Hybrids are going incognito at General Motors.
Sure, there’s the Volt, which the Chevy folks prefer to call it an extended range electric car, and the hulking SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade, but as far as the mainstream goes, you’ll need to look very closely to pick out the next generation of GM products that use enough electricity to require orange high voltage cables.
The 2012 Buick LaCrosse is the first of these. The $30,820 front-wheel-drive base model now comes standard with a 182 hp four-cylinder engine equipped with a 15 hp electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack to increase fuel economy over the old four-cylinder-only car by 25 percent. But instead of calling it a hybrid, GM is using the name eAssist.
A marketing ploy meant to confuse and delight potential customers? Perhaps, but let’s call it pragmatism.
While the fuel economy gains are impressive, figures of 25 mpg city and 36 mph highway won’t get the Prius posse all hot and bothered. That’s because the electric motor in the LaCrosse isn’t meant to propel the car on its own, and the battery pack can only hold about a third of the charge that the one in the Prius or the 41 mpg city Lincoln MKZ Hybrid can.
But that was intentional. The idea is that if you can keep the complexity and cost of the hybrid system down, even a relatively small bump in efficiency will pay off. Why over promise and under deliver when you can just deliver? The unsuccessful and, for now, defunct Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid is proof of this. Unlike that car, with its loud and proud “Hybrid” badges, the LaCrosse doesn’t even wear the eAssist name.
In the cabin the only telltales are an “eco” gauge under the speedometer, an “auto stop” indicator in the tachometer and an “eco” button on the center console for the climate control system. A couple of hybrid animations can also be called up on the information screens.
If you’re a techno-geek, you’ll need them, because eAssist operates so seamlessly that you’d have a hard time discerning what’s happening under the hood on your own. The LaCrosse is one of the quietest cars on the road and no other four-cylinder hybrid comes close to this kind of refinement. It transitions between modes, which includes total fuel cut-off when coasting, without offering a hint as to what’s going on. Some credit goes to Buick’s decision to use a six-speed automatic transmission instead of a whiny CVT.
From rest, the engine auto starts without a shudder and is ready to go by the time you move your foot from the brake to the accelerator. And that brake pedal has none of the artificial feeling found in many cars fitted with regenerative brakes. Power delivery is smooth and the extra pep the electric motor provides under acceleration appreciated, although it falls short of making this a fast car.
Rather, it’s well-matched to this large, near-luxury cruiser, which combines traditional American comfort with the kind of controlled handling more often associated with imports. Load up the roomy interior with the family, ease on down the road and enjoy. Buick has been undergoing a renaissance on the back of the LaCrosse lineup and eAssist should help continue that trend, as long as you don’t mind a little junk in the trunk.
Despite being much lighter and more compact than old-fashioned nickel-metal-hydride technology, the Li-ion battery pack in the LaCrosse still manages to take up quite a bit of space in the cargo area. To help alleviate the intrusion, it’s been stacked asymmetrically, so you can fold down the left rear seatback and open a pass-through for the old golf bag.
Anyone up for a threesome?
Or perhaps a sixer. Along with eAssist, the LaCrosse is still available in front or all-wheel-drive with a 303 hp 3.6-liter V6 sourced from the Chevy Camaro. It’s brilliant, if a bit of overkill, but fuel economy drops to 17 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. The kicker is that you can get it for the same price as eAssist in most trim levels.
That price happens to be about three grand more than the sans-eAssist four-cylinder LaCrosse, which is no longer sold, and federal hybrid tax credits to help close the gap are a thing of the past. Nevertheless, GM has big plans for eAssist in the coming years, as fuel economy standards begin their march toward 54.5 mpg in 2025. You’ll see it next year in the Buick Regal and as the launch engine in the all-new 2013 Malibu. That is, if you look closely.
At the window sticker.
2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist
Base Price: $30,820
As Tested: 36,685
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Powerplant: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with electric motor assist
Power: 182 hp + 15 hp
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 25 city/36 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.