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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Joe Wiesenfelder
August 18, 2008
The Buick Lucerne full-size sedan's biggest change for the 2008 model year is the addition of a Super trim level, which turns the Lucerne story upside down. When it made its debut in 2006, the Lucerne was a Cadillac DTS at a 38 percent discount. Today's base Lucerne CX likewise costs about 35 percent less than the cheapest DTS. At that price it has the Caddy's roomy accommodations and relatively quiet cabin along with a 3.8-liter V-6 engine and interior quality that's on the high side, if not to the level of a Cadillac. You can also get a better-equipped Lucerne CXL for $29,920, or upgrade to the CXL Special Edition if you want the Cadillac's base 275-horsepower, 4.6-liter Northstar V-8, for $33,435. Now, though, the Lucerne Super gives Buick buyers the DTS' higher-output engine: a 292-hp version of the Northstar V-8. I just tested this version, and though I usually leave value determinations to the varied perspectives of individual car shoppers, I'm tempted to rename it the Lucerne Super-Overpriced.
I can't see why anyone would pay $38,980 for a Super, especially when it comes with some tradeoffs, not the least of which are gas mileage and ride quality.
275-hp 4.6-liter V-8
292-hp 4.6-liter V-8
CXL Special Edition
Horsepower (@ rpm)
197 @ 5,200
275 @ 6,000
292 @ 6,300
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
227 @ 3,800
295 @ 4,400
288 @ 4,500
EPA-estimated fuel economy (city/highway, mpg)
Gas type (recommended/ required)
As the table reflects, the Super gives you 17 more horsepower, which is significant but not overwhelming. The tradeoff is that you lose 7 pounds-feet of torque, which isn't too much either, but it's not unreasonable to expect the figure to climb along with the horsepower when you pay for a more powerful engine. It's off-putting that it decreases — and that the peak creeps a bit farther up the engine-speed range. What all this means in terms of driving is that the extra gusto comes at high engine speeds — when you really give it the gas up to highway speed, or when passing. If anything, there's less kick off the line and when accelerating gently. Typically this characteristic results in better gas mileage, but that's not the case here.
The Super loses another 1 mpg in highway driving over the already disappointing CXL V-8's 15/23 mpg. Perhaps it's the four-speed automatic transmission in a field dominated by five- and six-speeds; whatever the case, the Lucerne's fuel economy is relatively poor across the board. What bugs me further is that its front-wheel drive should be an inherent advantage in terms of fuel economy. FWD took over the automotive market in part because it reduces weight and improves mileage. Where a growing number of large cars have reverted to rear-wheel drive, the Lucerne offers the all-season viability of FWD. To get assured traction in RWD cars, it's best to opt for all-wheel drive, when offered, which adds cost and weight. All the same, a Chrysler 300C with all-wheel drive matches the Lucerne Super's mileage for roughly the same price. The new 2009 Lincoln MKS is rated even better: 16/23 mpg with AWD and 17/24 mpg with FWD.
I should mention that the Chrysler 300C delivers this mileage with a 340-hp V-8. Engine output comparisons aren't always meaningful between models of different weights, shapes and sizes, but it's fair to criticize the Super's Northstar strictly for its relatively lean output among V-8 engines. Heck, the MKS' torque output is only 18 pounds-feet lower, and that's from a V-6.
The Super accelerates well enough, but it won't set any records. Though the transmission has just four gears, it has the basics down, shifting smoothly and exhibiting no kickdown lag. The high-rev power helps overcome the gear shortage, but it really depends on how fast you're going when you floor it. I find clutchless manual shifting a bit silly, so I didn't miss it, but if you're someone who likes it, this is another contemporary feature the Lucerne doesn't offer. Ride & Handling Unfortunately, the ride is another area where the Super looks better on paper than the other Lucerne trim levels, but in some ways performs worse. The CXL's suspension tuning is firmer than that of the CX, and the Super's is designed to be sportier still. In addition to a larger front stabilizer bar, it adds Magnetic Ride Control, which is an adaptive suspension system that's one of the most sophisticated on the market, as its specialized shock absorbers employ magnetic fluid rather than simpler (and slower) mechanical valves. The system provides no firm/comfort setting for the driver to monkey with, but it automatically monitors the road surface and adjusts to optimize ride and handling. By and large, it makes for a comfortable, if somewhat floaty, ride, and it seems to control body roll more than the simpler suspension can manage. I also, however, found the ride surprisingly bumpy on rough pavement — a strange dichotomy in a car of this type. I've seen this technology make other cars both ride like a dream and handle like a champ; something's not right here.
The main problem with the Super is that it's meant to be sporty, and it's just not. The steering has the same imprecise feel as the lower trim levels, and the extra engine power comes in a manner that's not easily appreciated. While some smaller cars meet their sporty aspirations with front-wheel drive, applying V-8 power to the front wheels always seems to show limitations. If you want sport, you can get rear- or even all-wheel drive for a comparable price and fuel economy. The Inside Buick sells only three models now, and the Lucerne falls in the middle in size, price and interior quality. Of the three large crossover models GM has sold over the past couple years, the Buick Enclave has been the surprise hit, apparently due to its interior design and quality. Though the Lucerne's materials and craftsmanship impressed when the car was introduced, advancements in both the industry and within GM itself now expose its age. The Super trim level classes things up, though, with suede inserts on the leather seats and door panels, a leather-clad dashboard and walnut burl wood gear selector knob and steering-wheel accents. The steering wheel is heated and includes power tilt and telescoping adjustments.
The semi-gloss blue gauge faces were difficult to read in some lighting conditions, and the gear selector feels imprecise and actually sounds cheap — like plastic surfaces rubbing against one another. The glove compartment is too small for a car of this size, but the center storage console is reasonably roomy.
The front seats are cushy. I prefer a seat with more support, but I suspect some people would accept or even prefer these. I can't say the same about the backseat, however. In our comparison with two other large cars, we Cars.com reviewers found it too mushy back there. On the upside, the backseat is plenty roomy, with more legroom than the Chrysler 300, MKS and Toyota Avalon. The front-drive platform helps because it keeps the center floor hump to a reasonable height. Hip room also leads the others, both here and in the front seat, where occupants also find superior legroom. If there's a complaint up here, it's that the power seats don't rise very far off the floor. Front and rear headroom are competitive.
The Lucerne's trunk volume is generous at 17.0 cubic feet. It has a pass-thru behind the backseat armrest, but the seats themselves don't fold flat to extend the trunk forward — a configuration that's all too common among full-size cars. The Chrysler 300 is a notable exception that offers a 60/40-split folding backseat. Safety In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the Lucerne rates Good, the best possible score, in the frontal-offset test and Acceptable in the side impact. Acceptable is, well, acceptable, but some competitors with side-impact airbags rate Good. Scores in the rear-impact test are lower across the market, but some models score Good, Acceptable and Marginal. The Lucerne, along with the Toyota Avalon, scores Poor.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes with brake assist, an electronic stability system and six airbags. The front seats have side-impact torso bags, and curtain airbags deploy downward from the roofline along the side windows for front and rear occupant protection in a side impact. In addition to a dual-stage frontal airbag for the driver, the Lucerne employs a dual-depth frontal airbag for the front passenger, which deploys at one of two shapes — not just intensities — based on the passenger's weight and position. OnStar is standard.
Two new options are Side Blind Zone Alert and Lane Departure Warning, both of which were on my test car. The increasingly common blind-spot-detection feature is as useful here as in other cars, which is to say, not as useful as you might think. An indicator incorporated into the side mirrors glows when a car is in either side's blind spot. Though the idea is a good one, if you set your mirrors properly, the indicator comes on when the car is already visible in the mirror. If you adjust them improperly, reflecting the sides of the car, the feature can help by indicating when a nearby car is not reflected in the mirror. If you signal to cross into an occupied lane, the feature sounds an alert, which is of some value ... if you do as you're supposed to and signal lane changes. Overall, the feature can't hurt if you treat it as a supplement rather than an alternative to checking your mirrors and blind spots. It's a $395 stand-alone option.
Likewise, the Lane Departure Warning system can be had a la carte for $295. It uses a camera in front of the rearview mirror to watch the lane markings on the street, and if you start to stray into another lane or off the shoulder, a beep sounds. Using your turn signal keeps it from beeping when the lane change is intentional. These systems aren't perfect, because they don't always detect the lines, especially if they're faded or the road is wet or dusty. My Lucerne Super's system was less sensitive than others I've tested, but I did appreciate it anyway, as the steering is a bit vague and it was a little too easy to drift. As with the blind-spot feature, this one isn't failsafe, but it certainly can't hurt. Arguably, either one of them has to work only once to pay for itself. Lucerne Super in the Market The Lucerne is a nice enough car whose value is greatest in its most affordable version. Come the 2009 model year, an upgrade to a 3.9-liter V-6 will add power, E85 ethanol fuel capability and an estimated 1 mpg gas mileage improvement. It's when you get to the top of the line that the value isn't as clear. I think the Lucerne Super equals too much pay for too little play. It reminds me of a version of the Jaguar XJ sedan called the XJ Super, whose $10,000 premium over the XJR we couldn't figure out. Hmmmm. Maybe we should beware any car tagged "Super...."