GM's old mild hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, delivered all the flashy hybrid badges without the big fuel-economy gains. This time around, things are different.
The 2013 Buick LaCrosse eAssist offers a comfortable ride and an inviting interior with unobtrusive fuel-saving technology.
As in 2012, the 2013 LaCrosse comes with a standard electric-motor-assisted eAssist four-cylinder engine or an optional V-6 engine; I tested the eAssist. The only major change this year is that Buick's IntelliLink multimedia system is now standard. Compare the 2012 and 2013 versions here.
Buick's largest sedan competes in the near-luxury segment, a limited field that includes the mainstream Volkswagen Passat and the upscale Lexus ES 300h. The Passat comes in five- and six-cylinder gas and four-cylinder diesel trims; the ES 300h is a four-cylinder hybrid. Compare all three sedans here.
eAssist: Refined, Smooth, Efficient
The LaCrosse's most impressive detail is easy to miss: Its mild-hybrid powertrain is so seamless, you barely sense it working. The system conserves fuel with a combination of regenerative braking, electric assist during acceleration and a stop-start function.
It's all to good effect: The car is both surprisingly potent and efficient. It felt stronger than expected, especially in a car that weighs close to 4,000 pounds. The powertrain moved the LaCrosse without a problem and never felt lacking, thanks to an assist from a lithium-ion battery pack and a 15-kilowatt electric motor. The motor combines with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine for 182 horsepower total. The LaCrosse eAssist is EPA rated at 25/36 mpg city/highway, compared with the two-wheel-drive V-6's 17/27 mpg (all-wheel drive is a V-6-only option, rated 17/25 mpg).
The Lexus ES 300h, however, delivers 40/39 mpg from its hybrid system, which combines an electric motor with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder for a total of 200 hp. Also more impressive is the Volkswagen Passat TDI's 31/43 mpg rating, compliments of its satisfying 2.0-liter diesel four-cylinder. Though it only makes 140 hp, 236 pounds-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm make it lively from a stop and strong on the highway.
Power delivery in the LaCrosse is smooth, and shifts around town are well-timed, but the six-speed automatic's downshifts seem a bit delayed on the highway. At cruising speeds, the LaCrosse has impressive road isolation, making for a pillowy ride and a hushed interior. You pay for the compliant ride in the handling department, however; it's by no means an agile car. The sedan's full heft is felt hustling through corners.
The LaCrosse earns another point in the refinement column for its auto stop/start engine. In fact, it's smoother than many similar Mercedes-Benz and BMW systems, which can sound harsher and feel more abrupt. The LaCrosse's transitions were barely perceptible by comparison.
The regenerative braking system will give drivers pause, however. The brakes have a non-linear action and a stiff, brick-like feel. The response is mushy initially, then lurchy toward the end of the stop; it makes for an overall unnatural sensation.
In the Lap of Luxury
The LaCrosse may compete in the near-luxury class, but there's nothing just "near" about the luxury of its interior. The cabin is richly appointed with wood and chrome trim, and the seats are supportive and cushy. It has the high-class look and feel of a more expensive vehicle, with the attention to detail you'd expect from a Lexus.
My test car had leather seats and surfaces, which are standard on all but the base model, and the materials felt rich — even the padded plastic. Blue ambient lighting and contrast-color stitching tie the cabin's design together.
The newly standard IntelliLink multimedia system is refreshingly intuitive, and its large touch-screen buttons have a quick response time. If that's not your style, you can use the center dial and traditional push-buttons instead. Setting the radio presets was a no-brainer, as was pairing and connecting my phone with Bluetooth and launching the Pandora internet radio app. Navigation is an $895 option available on all but the base model; it's a $2,625 option on the ES 300h and an extra $1,660 on base Passat TDIs. It's standard on the uplevel version of the Passat TDI.
The LaCrosse's curved, twin-cockpit setup makes the cabin look and feel expansive, and I had plenty of head- and legroom in front. Although the LaCrosse is the longest sedan of the three, it offers slightly less front headroom than the VW. The Buick is roomier than both in back, however, with 40.5 inches of legroom, compared with the Passat's 39.1 inches and the ES 300h's 40 inches.
Low-cut door openings mean taller passengers will have to stoop to get in the back. Once there, the second row is roomy enough for two adults, but the middle seat is kid-only territory. The front cabin's center console eats up knee space, and a high floor hump steals foot space. Add a stiff cushion and you have the least comfortable seat in the house.
The LaCrosse's trunk space also disappoints. Sixty percent of the backseat folds, but the opening is only a narrow pass-through. The battery blocks most of it, eating up a decent part of the trunk's cargo space. EAssist versions have just 10.9 cubic feet of trunk space (2.4 cubic feet less than V-6 models), which trails the ES 300h's 12.1 and the Passat's 15.9 cubic feet. Interior storage is also lacking: The center console is smaller than you'd expect in a sedan this size, and the tiny door pockets are practically useless.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Buick LaCrosse an overall score of five stars. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the LaCrosse has received the agency's highest rating, Good, in all areas of testing thus far. (The new small overlap front test has not yet been conducted.)
GM's OnStar safety communication system is standard with six months of free service, as are six airbags: front and side-impact airbags for the front seats and two side curtain airbags that cover both rows. Seat-mounted rear side airbags are a $350 option across the lineup. Other available safety features include a blind spot warning system and adaptive cornering headlights that automatically swivel to illuminate upcoming curves when you turn the steering wheel.
Visibility forward and back is partially obscured due to the sedan's sloping roofline and its high belt line (with resulting short windows). The LaCrosse's side mirrors are also a bit small. The reverse-sensing system with backup camera helps, and it's standard on all but the base model. A camera is standard only on higher Passat trim levels, and it's a $740 option on the ES 300h. Click here for a full list of safety features and here for our Car Seat Check.
Features & Price
The 2013 Buick LaCrosse starts at $32,555 (all prices include destination charges) and is available in base, Leather, Premium 1 and Premium 2 trims; the eAssist powertrain can be had only on base and Leather trims. My Leather trim test car started at $34,765 and was well-equipped with standards like heated leather seats, the IntelliLink multimedia system, keyless entry, remote start, a backup camera with park assist and power front seats with lumbar adjustment and memory.
The LaCrosse splits the difference between the Volkswagen Passat TDI ($27,020) and Lexus ES 300h ($39,745). Leather seats on an ES 300h will cost an extra $1,370, and it will take another $440 to get them heated. Heated leather seats are standard on uplevel versions of the Passat.
The value leader is clearly the Passat, but diesel power doesn't appeal to everyone. The fuel-economy champ is the ES 300h, but its higher sticker and lack of standard equipment mean prices can quickly escalate. Again, the LaCrosse splits the difference, carving out a niche as a comfortable, efficient and relatively affordable sedan.
In the Market
I keep coming back to the word "pleasant" to describe the LaCrosse. That may sound boring, but here it's not. Pleasant is what this brand strives for and what Buick's customers want — both its traditional, comfort-seeking consumers and a new set of shoppers looking for a stylish, comfortable and fuel-efficient sedan. The LaCrosse eAssist delivers in all three areas.