2018 Buick LaCrosse 2.5 eAssist Essence (USA)

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It has been observed many times that cars are getting bigger. Every new model, it seems, is larger in every dimension than the one it replaces, though in most cases, there is barely any extra space inside the cabin or the boot, as a consequence. Some of it is attributed to the need to design in better crash protection, and while this is to an extent one reason, the reality is that current styling trends with very steeply angled front and rear screens mean that the base of the screen is such a long way forward of the roof, that the dashboard area, once almost vertical panel from the base of the screen is now a massive assembly that is often nearly 2 feet from base of the screen to its rear-most edge. As almost all cars have got bigger, established models face the same rivals as they always have done, so cars that were, let’s say a B-Segment car, to use marketing speak, still are so, even if physically, they are larger than C-Segment cars of a couple of generations back. Manufacturers have been quick to fill the gap in their product range when suddenly, there is a space where none existed before. So, a few years ago, cars like the Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla were about the smallest that you could get in America, and as a result they were in the lowest rental car category (bar the stripped-out economy torture-boxes that some had in small quantities on their fleet). As new models have appeared, though, they’ve gradually notched up a rental car class, so these days, the Corolla and Focus are deemed to be a “mid-size”, leaving space for the Fiesta and Yaris below them. And cars that were once called a mid-size, and which to Europeans were really quite large, have become “full-sized”, including the likes of the Ford Fusion (Mondeo), Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. Some cars have gone up in the eyes of the rental car companies rather more than that, and the car being reviewed here is a case in point. Predecessor to the Buick LaCrosse was a model called the Buick Century, which was produced until 2005, and when I drove one of the last ones, it was categorised as a “mid-size”. For sure, it was a bit more luxurious (in a way) than other cars of the class, but it was based on the same platform as the Chevrolet Malibu and had the same space in it. Full-sized cars were significantly bigger. Buick had one of those, which was called the LeSabre, and it was just as we tend to think of American cars from 15 years ago, with very soft suspension, and lots of velour upholstery that probably appealed to the stereotypical buyer of a Buick, but which was looking increasingly anachronistic in the digital age. Buick came up with two new cars, the LaCrosse and the Lucerne which started to move away from their traditional ethos, and they both went in to the rental car fleets a category higher than their predecessor. The LaCrosse was the same sort of size as other full-sized cars, so that seemed reasonable, and the car was indeed perfectly pleasant, as I found out when I finally sampled one at the end of 2009. That was the time when the second generation model had just been launched. With new styling, and a significant increase in size, this generation car was aimed fairly and squarely at the Lexus ES300, and it made a pretty good case for itself. The increase in luxury and technology fittings as well as the increase in size did not go un-noticed at the rental car companies, who soon promoted it from “full-sized” to “premium” and then again to “luxury”. With the ending of production of the larger Buick Lucerne in mid-2011, it became Buick’s largest saloon model, with the Regal – a federalised version of the Vauxhall Insignia – joining the range underneath it, and being categorised as a “premium” model, and indeed the Verano – a sort of Astra saloon – being categorised as a “full-sized” more because of its trim and equipment than its physical size.

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So Buick’s hierarchy of saloon cars is complete again, but the LaCrosse is now the top of the (wider) range rather than the bottom. A third generation model was premiered at the 2015 Los Angeles Show, going on sale several months later, as a 2017 model year car. Positioned very much as the previous car had been, the new car had – in my opinion – rather more elegant styling compared to the slightly bland-looking model it replaced, adopting some features from the well-received Avenir concept car which Buick had shown the year previously and it incorporated a a lot of the new safety and infotainment technology that buyers expect these days. It shares its significantly lighter P2XX platform with the latest Chevrolet Impala, a car which surprised many when it was launched, as in one fell swoop that model had gone from being the doyen of rental fleets to being a class-leading and very accomplished large saloon, receiving an almost perfect score from the US’ Consumer Reports organisation in the first year it was on sale. The new LaCrosse’s market arrival coincided with a time when Hertz stopped buying GM products, so as I started to see this elegant looking car on American roads, I did wonder if I was going to get to try one. But towards the end of 2017, a new deal was struck and GM products started to appear in the Hertz fleet again. As I was leaving America in December 2017, I spotted a new LaCrosse being returned as the car literally behind mine, and the returns agent told me that they had only just come in. By the time of my March 2018 visit, there were a number on fleet, so when I spotted one in the area of Hertz’ Ultimate Choice section at Phoenix’ Sky Harbor airport, it was an obvious car to pick, and try for myself.

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The interior of the LaCrosse is trimmed as you would expect and hope a car of this class would be, with a decidedly premium feel to it. There are soft-touch surfaces everywhere and lots of leather is used on the dash, the door casings and wrapping the steering wheel. There is also some rather shiny “wood” which was not to my taste, being a sort of grey-brown colour and so obviously not the real thing, but it does provide some colour contrast as an inlay on the centre console and on the dash in front of the passenger. The dials are grouped together under a single binnacle, and just as they had been in the Buick Envision I drove earlier in this trip, they are all digital. The outer ones have a chrome ring around then, whilst the central speedo does not. The left hand dial contains a rev counter and oil temperature, whereas the right hand one has water temperature and fuel level to the right hand side and a small dial showing “Acceleration and Brake” to the left, which I think gives a rather simplistic view of whether you are charging the battery or not. There is a graphic for this in the IntelliLink system which I will come to. The dials were very clearly marked and easy to read. The latest generation of GM column stalks, lacking those serrated end points, are used for indicators and wipes, with the lights operating from a rotary on the dash to the left of the wheel. The steering wheel boss contains audio repeaters, the cruise control system and the buttons to cycle through the trip computer displays, which are presented in the very lower portion of the speedometer. The centre of the dash contains the 8″ touch-sensitive colour screen for the IntelliLink infotainmnent setup. As well as containing the audio system which included XM Satellite radio, there is a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot in the car, Apple Car Play and Android Auto, numerous data channels (more than a whole top screen of choices), an option to show average fuel consumption, one for vehicle settings, a climate control screen and there was one for navigation which seemed to use the OnStar system. I did not try this one out. The screens can looks quite busy, and the interface is not that easy to use on the move, or even when stationary, but thankfully, there are some buttons below it as well. You can certainly use these for the dual zone climate control selections, and there are audio unit channel selection and tuning knobs as well. On the whole, Buick seem to have struck a decent compromise between achieving a clean and simple look to the cabin without too many usability frustrations, a dichotamy that many manufacturers have not yet resolved satisfactorily. There is a wireless phone charging system, with a slot in the centre console, between the gearlever and the armrest where you just place your phone.

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I recall that there were a couple of design features of the last LaCrosse which meant that I had to be careful not to bang my knees on the curves where the dashboard met the door casing on getting in and out, but in this generation car, there were no such issues, thankfully. Once installed in the seat, I set about altering the position to suit my requirements. There are electric motors on the side of the seat to do this, and there’s electric adjustment of the column. Having got it where I wanted everything, I then saw the two memory switches on the door, and mindful of how the Cadillac CTS I had driven a few days ago seemed to over-ride what I had chosen every time I started it up again, I thought I would head the system off at the first pass. I assumed that it would work the same way as the CTS had done. So I pressed the “Set” button, heard the beep and the selected the “exit” button. Rather than that double beeping, it promptly moved everything back to where it had been when I got in! I altered everything again and this time, tried with memory position 1. A double beep confirmed my position was set and the system never troubled me again! The front passenger also gets electric adjustment of their chair, and both front seats are heated, should you need that (not likely in Arizona!). The seat proved comfortable, just firm enough to support, without being overly hard feeling.

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There’s a lot of space in the back of the LaCrosse, one consequence of the car having grown. Leg room is particularly generous, even with the front seats set well back, and the car is wide enough that three adults should fit across it. Headroom was just sufficient that my head cleared the rooflining by an inch or so. There is a drop down central armrest with a pair of cupholders in the upper surface.

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Where space is limited is in the boot. There is no external release that I could discern, so you either press the remote release button on the door, or double press the release on the remote key fob. There is quite a penalty for the eAssist system here, so the floor is not flat, with a raised part nearer to the back seats, though the rear-most part is particularly wide. There would also seem to be quite a lot of intrusion from the boot hinges that I noted. You can create more space by folding the rear seat backrests, which are asymmetrically split, down. This will give a load platform which is longer, and more or less level with the raised section of the regular boot. Inside the cabin, there is a small glovebox, with a shelf across the upper part, there are bins on all four doors, a cubby under the central armrest and there is a stowage area under the centre console trim, which is a bit awkward to access, but quite useful as it is quite extensive. Those in the back get bins on the doors and map pockets on the back of the front seats.

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Having got everything how I wanted it, I was ready for the off. I pressed the keyless start button, to the right of the wheel and slightly awkwardly placed, put my foot on the brake pedal and reached for the gearlever, trying to pull it backwards to select Drive. It did not move. A warning message on the dash told me to press the button on the shifter to get it into gear. I did. And nothing happened. There was no manual in the car, so I feared I would have to go and seek help, rather embarrassed at my inability to figure it out, and as I opened the door, more light came on, and I spotted that in fact there is a button on the side of the gearlever, which is the one you need to press, as the one on the top is to engage Park. So now I could set off for the brief drive back to the hotel. It was only once back in my room and I was doing my initial research on the car that I had just acquired that I discovered that Buick have two different engine options for the 2018 LaCrosse. The 310 bhp 3.6 litre V6 has been joined by an eAssist car which has a 2.5 litre 4 cylinder unit and a small battery system. At this point, I fell to wondering which I had actually got, as it had not been obvious on that short journey, which was either going to be a slight criticism of the V6 unit or an endorsement of the 4 cylinder one. A quick glance under the bonnet of the car the following morning revealed all. This was a 4 cylinder car, and there is a sizeable unit for the electric motor crammed in alongside the engine. The combination works really well together, and not once during the couple of days of my tenure did I feel short changed. And indeed when I came to filling the car up before returning, I felt anything but. Having driven 240 miles, just 7.1 gallons of fuel were needed, meaning an average consumption of 33.8 mpg US, which equates to 40.38 mpg Imperial, a truly astonishing figure for a big car. Granted that most of the test distance was a steady speed (at 75 mph) down the freeway to Tucson and back, but even so, that counts as a good result. The eAssist cars have 194 bhp, as well as the light electric motor which does not sound like a whole lot to propel what is a large and heavy car, but I found that it was sufficient to give the Buick the turn of speed and acceleration that you would wish for in a car like this, with the torque of the electric motor helping for that initial acceleration from rest. Let’s face it, these are not enthusiast’s cars, they are bought more for their comfort and “waftability”, and that’s exactly what you get. Noise levels are extremely low at all times, with the engine barely audible, and wind and road noise also well suppressed. The engine is smooth, and it can accelerate you out of trouble or into flowing traffic just as you need. There is a six speed automatic gearbox, and it operates to deliver almost imperceptible gearchanges. There are paddles on the steering wheel if you want to try to shift the gears yourself. The standard Stop/Start system was particularly unobtrusive, cutting back in with none of the slight vibration or judder that you get in some cars. That’s just as well, as there is no “off” button for the system.

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Further evidence that this is not a sports sedan in any way comes from the steering. It is simply too light and over-assisted for my tastes, though interestingly, I did not find the reviews that I looked at had called this out. It does gain feel as you go faster, but at low speeds, it is particularly light, which whilst handy for manoeuvering is not really what you want. Or at least not what I would want. This is a front wheel drive car, though AWD is an option on higher spec cars, and I did wonder if that might be a better bet, as the handling can get a bit untidy at times as well, especially if you go into a corner with any expectation of enjoying it at speed. Instead, you should be enjoying the soft and pillowy ride, delivered by a combination of the suspension and the relatively high profile 235/50 R18 wheels. The brakes were good, though I did notice that sometimes as you engaged Park, the pedal would almost sink beneath your foot, as the system applied the electronic parking brake a bit abruptly. You can set that yourself using the button on the lower left of the dash. Visibility was generally fine, with a rear-view camera helping to show where the back of the car finished, something you would need, as the rear window is quite angled and there is quite a bit of car beyond that.

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For 2018, the LaCrosse comes as standard with that 2.5 litre eAssist combination of petrol engine and electric motor, a six-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel drive. A V6 engine paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission is available in all but the base trim for $2,500. All-wheel drive can be added to V6-powered Premium models. The entry-level LaCrosse (1SV) starts at $29,565 and comes standard with leatherette upholstery, power-adjustable front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-speaker audio system, Bluetooth, an 8-inch touch-screen infotainment system, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a Wi-Fi hot spot, a rearview camera, and rear parking sensors. The Preferred trim is priced at $33,665. It adds satellite radio, and a power tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel. With the $36,365 Essence trim, which was the spec of the test car, you get leather upholstery, heated front seats, and wireless smartphone charging. A few packages are available in the Essence model. The Driver Confidence 1 package ($445) adds rear cross traffic alert and blind spot monitoring. The Sun and Shade package ($1,550) comes with a panoramic moonroof and a rear-window power sunshade. The Sights and Sounds package ($1,145) gets you navigation, an 11-speaker Bose audio system, and HD Radio. Adaptive suspension is available in the Dynamic Drive package ($1,625). The Premium trim is priced at $38,665 and is equipped with massaging and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a head-up display, forward collision warning, rear cross traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, and Buick’s Safety Alert Seat, which vibrates to alert the driver of potential dangers. The Driver Confidence 2 package ($1,690) comes with adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, and active park assist. The Sun and Shade, Sights and Sounds, and Dynamic Drive packages are all available in the Premium trim at the same price as they are in the Essence model. The new-for-2018 Avenir trim starts at $44,870 and features a standard 3.6-litre engine, a navigation system, an 11-speaker Bose audio system, a panoramic moonroof, a rear-window power sunshade, and 19-inch alloy wheels. The Driver Confidence 2 package and the Dynamic Drive package are also available.

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I had heard from my friends at Hertz in Los Angeles that the latest LaCrosse, which only came into the fleet at the tail end of 2017, is proving very popular, and having driven one, I can now see why. For those seeking a nicely-appointed spacious saloon that will waft them to their destination, this car fits the bill pretty much spot on. That it will consume less fuel than you might have expected will be an added bonus. Only the smaller than expected boot might count against it, and cause you to seek out one of its rivals. Hertz have plenty of those, too, having, it would seem, bought the entire supply of 2018 Toyota Avalon models (before the all-new 2019 arrives), and plenty of Chrysler 300C and 300S models. They’ve also got the Nissan Maxima and Ford Taurus, which they categorise one rental group lower. The Maxima will be the most fun to drive, but is not that roomy inside, so that would be a good choice for those who want a sports sedan, but those who want a luxury car should seek out a LaCrosse and prepare to be pleasantly surprised. I was, as it struck me as a much nicer proposition than its predecessor. What is perhaps surprising, though, is the market does not seem to agree, and sales of this version are well down on those achieved by the previous car. Proof yet again that you need to try something for yourself, as neither the sales figures nor indeed the view of the motoring press are necessarily ones to give you the whole picture.

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