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What a missed opportunity

Buick had a great concept for the LaCrosse. But along the way, things got ... yawn ... boring.

January 26, 2005|DAN NEIL

As long as there have been high school proms and students with no dates to attend them, parents have reassured their awkward/chubby/ mouth-breathing adolescents that it's what is on the inside that counts. I myself was full of inner beauty, though that beauty was trapped in a sebaceous mutant with glasses as thick as lighthouse lenses.

I would counsel and console the Buick LaCrosse in similar fashion. It's all right, honey. Don't cry. If customers don't see what a wonderful car you are, well, it's their loss.

I would also go around the house discreetly covering all the mirrors.

The LaCrosse -- which replaces the Century and Regal in Buick's batting order -- is a nice car trapped in some astonishingly boring sheet metal. I find myself drawn to meteorological metaphors. If dullness were thunder, the LaCrosse would send dogs running for cover under porches. If mediocrity were snow, Detroit's Wayne County airport would have to be shut down.

How big a committee styled this thing? There is some of the Olds Alero, a lot of the Ford Taurus, the headlights off the Lexus GS300, the decklid from a Dodge Neon. The front and the back look like different cars and the sum of it has this strange, worked-over quality, like an in-flight magazine's crossword puzzle.

You might never guess that the LaCrosse was once a stunning concept car. According to reports in Automotive News, the production version was delayed when GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz ordered the designers to tone down the sheet metal, lest the car alienate Buick's core clientele. Mission accomplished. It won't alienate them. Now to resuscitate them.

This is car styling with an age-ist agenda. The LaCrosse is a sort of visual psychographic, representing what the GM brass think older, more conservative buyers will buy. Come on, they may need glasses, but they aren't blind. Older buyers appreciate striking design every bit as much as younger buyers -- witness all the gray heads I see in Scion xBs, Honda Elements, Chrysler 300Cs. The LaCrosse, as noted, began life as a gorgeous concept, complete with Buick fender portholes, at the 2000 auto show in Detroit. Is it the hive-mind's opinion that older buyers wouldn't have loved that car?

Once inside the LaCrosse, life is good. The roomy LaCrosse gets a good dose of what GM calls, with its penchant for showroom patter, "Quiettuning," as in: "This baby's got Quiet- tuning!" Ugh. It is a program of sound deadening and noise attenuation using dense rubberized inner panels, acoustic-damping carpets, laminate glass and various other means to stop up holes where sound leaks into the cabin. The result is striking: The cabin is library quiet and very well constructed, with no titters, squeaks or rattles even over the quasi-pavement of the 101 freeway. The Noise- Vibration-Harshness team did a beautiful job on this car.

The interior styling is handsome and orderly, and there has plainly been some effort to upgrade materials. The soft-touch switchgear on the doors and dash feels solid in its settings. The three-gauge instrument panel is persuasively upscale. The armrests, central console and upper dash are covered with a nicely figured and reasonably convincing faux wood, and a chrome bar transects the dash's midpoint. The gearshift is topped with a handsome polished wood-esque finial that feels warm in the palm. Leather seats are standard in all but the base model (CX, $23,495). I drove the top-level CXS (starting at $28,995) with power front seats, equipped with optional heated seats. Front bench seating is also available.

This is the first vehicle I've driven with the remote starting function, which allows residents of the frozen north to start the engine from the warmth of their house. What a great feature. How many ice-scraping-related heart attacks would this option have prevented over the last week?

Under the fluted hood of the LaCrosse CXS is one of GM's new 3.6-liter, dual-overhead cam V6s with variable-valve timing, putting out a smooth 240 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque, routed through GM's entirely serviceable four-speed transmission. This combination returns a creditable EPA mileage of 19/28 miles per gallon, city/highway.

The CX and mid-level CXL both use the perennial 3800 engine, a pushrod 3.8-liter V6 producing 200 hp.

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