- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

Over the years, Buick has had some memorable slogans, including “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?” and “When better automobiles are built, Buick will build them.”

With the introduction of the 2005 Buick La Crosse, here’s a suggestion for a new one: “Looks aren’t everything.”

The La Crosse is an all-new entry in the midsize class, and replaces both the Century and Regal models. There was great anticipation when it was first shown to the public, then expressions of disappointment and disdain from many critics who found the styling to be bland and derivative.

Likely the La Crosse was a victim of the expectations game. In politics, press agents and advance men try to keep expectations low about how their candidate will shape up with the voters. Then they look good when the candidate exceeds the expectations. But General Motors made no such effort with the La Crosse.

The expectations were high, especially because car impresario Robert Lutz had been brought in at a high level to inject some pizzazz into the stolid ” many said boring ” lineup of GM products. So when the La Crosse came across as ho-hum, below expectations, the styling critics went into full cry.

The truth of the matter is that the La Crosse is reasonably pleasant and inoffensive to look at from any angle. It just doesn’t stand out. That may be the ticket for Buick’s many 60- and 70-year-old customers. But it’s not a grabber, so younger new customers still may be hard to come by.

However, if sexy lines are not a priority, the La Crosse is a fine car in most respects, especially in the tested CXS version at the top of the line.

It’s something of an in-betweener, a midsize car with about the same interior room as the midsize leaders, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. But it costs more and all of its engines have six cylinders, where the Accord and Camry have both sixes and fours. Yet it’s priced lower than six-cylinder entry-level luxury cars such as the Lexus ES 330 and the Acura TL.

For example, the base CX model, with cloth upholstery and a pushrod V-6 engine of 200 horsepower, starts at $23,495. There’s a midlevel CXL with the same engine but with leather seating at $25,995.

The tested CXS, with a 240-horsepower engine, has a sticker price of $28,995. With a load of options that included side-curtain air bags, stability control, a power sunroof, chrome-plated wheels, XM satellite radio, heated front seats and outside mirrors, steering-wheel audio and climate controls, and a remote starting system, the tested La Crosse had a suggested sticker price of $33,650.

The remote starting, a first on any Buick, works as advertised. Using the remote control, you simply lock the car doors, then press the start button to get the engine going and the interior warmed or cooled. Unlock the door, get in and insert the key to drive off normally. Buick claims the remote starting works from up to 500 feet away.

Standard equipment included GM’s OnStar communications system, antilock brakes, traction control, leather upholstery, 17-inch wheels, remote locking, dual-zone automatic climate control, automatic transmission, fog lamps, a stereo with CD player, power driver’s seat, motorized windows and mirrors, and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel.

The bottom line is a comfortable car that is appointed nearly as well as any entry-level luxury car (a navigation system is not available), with decent performance and good handling.

Though the CX and CXL models use Buick’s proven 3.8-liter pushrod V-6 engine, the CXS comes with a new 3.6-liter aluminum engine with overhead camshafts and variable valve timing. It gets its 240 horsepower to the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission.

Though the four-speed shifts easily and helps deliver good fuel economy (19 miles per gallon city, 27 highway), it does not have the flexibility of the five-speed and continuously variable automatic transmissions available on competitors’ cars. However, it’s not something most buyers will notice.

The La Crosse does have one advantage. It is available in both five- and six-passenger configurations. In the six-passenger version, the center console is replaced with a fold-up armrest, and the transmission shifter is moved from the console to the steering column.

Though critics have dumped on the La Crosse’s exterior styling, there’s little fault to find in the interior. Its enhancements include a clean, understated dash, ergonomically correct controls and tasteful faux wood trim on the doors, dash and console.

There’s one minor problem: A shiny chrome strip runs across the dash beneath the wood-grain trim. From certain angles, both reflect sunlight directly into the driver’s eyes.

The front seats are big and comfortable ” actually, too big for some drivers. The seat bottoms are so long that the front edge rubs uncomfortably on the calves of shorter drivers.

Out back, the outboard seating is tight on knee and headroom for larger people, and the center position ” as on most cars ” is a punishing perch. The rear seatbacks fold down to carry extra cargo.

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