It’s not unreasonable to think of Buick as the original near-luxury brand. It was the first of the many brands that Billy Durant acquired as he began building up General Motors more than a century ago. Later as Alfred Sloan organized GM’s marketing efforts and brands into a stair step from Chevrolet at the entry level to Cadillac at the pinnacle, Buick was slotted in just below the top as the “doctor’s car.” A few decades ago, a big sedan like the LaCrosse would have been the brand flagship, the model an up and coming professional would be driving on their way to eventually having a Cadillac. Today, the recently introduced third-generation LaCrosse is almost an afterthought for customers as they rush to buy crossovers like the sub-compact Encore and full-size Enclave.
Were it not for the fascination that the Chinese market has for Buick, the brand absolutely wouldn’t have continued to exist in the post-bankruptcy GM world and the LaCrosse likely would have died in the first generation. Even now, the big Buick sedan only ranks fourth in the brand’s U.S. sales behind the three utility vehicles. Twenty years ago, Buick didn’t even have an SUV. So we have Chinese car buyers to thank for the ongoing ability of the most traditional of Buicks to continue evolving and evolve it has.
If you are at all familiar with the prior generation LaCrosse, the new design of the 2017 model might be quite startling. The car has a dramatically different stance and attitude to it. While the length and width have only increased by about half an inch each, the roofline has been lowered by two inches. The distance between the top of the wheel arches and the fender line has also been compressed. The prior model always had a slightly narrow and tall proportion to it which was exaggerated by the tall beltline and short side-glass. The model in contrast looks much younger and more athletic.
The LaCrosse was the first Buick to adopt the new grille design that debuted a couple of years ago on the Avenir concept which also contributes to the visually lower and wider appearance. The slimmer roof pillars further reduce the visual heft of the top half of the car.
Those slimmer pillars don’t just improve the aesthetics of the LaCrosse, they also address one of the biggest functional complaints I had about the old car, the visibility. When the last LaCrosse debuted in 2009, one of the first things I noticed was the massive A-pillars and the way that the roof actually curved down on the sides which contributed to the short side glass. The overall effect especially to the front corners was huge blind spots, a common problem on most of the GM cars designed in the latter part of the 2000s.
At the time, GM like many other automakers started putting a focus on designing cars to meet global crash safety requirements, rules that were often in conflict in different regions of the world. At GM this meant less than optimal designs that weren’t as light as they could have been and in many cases harder to see out of. In the years since, GM structural engineers have learned much about multi-disciplinary optimization and use of mixed materials. The result has been an average weight reduction of nearly 300 pounds on each redesigned model and in most cases (Camaro excepted) better visibility.
One other more minor complaint I had with the old LaCrosse was the position of the shift lever which I personally found to be a bit too far back on the center console. Granted, with an automatic transmission this wasn’t that much of problem, but I found it a bit awkward to use, especially for manual downshifts. Like most newer cars, the LaCrosse now has an electronic switch activated by the shifter along with steering wheel mounted paddles. The lever is now further forward on the console in a much more comfortable position.
The center console still sweeps up to the dashboard but the absence of a mechanical linkage between the shift lever and transmission now allows for a fairly significant storage area below the console which is handy for stashing devices, glasses, charging cables and other objects. From a functional standpoint for drivers and passengers this new storage area is probably the biggest advantage of the switch to electronic shifters.
While I’m not especially fond of high-gloss wood trim on the dashboard of any car (and this is just a personal aesthetic preference, since I favor matte finishes), the rest of the materials in this sedan are very nicely executed and well put together. The eight-inch touchscreen gets the latest version of the Intellilink infotainment system which while not necessarily cutting edge, works reasonably well for an OEM system. Thankfully it also has support Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and the OnStar telematics has a 4G LTE modem and built-in WiFi hotspot so the kids in the back seat can browse the web and tweet about how bored they are on long car trips.
Until relatively recently, full-size sedans like the paleolithic-era Crown Victoria were always favored for ample head, leg and shoulder volume they offered to back seat riders. For those that regularly go out with several other adults, a big sedan like the LaCrosse is still a great option, especially if you’re not really a lot of activities that might require other larger equipment. The 15 cubic foot trunk is well shaped and can probably swallow three golf bags. Two inflatable stand up paddle boards and assorted other lake gear are no problem at all.
The new big Buick arrived as a 2017 model exclusively with GM’s well-regarded 3.6-liter V6 and paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission driving either the front or all four wheels like my tester. As is increasingly common, the LaCrosse features automatic stop-start to eliminate idling when the car is stationary. For 2018, a new base powertrain is available with front-drive only, the return of the eAssist mild-hybrid system. Unlike the 48V mild hybrids that are starting to pop up in Europe, eAssist has an 86V lithium ion battery but it provides largely the same functionality. The stop start capability is expanded to shut off the engine at low speeds before the car comes to a complete stop as well as providing regenerative braking and some electric propulsion assist.
Buick claims it will deliver 19% better city fuel economy over the V6. Speaking of which, the AWD V6 delivers decent if not spectacular fuel economy. The EPA rates it at 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined and I got 24 mpg during my driving time. It’s no Volt, but for a big, comfy sedan with all-weather traction and 310-horsepower on tap, few are likely to complain.
Overall, the new LaCrosse is an impressive step forward that addresses the relatively few complaints I had about the prior model and delivers a clean, contemporary design more likely to appeal to a somewhat younger clientele. In many respects, this is the reincarnation of the classic Buick as the ride of the professional on their way up. If you need to take some clients out to lunch or a round of chasing a little white ball around the lawn with a stick, you won’t be embarrassed to arrive in this car. The big question remains however. As the market continues to shift from cars to utilities, how many of those professionals will still be interested in a full-size sedan. The four-cylinder eAssist LaCrosse will start at a very reasonable $30,490 when it arrives while the FWD V6 starts at $33,000. A loaded Premium AWD like the one I drove lifts the bottom line to about $51,000, not inexpensive, but considerably less than a big German sedan with similar equipment.