``luxury car.'' Functional body-colored 
lower protective cladding blends with the front and rear bumpers 
via the wheel arches. With its slightly blistered fenders wide stance, 
the Rainier projects a look of muscular elegance.

COMFORT: Open the door, step over the embossed chrome sill 
plates, and settle in Buick luxury and comfort. Even in all-wheel 
drive trim, step-in is relatively low. Perforated leather seating 
surfaces, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, soft-touch interior 
materials, and woodgrain trim on the doors, dash, and console give 
the Rainier's interior a luxury ambiance. The power-adjustable front 
buckets provide very good comfort and support, and with a tilt-
adjustable steering wheel with information and audio system 
controls and power-adjustable pedals allow almost any size of 
driver to find the perfect driving position. The interestingly-styled 
instruments are shaded from glare. Dual-zone automatic climate 
control is standard, and many personalization features are available. 
In Rainiers equipped with the optional navigation system, like my 
test vehicle, the audio system is controlled through screen menus. 
Storage spaces and power points are conveniently placed. The rear 
seat is noteworthy for legroom. A rear-seat DVD entertainment 
system is available. Split 60/40, the rear cushions flip up and the 
backs fold forward without need to remove the headrests when 
cargo space is needed. Even with the seat up there is plenty of 
cargo space. And it's improved by a small underfloor compartment 
and cargo net tie-downs. 

SAFETY: Safety features of the 2004 Buick Rainier include a high 
degree of structural integrity, four-wheel vented antilock disc 
brakes, and OnStar as standard equipment. Side airbags are 
available.

ROADABILITY: The secret to a quiet ride and good handling in a 
body-on-frame vehicle is the same as for one with a unibody 
structure: rigidity and correct suspension tuning. This is more 
difficult in a body-on-frame vehicle, as both the body and the frame 
must be designed and built to work with each other, with similar 
vibrational frequencies and levels of rigidity, in order to minimize 
noise and vibration and provide the best anchorage for the 
suspension. Think of the body as a unibody structure on the frame. 
With overall rigidity equivalent to that of a well-designed sedan, 
and soundproofing technology more common in luxury sedans, the 
Rainier exemplifies the best of contemporary truck design. Front 
suspension is by independent double A-arms, with coil springs. 
Although a solid axle is found at the rear, it is sprung by 
electronically-controlled air springs. Five-link axle location tames it 
well; there is no axle tramp under acceleration. Ride comfort is on a 
par with that of any other Buick. An available all-wheel drive 
system is offered for all-season driving and light fire-road duty.

PERFORMANCE: You can't go wrong under the Rainier's hood. 
The standard 4.2-liter inline six is a smooth, sophisticated 
powerplant that could be at home in a European-style luxury/sports 
sedan. I've experienced it in the Rainier's siblings, and it gets the job 
done admirably. For those customers who need more power, there 
is the 5.3-liter ``Vortec'' V8. If its 290 horsepower doesn't seem to 
be all that much more than the sixes' 275, look at the torque specs: 
275 lb-ft for the six, versus 325 for the V8. The V8 is as refined as 
the six, it just improves acceleration and towing ability. Towing 
capacity for the six ranges from 5600 to 6200 lbs. depending on 
configuration; the V8 can tow 6500 lbs in AWD trim or 6700 in 
RWD form. All models use the Hydra-Matic 4L60-E four-speed 
automatic transmission also used in some of GM's performance 
sedans. It is, unsurprisingly, smooth and quick-shifting.

CONCLUSIONS: Buick has entered the midsized luxury SUV field 
with the 2004 Rainier.

SPECIFICATIONS
2004 Buick Rainier CXL
Base Price $ 38,295
Price As Tested $ 44,705
Engine Type 16-valve pushrod overhead valve V8
Engine Size 5.3 liters / 325 cu. in.
Horsepower 290 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 325 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic
Wheelbase / Length 113 in. / 193.4 in.
Curb Weight n/a lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower n/a
Fuel Capacity 22 gal.
Fuel Requirement unleaded regular gasoline
Tires P255/60 SR17 Michelin Cross- Terrain
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear independent double A-arm / solid axle with multilink location
Ground clearance 7.7 inches
Drivetrain front engine, on-demand all-wheel drive
PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 15 / 18 / 16
0 to 60 mph est 7.8 sec
Towing capacity 6500 lbs AWD, 6700lbs
RWD
OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Navigation radio system - replaces standard or optional unit $ 1,750
Vortec 5300 V8 engine $ 1,500
Rear-seat DVD entertainment system $ 1,435
Chrome assist steps $ 450
Side impact air bags $ 350
Heated front seats $ 275
Destination charge $ 650
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