A few years ago GM experimented with a mild hybrid system, giving cars such as the Chevy Malibu a little electric boost by replacing the alternator with a drive motor. That system didn't show enough benefit to justify the cost, and barely reached its EPA-rated fuel economy in our testing. But it seems during the intervening years that GM perfected the system, as our drive in the 2012 Buick LaCrosse revealed.
At this point you may be thinking, "Do they still make Buicks?" The answer is a resounding yes. Buick survived GM's brand paring, alongside Chevrolet and Cadillac. The focus of the new Buick is building luxury cars, leaving out the sport element so well embodied by newer Cadillacs and some Chevrolet models. Buick is going after Lexus.
The 2010 Buick LaCrosse showed up with a modern design and a quality build, instantly becoming a desirable luxury car. But in the new automotive order, GM knows it can't rest on its laurels for five years until the next redesign. As such, the 2012 LaCrosse comes out with two new significant technologies.
eAssist, the newest version of the mild hybrid system, will come standard on four-cylinder 2012 LaCrosse models, increasing fuel economy by 26 percent, according to Buick. That means 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, so expect about 30 mpg average. Second is a new cabin technology called IntelliLink (Chevrolet will get equivalent technology called MyLink). IntelliLink adds voice command over MP3 players and Bluetooth phones, along with app integration, similar to Ford's Sync system.
As a Lexus competitor, the 2012 LaCrosse meets it goal, as sitting in the driver's seat affords that same lush, luxury quality. The LaCrosse is not a taut car. The steering wheel requires very little effort to turn, even when the car is stopped. The dashboard, door panels, and center console have a comfortable elegance. It's like sitting in a home theater room from the pages of Architectural Digest.
Smooth running four cylinder
The car seems too large, the cabin too roomy, to be propelled by a four-cylinder engine. By itself, the direct-injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder Ecotec engine under the hood generates 182 horsepower, with the eAssist hybrid system adding another 15. But Buick did not build the LaCrosse to show off the engine. Instead, every effort was made to mute the sound and dampen vibration. Buick even implemented a torque pulse technology to counter some harshness from the engine when coasting to a stop. A Buick engineer tried to explain how it worked as we drove, but quickly outstripped our grasp.
All we know is that, cruising the suburban streets of Palo Alto, south of San Francisco, the LaCrosse whispered quietly down street after street. The engineer, riding shotgun, explained that the power management system cuts off fuel to the engine when it is coasting, using the momentum of the car to keep the pistons pumping and generating electricity for the lithium ion battery pack in the trunk. But the driving feel didn't change as we applied light braking while coming up to a stop sign. All these technologies worked transparently.
Similarly, while stopped in traffic, we had to look at the tachometer to see that the idle stop function had shut down the engine. This car doesn't make a lot of noise. The only indications of the car's hybrid system on the instruments are an Auto Stop label on the tachometer and an Eco gauge at the bottom of the speedometer. That Eco gauge merely bumps to the right when you use power and drops to the left when the batteries recharge. There is also a power flow animation you can call up on both the instrument cluster and center LCDs.
The LaCrosse is far from a muscle car, but giving it a blast of acceleration from a stop manages to chirp the front tires. While taking off from lights, passing other cars, or going for a quick lane change in traffic, the car responded promptly. The electric boost from the hybrid system works with the four-cylinder engine to deliver adequate acceleration for most needs.
On the freeway, the tachometer hovered below 2,000rpm at 65 mph, not bad for a four-cylinder in a large car. Buick says that the hybrid system contributes significantly to steady, high-speed driving by letting the engine run at constant speed while the electric motor handles the occasional need for extra power.
The six-speed automatic underwent some improvement as well, with GM engineers working to eliminate torque converter slush, which saps fuel economy. The transmission performed automatic shifts smoothly, getting the gears right for each driving situation. On the freeway we tried some manual shifts but could not feel how well the transmission grabbed its gears. The noise and vibration engineering on the LaCrosse canceled out any difference between the engine running at 2,000rpm or 4,000rpm.
eAssist will come standard on four-cylinder versions of the 2012 LaCrosse, which should hit dealer lots in a few months. The car can also be had with a direct-injection 3.6-liter V-6, similar to that found in the Cadillac CTS and Chevy Camaro.
Caught up with Ford
As another trick up its sleeve, but only available later in the year, Buick will add its IntelliLink system to the LaCrosse. We received a demonstration of a preproduction version of this system.
From a USB stick loaded with MP3 tracks, we were able to play music by using voice commands. Buick uses the Gracenote database to index music, so you can say "Play artist Bruce Springsteen." This database also supports nicknames, letting you request music by "The Boss." And, of course, you can ask for music by album, track, and genre. This feature only works with music storage devices plugged into the USB port, such as an iPod or USB drive.
Bluetooth phone support lets you say "Call John Doe" through voice command. The system will then find the appropriate contact from the phone's list and dial the associated number.
Of course, Ford's Sync has had the the capabilities for years, but it is good to see Buick catching up in this regard. Where Buick meets new features from Sync is in app integration. With Pandora running on a BlackBerry paired to IntelliLink through Bluetooth, we called up the Pandora app on the IntelliLink screen. The interface was rich and clean, showing album art for the currently playing track and allowing thumbs up, thumbs down, or skipping the song. At launch, the app integration will also include Stitcher.
At launch, you won't be able to get IntelliLink with onboard navigation in the LaCrosse, although turn-by-turn navigation is available through OnStar. A Buick representative said the company is looking at adding a navigation app to IntelliLink, but questions remain whether the app will need to be resident on a paired phone or embedded in the car.
Given the LaCrosse's base price of just under $30,000, these technologies, and the quality of the car, make it a compelling competitor to other luxury cars. Anyone looking at an Lexus ES 350 or Lincoln MKZ should be cross-shopping the LaCrosse.