SOMEWHERE IN OHIO -- Driving through the Buckeye State on Interstate 75 is like trotting the treadmill of boredom. No matter how far or how fast you go, the scenery never changes: Barn, corn, cop. Barn, corn, cop.
There's not a hill to be found until you reach Dayton, and even then, you have to turn right and head toward Indiana.
This unremarkable landscape was a lot like the car I was driving: the 2008 Buick LaCrosse Super.
Calling it Super doesn't make a car super. Adding a couple of Super badges on the body and inside doesn't make something super, either. It's like naming a city in western Ohio "Exciting" and then expecting people to actually believe it.
Yes, the LaCrosse Super holds the incredibly powerful 5.3-liter V-8, which packs 300 horsepower and 323 pound-feet of torque. There's a lot of giddy-up in those ponies, but even the specially tuned suspension doesn't seem to want to control them with a firm hand.
I liked the LaCrosse Super's ride on the highway; it was comfortable and reassuring, but it wasn't super. Its 198-inch body rolled through the bumps quietly, but the ride felt soft and squishy. On city streets, the car's body rolled heavily in turns and swayed back and forth when accelerating quickly or braking hard.
I wasn't driving the LaCrosse Super like a sports car, but rather like the powerful sedan that it's pitched to be. The engine was up for the challenge, but the suspension wasn't. All of that power is packed into the front wheels, instead of the rear ones, and that limits performance.
Taken at slower speeds, I found the ride palatable, as long as I didn't push it.
This is not a Buick for the next generation, a group the brand needs to reach. It's the Buick for the next generation's great-grandfather -- who was actually around when the first Buick Super was introduced in 1940 -- right before he headed off to fight World War II.
While no vehicle wants to be called an old person's brand, that moniker has served Buick well. It's a difficult task to appeal across generations. You want to keep your loyal customers while trying to attract new ones. The Buick Enclave crossover is a perfect example of doing just that. Well-made, stylish and luxurious, it's the right direction for Buick, which constantly ranks at the top of J.D. Power consumer satisfaction surveys.
Falling through generation gap
But the Super falls through the generation gap. The LaCrosse Super looks more nondescript than anything else. There's some personality in its front end. The pair of headlights on each side is nicely cut out along the front. The stretched oval grille was lowered, leaving the LaCrosse with a surprised expression over its new fascia, which includes chrome trim and chrome fog-lamp bezels.
Along its sides, Buick has added the signature chrome portholes. There are four per side to signify the eight-cylinder engine under the hood. There are a few more luxury/sporty touches, including the rear deck lid spoiler and dual chrome exhaust tips.
General Motors wanted to create a Buick that blended performance, luxury, style and affordability. It succeeded marvelously with this idea -- but with the Cadillac CTS, a spectacular vehicle.
Comfortable, but boring
My Super test vehicle came in at $33,045, right at the starting price of the entry level luxury CTS. Even a base model LaCrosse Super is priced at $31,995.
Inside, the LaCrosse Super felt comfortable but remained boring. The instrument cluster includes another Super logo. The bluish green lighting was easy on the eyes but nothing felt super.
The center stack, where the stereo and other controls are, was poorly laid out. It was simply horizontal rows of small buttons. While the stereo included XM satellite radio, it didn't include an auxiliary jack to plug in an iPod or personal music player.
The sedan offers plenty of room. The second rows are as comfortable as the front seats, which have 42 inches of leg room. Overall, there is nearly 100 cubic feet of passenger space inside this sedan, making it, well, Super sized.
It's also extremely quiet when driving down the road. That's something that many people, including myself, equate with luxury. There are lots of hints of quality and luxury in the LaCrosse Super, but the vehicle fails to go the rest of the way and surprise with something special inside the cabin.
Poor interior fit and finish
There were some fit and finish problems inside as well. The three bands of plastic across the center stack looked ready to pop off. Part of the dashboard was starting to separate. It's one thing to lack the finer styling cues inside a vehicle, but when pieces don't look like they fit together well or are starting to come apart, it's not acceptable.
The Buick LaCrosse Super tries to appeal to too many people. That's a mistake. It's a jumble of ideas, lacking any sense of a coherent design philosophy.
It has a powerful heart and some nice touches. But its poor handling and uninspired interior leave it on the side of the road while more sophisticated vehicles pass by.
I just hope it's not on the side of the road in western Ohio.
2008 Buick LaCrosse Super
Type: Five-passenger front-wheel drive sedan
Engine: 5.3-liter V-8, 300-hp, 323-lb-ft torque
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
EPA: 16 mpg city / 24 mpg highway
Notes: Powerful sedan lacks personality.
Performance: Good: Great engine but suspension not up for the ride.
Exterior: Fair: Takes on sportier look, but still has uninspired styling.
Interior: Poor: Poor fit and finish and center stack take away from lots of room and comfort.
Safety: Good: Standard stability control, anti-lock brakes, front and side curtain air bags. Ultrasonic rear parking assist.