Sports cars are cool, or at least they try to be. Usually fast, sometimes sexy, they are what every little Kia Rio wants to be when it grows up. On the other hand, cars made for sports are uncool to the extreme, dude, especially when the game involves wearing trousers and wingtip shoes.
Despite its name, ever since it was introduced in 2004, the Buick LaCrosse has mainly served as an oversized golf cart, one with air conditioning and leather seats. Endorsed by the otherwise young and hip Tiger Woods - until General Motors couldn’t afford friends like him anymore - the mid-size sedan was designed primarily to carry four golf bags and the gentlemen who own them to and from the local links. It did this well. Unfortunately, people who don’t have jobs, thanks to retirement, aren’t the most sought-after market segment for an automaker, especially one that is also on Social Security, albeit temporarily.
Enter the 2010 LaCrosse. With it, Buick isn’t just hoping to appeal to a younger demographic, but a more affluent one, as the brand aims to become known as the American Lexus, and compete directly with that company.
New from the ground up, the latest LaCrosse is a smorgasbord of GM’s global operations. The platform was originally developed in Europe by Opel, the body styled in the U.S., and the interior penned in a GM studio in Shanghai, China. Strangely, few of those cultural influences are reflected in the finished product.
The ride is very American, as is the interior design, while the power delivery has a Eurasian flavor about it. Remove the Buick badges and signature grille, and 9 out of 10 people would probably peg the car as Japanese, with the odd man out going with Korean. That’s not to say these are bad things.
If Buick was aiming at Lexus, it hit it with head and taillights that are dead ringers for the ones on an ES350. From there, the body charts its own course, with a puffed up shape that’s plump throughout, and increasingly fills out as you approach the rear. The profile bears a vague resemblance to a Bentley Continental GT, though the sharp, diving character line is as original as they come. Buick’s infamous vents make the move from fender to hood, but since they are still fake, does it really matter?
Taken as whole, the LaCrosse is a definite eye-catcher, attracting positive reactions from a wide spectrum of people that included a young hipster in a Pontiac Vibe, and my sexagenarian uncles. The valet at my parking garage – a devout Buick-lover – liked it, too, but says he prefers the old one. I didn’t ask if he’s a duffer.
A very roomy mid-size sedan, the LaCrosse is half a foot longer than its European donor car and a smidge wider than a Chevy Impala, packing a lot of useable space into its passenger cabin. Rear legroom is expansive, and the hump is big enough for a real third person, as long as they don’t mind having the seat belt buckle receiver under their butt cheek.
Front seats can accommodate quite a bit of girth, and in heated, leather-upholstered, 8-way-adjustable form are quite comfortable all around. Borrowing heavily from Chevy and Cadillac, there are really no visual cues in the interior that would lead you to think it was designed in China, where the LaCrosse is also sold, and very popular, mostly because it carries American cache.
The layout of the controls is all very familiar, and nothing says American car like two big cup holders in the center console protected by a sliding cover. The arc of wood that swoops across the top of the dashboard is a nice touch, as is the melted chocolate topper on the instrument cluster hood. The only odd element is the Bocca della Verita door handle, which suffers from a serious case of form over function. Small and positioned too far back, it takes a lot of luck to get a hand in the opening without looking.
With a roof that curves down deeply, the side glass is short, but long, offering reasonably good visibility as long as you don’t need to look up. The view through the large windshield is panoramic, but pillars that reach far forward can be a distraction when turning. Behind, the high trunk and shallow rear window conspire to cut into your field of vision, either over your shoulder or in the rearview mirror. It’s a good thing a backup camera is available. It comes bundled in an optional navigation and infotainment system that is comprehensive to a fault. Featuring more functions and buttons on the control panel than I cared to count, I never managed to get completely comfortable with it during the week that I spent with the car, and I work on the internet. I can only imagine what Buick’s traditional customer base would think of it. Maybe this is a subtle way of telling the old guard that they aren’t wanted here anymore.
That said, perhaps in a nod to people who’ve lived long lives and don’t want to be told what to do with them anymore, the seatbelt warning alert stops beeping quickly and, even if you don’t buckle up, doesn’t chime in to nag you about it again.
Three engines are available and range from the now-requisite fuel efficient four-cylinder, to a 280 horsepower 3.6-liter V6. The car that I tested was the mid level, $31,820 CXL fitted with a 252 hp 3.0-liter V6 that is expected to be the most popular choice, though I’m not sure that it should.
When I first picked up the car, there was no window sticker or product information, and I didn’t have the chance to give it a once-over before driving off. For the first 50 miles I was convinced that it had the 2.4 liter four-cylinder under the hood, having just driven a Chevy Equinox with the same motor and a similar level of perceived performance. Only when I walked around back to open the trunk – for which there is no remote release inside the car – did I notice the AWD logo on the lid, as in ‘all-wheel-drive’, which is only available with the 3.0-liter engine.
While accelerating onto a highway, my wife noted that it sounded like there was a whole lot going on, but not much seemed to be happening, and that pretty much sums it up. The engine is extremely smooth, all the way up to its lofty 6,900 rpm power peak, but has no punch down low. Those used to grunty American power will be disappointed, and the 6-speed transmission feels like it is geared and programmed more toward preserving fuel than time, showing little interest in downshifting to speed things up. An EPA rating of 16 mpg city, 25 mpg highway is about average in the LaCrosse’s class.
That said, if the car wasn’t as quiet as it is, it would probably would seem a lot faster. Wind, road, and engine noise are about as muffled as is technically possible, and the interior is so silent that it might as well be sealed in a vacuum. Achieving this level of tranquility has been one of Buick’s major goals of late. With the LaCrosse it’s shot and scored.
The peaceful demeanor carries over to ride and handling, where light, electrically-assisted steering conspires with a squishy suspension to provide spa levels of comfort and easy around town cruising, if not an overwhelming sense of control at high speeds. Bounding down highways and byways there’s a touch too much float and drift, and a shortage of ‘drives like it’s on rails’ road feel.
If bettering Lexus was truly Buick’s aim, it missed the mark. Not by coming up short, but by overshooting it on the side of refinement. So much mechanical feel was dialed out of the LaCrosse that, aside from its looks, it is decidedly bland, offering the driver no connection to the car, or inspiration to seek out a winding road during a Sunday drive. Inasmuch as I enjoyed the big Buick, it was in the role of a pushing-40 father of two taking the family to the mall, not a 39-going-on-19 car enthusiast who still dreams about racing in the Indy 500 when he wins the lottery. There are other sedans that satisfy both needs.
Of course, as Mr. Woods and his ilk prove every weekend, many youngish Americans with enough time and money on their hands enjoy playing golf as much as their elders, and its popularity is quickly spreading across China, too. No surprise, then, that the trunk of the new LaCrosse is still big enough to carry four golf bags.
The cart paths are waiting.
2010 Buick LaCrosse CXL AWD
Base Price: $31,820
As Tested: $38,090
Type: 5-passenger, all-wheel-drive, 4-door sedan
Engine: 3.0L V6
Power: 252 hp, 215 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 16 city/25 hwy
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.