Thumbs Up: Solidly built, quiet as a tomb
Thumbs Down: Needs more power for highway driving
Buy This Car If: You want a plush midsize sedan that delivers decent fuel economy.
Sometimes, things are glaring in their omission. If you scan the outside sheet metal of the 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist, you won’t find a single “hybrid” badge on it. Ditto on the inside, where the only indication that you’re driving something other than a regular Buick is the available battery meter in the information display. Even the window sticker avoids any mention of the word “hybrid,” although if you look carefully you can see the term”eAssist” used in reference to the engine and the associated powertrain warranty.
In other words, GM is downplaying the hybrid aspect of the LaCrosse eAssist. Technically, it’s what’s called a “mild hybrid,” meaning that the drive system is less complex and less beneficial than a full-on hybrid like the Toyota Camry Hybrid. The bottom line is this: a mild hybrid boosts fuel economy and engine output without having a significant impact on price.
The alternator of eAssist models also acts as an electric motor, providing up to 15 additional horsepower under hard acceleration. Power comes from lithium-ion batteries, which are recharged via regenerative braking, Come to a stop, and the engine powers down (until you release the brake or step on the gas), maximizing fuel economy and reducing emissions.
All this technology works seamlessly to deliver improved fuel economy (although not equivalent to a full hybrid) and give the LaCrosse eAssist slightly more grunt than it had with just the 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder. Around town, it’s enough horsepower to safely navigate city streets. On the highway, however, passing other cars at speed takes careful planning, as acceleration at highway speeds is leisurely.
Outside, not much has changed since we last reviewed the Buick LaCrosse in 2010. That’s not a bad thing, since the LaCrosse is a pleasantly styled midsize sedan. It’s not likely to draw buyers into the showroom on looks alone, but the car’s exterior design won’t put off any potential customers, either. Buick shoppers prefer tasteful over flashy, and the LaCrosse fits that mold perfectly.
Inside, not much has changed in two years, either. The dash is a blend of soft-touch vinyl, interior color-matched plastic and fake wood trim. It’s not luxury, but Buick is trying to convey an upscale air while minding costs. Buyers coming from Chevrolet will likely be impressed, but former Lexus owners won’t be.
The instrument cluster is largely the same, too, with the exception of a full-color LCD driver information display where the monochrome readout used to be. Also new, but possibly reserved for eAssist models only, is an “Eco” gauge below the speedometer, replacing the temperature gauge on earlier models. Since the gauge contains no numbers and only the vaguest of scales, it’s essentially useless in communicating valid information. Manufacturers say the purpose is to coach drivers on long-term driving habits, but I’m not seeing it.
Front seats are exactly what you’d expect from Buick. Wrapped in soft leather, they’re a decent perch for gobbling up highway miles. As expected, they’re power operated (with memory), have good lumbar support and are heated. Unlike other near-luxury cars in the LaCrosse’s price range, they’re neither ventilated nor cooled.
Rear seats are also long-distance suitable, especially if the car is equipped with Buick’s rear seat entertainment system. The rear seats aren’t heated, which seems like an odd feature to omit on a midsize sedan with luxury aspirations.
If safety is a concern, the LaCrosse does a good job of reassuring buyers with standard and optional accessories. First and foremost, it comes with OnStar, meaning that emergency response is just the press of a button away. It’s got airbags galore, and can be configured with a heads-up display, a blind spot alert system, a backup camera and rear parking sensors.
Under the hood is a 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine, combined with an 11-kilowatt electric motor. The combination can deliver 182 horsepower and 172 poud-feet of torque to the front wheels, via a six-speed automatic transmission. With over 3,800 pounds of mass to move, acceleration from a stop is leisurely, but not unsafe. Highway passing is an entirely different story, and overtaking at even legal speeds requires planning and patience. Frankly, we’d opt for the 3.6-liter V-6 LaCrosse, but the bigger engine won’t deliver the eAssist’s 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway.
On the road, the LaCrosse eAssist drives like a Buick. The cabin is as quite as an isolation chamber, thanks to what Buick calls “Quiet Tuning.” Unlike Buicks of old, the ride isn’t “floaty,” and you get the sense that the car would change direction far more willingly than, say, a 1978 Buick LeSabre. That said, the LaCrosse is not the car to shop if you favor winding back roads over flat and straight superslabs. It has no sporting aspirations, but it does deliver a comfortable ride over every imaginable type of road surface.
As much as Buick wants to attract younger buyers, it can’t escape the fact that its core customers tend to be in a “mature” demographic. In that regard, the LaCrosse may be the perfect blend of style, technology, safety and comfort to appeal to both traditional Buick buyers and new customers alike. Given that Buick is seeing explosive growth in China, and steady growth in the United States (sales were up by 14.3 percent last year), we’d have to say its on the right track.
General Motors provided the 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist Premium for my evaluation. Base price on the press fleet tester was $33,300, including a destination charge of $860. Options on the car supplied included the $600 Entertainment Package (Harman Kardon audio system, 11 speakers, 120 volt power outlet), the $1,440 Driver Confidence Package (HID headlamps, blind spot alert, heads up display), the $1,345 Navigation and Backup Camera System and the $1,295 rear seat entertainment system, for a total sticker price of $37,980.
For comparison, a similarly equipped Lincoln MKZ Hybrid (which, in fairness, delivers better fuel economy) would sticker at $40,075, while a comparable Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE (which also yields more miles per gallon) would list for $35,265.