Overall, the four-cylinder LaCrosse will further expand the model's considerable appeal, but its modest power means it's unlikely to become a significant part of the mix.
In terms of base price, the four-cylinder saves you only $840 over the V-6-powered CX, but the mileage bump is a more significant 2 mpg in the city (to 19 mpg), 4 mpg on the highway (to 30 mpg) and a combined 2 mpg improvement in mixed driving (to 23 mpg).
Modest Power, at Best
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder generates 182 horsepower, versus the 3.0-liter's 255 hp (252 hp with all-wheel drive) and the 3.6-liter's 280 hp. The CX comes only with front-wheel drive and either the four-cylinder or 3.0-liter engine. The CXL comes with front- or all-wheel drive powered by the 3.0-liter, and the CXS comes with front-wheel drive and the 3.6-liter.
As for its acceleration, the smaller engine rides the line between modestly powered and underpowered. As someone who knows a driver can adapt his expectations and driving style to a car, I was satisfied with it. However, I know Americans are power-hungry and all too quick to deem unsafe any car that can't blow away a top-fuel dragster in the passing lane. Here in the Illinois flatlands, the car was more than workable, though I expect some shoppers will disagree. A fully loaded CX four-cylinder on hilly terrain, however, would be another story entirely. Even I don't think 2 extra mpg and an $840 discount are worthwhile in that scenario.
The drivetrain's character is pretty good overall, and I give extra credit for how quiet the engine is, even under full acceleration. To tap into maximum power, four-cylinders have to rev pretty high, and people tend to equate the accompanying noise with "straining." In truth, the engine is just doing its job, but the drama can definitely give a bad impression. The LaCrosse overcomes this sensation by keeping engine noise to a minimum. Historically, GM's Ecotec family of four-cylinders hasn't been a paragon of refinement in terms of noise, vibration and harshness. This new execution is nicely done.
Having six speeds in the standard automatic transmission is key to making the small engine viable in the LaCrosse, and though it serves its purpose, I wish it would respond more quickly to requests for passing power. It often hesitates before kicking down, and sometimes it gets confused and hunts for a gear. It's likely most drivers won't notice these things; I'm less accepting of transmission or throttle hesitation than I am of modest power. I also felt some slight thunking when getting on or off the accelerator at low to medium speeds, but again, that might be a picky car reviewer thing.
The Comfort Story
The CX is more comfortable than the higher trim levels I've driven, for one reason: the cloth seats. It's not the upholstery itself; it's the seat design. Both I and another editor found the leather driver's seat uncomfortable enough to be a deal-breaker. There was a preponderance of lumbar support, even when that adjustment was backed off all the way. I can usually find reasonable comfort in a test car; not that one. The CX's cloth seat isn't exceptionally comfortable — the front of the cushion could tilt down farther, and there's a lot of lumbar support here, too — but it's definitely workable. (Lumbar adjustment is optional on this seat, but we didn't have it.)
I was pleased with how comfortable the CX rides, for two reasons: First, it's a Buick, and the brand might easily have tried to make the LaCrosse something it's not — a sport sedan with an overly firm suspension — trying to appeal to the younger buyers it admittedly seeks. Buick didn't; it's comfortable, as I believe it should be. Second, I've driven the CXS trim level equipped with 18-inch wheels, and I thought it was too choppy. The CX's 17-inch wheels (steel is standard, but we had the optional alloys on our test car) made for a more comfortable and model-appropriate ride.
On the downside, these tires were very noisy, especially on grooved pavement, in an otherwise quiet car.
The LaCrosse's cabin quality is among the best GM has to offer. The cloth upholstery isn't a knockout, and some of our editors thought it seemed out of place on a supposed premium car, but I'm not sure faux leather is intrinsically better. The center control panel is far less busy and more ergonomic than the jumble of controls you get with the optional navigation system. Unfortunately, one reason for the reduced clutter is the deletion of buttons for the heated and ventilated front seats that came with the leather in our previous test car. The cloth seats sacrifice the feature.
Rolling Ding Factory
I noticed another anomaly that didn't stand out in previous tests: a flawed interior handle design. Doors usually have an unlatch handle and a separate grab handle nearby for closing the door. The LaCrosse's grab handle is tucked under the armrest, and the problem with that is that the grab handle is also the means to stop the door after you push it open to get out. You might not realize it, but when you park next to another car or obstacle, unlatch the door and push it open, you then stop it by grabbing the handle. The LaCrosse's design makes it too hard to grab after you've pushed it. I noted a similar problem in the Ford Explorer a few years ago, and it was addressed in the next model year. Until Buick takes a second look at this design, I'm not parking next to any LaCrosses.
Since our previous review, the LaCrosse has been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and it performed very well. It's a Top Safety Pick because it scored Good, the top rating, in front, side and rear crash tests, as well as in the roof-strength test, which measures rollover protection. It also has a standard electronic stability system, as required.
Other standard safety features include front and side curtain airbags. Side-impact torso bags are standard for the front seats and optional for the rear. Antilock brakes are also included.
LaCrosse Four-Cylinder in the Market
The four-cylinder LaCrosse is sure to appeal to some buyers, but there's no way it will put much of a dent in the six-cylinder mix. While roughly 80 percent of the best-selling midsize cars are four-cylinders, the LaCrosse CX's just doesn't have the punch — or the price or mileage benefit — to command that much of the market, especially in the premium class, where larger engines are popular and lower mileage is better tolerated.
Though it has a roomy backseat, the LaCrosse is Buick's midsize car. The full-size Lucerne will continue to be sold until the middle of 2011, at which time the LaCrosse will be considered Buick's flagship sedan. With more room both in the trunk and in all seating dimensions, the Lucerne remains an attractive alternative if space is what matters most to you.
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