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New Car Review: 2005 Buick LaCrosse CXS

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Buick

Trucks, particularly SUVs, looked to be taking over not long ago, but across the industry, cars are making a comeback. And this is especially true at Buick. It's newest offering is the LaCrosse, a new name for a new mid-sized Buick sedan, and it promises to be a preview of Buicks to come.

After a couple of years of product expansion into the luxury crossover and truck classes with the Rendezvous and Ranier, respectively, Buick is starting to renew its cars. The first Buick sedans to get a makeover are the Regal and Century, which together accounted for nearly half of Buicks sales in recent years.

Actually, more than a makeover involved. Except for a short run of 2005 Centurys, the Regal and Century are history, superseded by the LaCrosse. The LaCrosse is not a radical departure from the Regal and the Century, and that's fitting as the Regal and Century were very successful cars for Buick, and Buick is a conservative company. The LaCrosse's platform underpinnings are, in fact, the venerable W platform upon which the Regal and Century were based, but updated and upgraded. The engine for the CX and CXL models is the latest, Series III, version of the renowned 3800 V6, but the supercharged 3800 that powered the premium Regal GS has gone the way of the Regal GS itself, replaced in the LaCrosse CXS by the aluminum alloy dual overhead cam 3.6-liter V6 also found in the Rendezvous Ultra.

So, with new styling, a significantly-upgraded chassis, and new power, if the LaCrosse is not absolutely, completely new from the ground up, it is changed enough to merit its new name. Chassis improvements and enhanced soundproofing materials make it quieter, and both exterior and interior panel gaps are noticeably smaller, for better fit and finish. Unlike any of its domestic or imported competitors, the LaCrosse is available in a six-passenger configuration, for the Buick traditionalist, as well as the now-standard five-passenger mode. The well-equipped CX has standard high-quality cloth upholstery, and could be considered to take the place of the Century. With the 3800 Series II engine and standard leather, the CXL is a fine successor to the Regal LS. An upgraded suspension and the twin-cam 3.6-liter V6 lets the LaCrosse CXS take the place of the late Regal GS.

For the past week, my transportation has been a LaCrosse CXS. I've spent a fair amount of time in Regals, particularly in the Regal GS, over the years, and hold that car in high regard. The LaCrosse is not merely a Regal in new skin. It's more modern, quieter, and more refined, and can hold its own against its intended competitors in the mid-size middle-class and entry-luxury classes. With its new styling and improved fit and finish, it can appeal to a wider group of potential customers. The LaCrosse is the most important Buick in recent years, and points to a bright future for the company.

APPEARANCE: There is no doubt that the LaCrosse is a Buick - just look at the chrome-trimmed, oval ``waterfall'' grille and rounded shape, both virtually Buick trademarks in recent years. But the LaCrosse shows visual excitement that was foreign to both the Regal and Century, with creased outer lines to both the front and rear fenders and sculpted details. The new four-light headlight treatment echos some much pricier imports, as do details like chrome trim on the corners of the bumpers and the large, rounded-triangular taillights. Panel gaps and fit are noticeably improved. The message is that this is no longer a car only for domestic-brand buyers, but for those who previously considered only imports as well.

COMFORT: Even more inside than out, blandness has been banished from the LaCrosse. A two-tone, dark-over-light color scheme, copious use of woodgrain trim on the main instrument panel, console, and doors, and a tasteful touch of chrome trim help give it an airy, spacious look, with a design that is more international than has ever been found in a Buick, and a definite upgrade from the old Regal. The spacious appearance is no illusion, as there is more interior room, particularly in rear-seat legroom and both front and rear shoulder room. The top of the instrument panel sits lower than in the Regal and Century, for improved vision. Interestingly, in an age where it seems that everything related to an automobile is first done by computer simulation, the LaCrosse is the first GM vehicle in over a decade to have its interior designed the old-fashioned way - with what is called the ``Interior Craftsmanship Buck,'' or ICB. Even at an early design stage, real people could sit in a more-or-less real interior, and critique the position and usefulness of the instruments, controls, and console. This paid off - the interior is comfortable for real humans, instruments are easily visible, and all controls are simple to use. All important controls are backlit at night, for safety and ease of use. My test car was in five-passenger configuration, with comfortable front bucket seats and a rear split-folding contoured bench. The driver's seat is power-adjustable in standard trim, with a power passenger seat part of an option package. This design features a large console box/center armrest in addition to useful storage spaces at the front of the console and in the doors. The trunk is large for the size of the car, and the split-folding rear seat can accommodate oversize items.

SAFETY: The LaCrosse's chassis structure features improved strength in the central safety cage around the passenger compartment, a new four-wheel disc brake system with larger brake discs, with antilock standard on the CXS and optional on other models, and standard OnStar telematics (with a one-year subscription). The Stabilitrak stability enhancement system is available in the CXS, and side-curtain airbags are offered for all models.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Buick buyers value a smooth, quiet ride, and they get it with the LaCrosse. It's a great highway cruiser, and pleasant around town and on back roads as well. Although the basic suspension design, with MacPherson struts in front and an independent tri-link system in the rear is familiar from the Regal, it has been extensively reworked for improved comfort and control. Over 80 percent of the standard components have been retuned, and the standard spring rates are 20 percent stiffer than in the Regal, for improved ride control. The ``Gran Touring'' suspension in the CXS has the same spring rates but larger, stiffer stabilizer bars, for less body roll when cornering. It's still soft, befitting a luxury car, but very well controlled. A bump is dealt with by the suspension and then forgotten, with no following oscillations. Improved soundproofing technology and additional sound-absorbing materials, and improved fit and finish make for a pleasingly quiet driving experience. ``Magnasteer'' computer-controlled, magnetically-assisted speed-sensitive steering keeps the steering effort light at low speeds for easy parking, and heavier at highway speeds for stability.

PERFORMANCE: There are both plusses and minuses comparing the new 3.6-liter twincam V6 with the departed 3800 supercharged engine, but the pluses win. The new engine is quieter and much more refined in operation. Both develop the same horsepower, 240, but the blown 3800 wins the torque race with a maximum of 280 lb-ft, versus 230 for the new engine. Acceleration from the supercharged 3800 was characterized by a healthy low-end and midrange wallop from that torque, but it was noisy and had noticeable vibration at speed - characteristics that are not all that suitable for a luxury car powerplant. The new 3.6, like most newer engines, doesn't pack the same low-end punch but does have better midrange and top-end power. It runs much quieter at highway speeds, particularly when passing. And, although the lower torque makes it feel slower than the Regal GS, the LaCrosse CXS has better acceleration to highway speeds.

CONCLUSIONS: If the 2005 Buick LaCrosse is the first of a new generation of Buick sedans, Buick faces a fine future.


2005 Buick LaCrosse CXS

Base Price		$ 28,335
Price As Tested		$ 33,650
Engine Type		aluminum alloy dual overhead cam 24-valve V6 
                         with variable valve timing.
Engine Size		3.6 liters / 217 cu. in.
Horsepower		240 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 		230 @ 3200 rpm
Transmission		4-speed electronically-controlled automatic
Wheelbase / Length	110.5 in. / 198.1 in.
Curb Weight		3,568 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	14.9
Fuel Capacity		17.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement	 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires			P225/55 TR17 Goodyear Eagle LS
Brakes, front/rear	vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard

Suspension, front/rear	independent MacPherson strut/independent tri-link
Drivetrain		front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy miles per gallon city/highway/observed 19 / 27 / 23 0 to 60 mph est 7.0 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Gold Convenience Package - includes: steering wheel radio & temperature controls, universal transmitter, electrochromic inside rear-view mirror, power-adjustable folding outside mirrors, 6-way power passenger seat, rear park assist, extra interior lighting $ 1,150 Power sunroof $ 900 17-inch chrome-plated wheels $ 650 Stabilitrak $ 495 Side head curtain airbags $ 395 XM satellite radio $ 325 Heated front seats $ 295 Chrome appearance package $ 295 Remote vehicle start system $ 150 Destination charge $ 660