- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

When the decision makers at Buick elected to chuck the familiar and respected LeSabre/ Park Avenue nameplates, one had to wonder why. Why would Buick choose to walk away from nameplates that were well known and had a fairly solid reputation for quality? Years of marketing, advertising and building name recognition were tossed right out the window. It didn’t seem to make sense.

Unraveling this mystery, however, can be achieved with something as simple a short test drive of the sedan that replaced them, the Lucerne. Check your preconceptions of what constitutes a modern Buick sedan at the dealership door. Not since the Grand National faded into oblivion at the end of 1987, has Buick offered anything even bordering on a performance-oriented car. Ending a 10-year V-8 drought for Buick, the Lucerne is a step in that direction.

The top-of-the-line $34,990 CXS provides Lucerne’s performance credentials. Powered by a version of Cadillac’s 4.6-liter Northstar V-8, the CSX boasts 275 horsepower. This is just one pony shy of the 1987 Grand National GNX. The glaring difference being the GNX drew its power from a turbocharged 3.8-liter V-6. The Lucerne’s 290 foot-pounds of torque, however, fall far short of the GNX’s 360 foot-pounds. Still, the CXS packs some serious acceleration.

Offered as an option in the midlevel CXL trim level, the V-8 can replace the standard-issue 197-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6. This is the same V-6 found in the last LeSabre and the only engine available in the entry-level $25,990 CX. A tried and true warhorse of GM’s engine lineup, it is both reliable and gutsy.

Regardless of the engine, a four-speed automatic transmission pushes output to the front wheels.

Going with the V-6 will squeeze a few additional miles from the gas tank between fill ups. The Environmental Protection Agency rates fuel economy in the V-6 at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the open road. Less impressive, but about what should be expected from a V-8, the bigger engine is rated at 17 mpg in town and 25 on the highway. Although premium fuel is recommended for the V-8, both engines will run fine on regular. If there are any doubts as to whether a V-6 or V-8 resides under the hood, count the decorative “portholes.” Three indicate the V-6, while four signify the V-8.

All Lucernes are balanced on a four-wheel independent suspension. Depending on the trim level, they use some variation of MacPherson struts in the front and a multilink arrangement in the rear.

Here again, the CXS gains performance points with its Magnetic Ride Control — a first for Buick. Using magnetically charged particles suspended in a synthetic fluid to continuously adjust the fluid’s viscosity to varying road surfaces and driving characteristics, this system has quicker response than conventional valve-damping systems. It adjusts the firmness of the suspension to accommodate current conditions and driver behavior.

Cornering without fanfare, the CXS is neutral and predictable. If the system senses the car may not be heading where it is pointed, the StabiliTrak stability control uses the disc brakes to help get it back on course.

The wheels have been pushed to the Lucerne’s corners. Its 115.6-inch wheelbase is longer than that of either the LeSabre or Park Avenue, but Lucerne is actually 31/2 inches shorter overall than the 2005 Park Avenue. No passenger space, though, has been lost in the translation. Lucerne has virtually the same amount of front- and rear-seat legroom as the Park Avenue. In its standard guise, Lucerne will accommodate five adults. Spending an additional $250 replaces the front buckets with a 40/20/40-split bench seat, raising the passenger potential to six.

Tasteful rather than flamboyant, Lucerne’s cabin is neatly arranged and quite comfortable. It is a sedan in the large, American tradition. Buick is making a concerted effort to engineer noise out of its vehicles. Called QuietTuning, it targets a number of areas ranging from tightening body gaps to low-profile “structureless” windshield wipers to nylon baffles in the roof pillars and rocker panels.

Although the CX comes well-equipped with power windows/door locks, keyless remote and steering-wheel mounted redundant audio controls, the CXL, which begins at $27,990 for the V-6, is generously equipped with leather seating, heated outboard mirrors, rain-sensing wipers and dual-zone automatic climate control. Extra standard interior features in the CXS include a Harman Kardon audio system, satellite radio and an eight-way power driver’s seat with memory. For an additional $595, you can add GM’s remote vehicle starter system, anti-theft deterrent system and rear parking assist. For pampering finicky backsides, the heated and cooled front seats will set you back another $500.

The availability of a V-8 in the Lucerne is a clear indication that Buick realizes what it must do to return to its position as a premium carmaker. Of course, rear-wheel drive and perhaps a more sophisticated transmission would have provided an even clearer signal, but the V-8 is a good beginning. A satisfying blend of passenger comfort and performance, Lucerne — and particularly the CXS — puts Buick firmly in the near-luxury class.

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