First Drive: Buick Sets the Benchmark in the 2017 LaCrosse

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It’s been a busy year for Buick. It unveiled the next-generation Encore at this year’s New York Auto Show to round out its formidable trio of luxury SUVs. A few months later it launched the Opel-based Cascada to the U.S., filling the important niche as the affordable American convertible that isn’t called Camaro or Mustang. Sales have been massive in China. It’s popularity with women and younger buyers have made sales jump 43% in the past five years. And right now, it’s all-new full-size sedan, the LaCrosse, should be reaching your local dealership.

And you might not have known any of this, because unlike stablemate Cadillac or its Japanese rivals, Buick isn’t considered to be a ‘sexy’ brand. That may change soon, however, because with the LaCrosse – yes, the LaCrosse – Buick is bringing some much-needed élan to the stagnant full-size sedan segment.

With all the changes brought about by rising fuel economy standards, integration of technology, safety, and hybrid and EV powertrains, it’s often overlooked that 2016 has seen a sea change in a number of major auto segments. The new Kia Sportage has catapulted a strong-selling but unimpressive compact crossover to the top of the heap, the Mazda CX-9 is hands-down the best three-row crossover we’ve seen in some time, and the Chrysler Pacifica has proven that there’s still room to innovate and actually build an attractive model in the minivan segment.

2017 Buick LaCrosse

And Buick’s approach to the LaCrosse reminds us of Chrysler’s in that regard; it analyzed its car’s competition, and built something that’s categorically better than every single one of them. For reference, here’s a quick rundown of the full-size sedan segment: The Chrysler 300 is an icon, but it’s a 12-year-old car; the Dodge Charger is handsome, but nearly as old as the 300; Toyota Avalon has been called the most anonymous-looking car on the roads by our friends at Jalopnik, and we tend to agree; the redesigned Nissan Maxima is better, but it still isn’t the “Four Door Sports Car” it used to be; the Ford Taurus is overshadowed by the cheaper, prettier, and more spacious Fusion; the Hyundai Azera is forgettable at best; and the Chevy Impala (the LaCrosse’s platform-mate) is impressive, but can get mighty expensive for a Chevy sedan. Kia’s all-new Cadenza has what it takes, but it remains to be seen if the Koreans can make a splash in the segment.

This is the LaCrosse’s field, and possibly short of the Cadenza, the Buick blows them all out of the water. We recently put one through its paces in Portland, Oregon, and came back convinced that the Tri-Shield brand has a new benchmark car on its hands.

2017 Buick LaCrosse

Outside, the LaCrosse is the most striking car to enter the full-size segment since the Chrysler 300 debuted over a dozen years ago. We were on hand for its debut at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, and in the real world, it’s just as good looking as it was on the stand. It borrows heavily from the Avenir show car, and is one of the best transpositions we’ve seen from concept to mass-market production in some time. The Avenir previewed Buick’s future styling direction, but also recalled classic styling elements for the brand; both are on display on the LaCrosse.

For a big car, it’s elegant, well-proportioned, and crisply tailored, aided by a winged red-white-and-blue Tri-Shield emblem on a cascading grille, a nod to the ’54 Wildcat II show car, ventiports on the fender (six of them, one for each cylinder), and a “sweapspear” beltline, a brand hallmark dating back to the 1940s. But this is no retromobile; from certain angles it references big guns like the Maserati Quattroporte and Mercedes CLS, while still coming across as all-American, and most importantly, all Buick.

But as pretty as the sheetmetal is, the LaCrosse’s engineering is the star of the show. It’s longer, lower, and wider than the ’16 model, but still 300 pounds lighter than the outgoing car. It has a complex, 5-link rear suspension that improves handling and ride quality, and until recently was firmly in the realm of high-end premium cars. Coupled with the available Continuous Dampening Control active suspension, the car instantly jumps to the top of the segment in terms of handling.

2017 Buick LaCrosse interior

Power comes from GM’s all-new 3.6-liter V6, which puts out a competent 305 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque. In models equipped with 20-inch wheels and a sport driving mode, that’s more than enough power to get the car out of its own way, but what’s equally important for Buick is the engine’s Stop/Start system. It’s the first engine GM’s designed specifically for the feature, with specially engineered cams and a starter that can handle the extra wear-and-tear. The result is the smoothest Stop/Start we’ve tested, and goes a long way toward making the LaCrosse one of the most comfortable cars on the road.

Continuous Dampening Control, 5-link rear suspension, and a 3.6-liter with its Stop/Start have their performance and economy benefits, but together, they amount to what Buick calls QuietTuning – a way to offer its customers the quietest and most comfortable ride experience possible. That carries over into the interior, which in our opinion, is one of the nicest GM offers.

The LaCrosse cabin is unique, tastefully done, and refreshingly free of any stand-out bits from the GM parts bin. It’s sculptured and well-textured, with nice leather and soft-touch materials. It’s also the first Buick to feature GM’s new shift-by-wire system (also found in the new Cadillac XT5). By removing the shift linkage, the cabin is insulated from road noise even further, and opens up extra storage space under the center console.

2017 Buick LaCrosse grille

Put it all together, and the LaCrosse shines. Buick pitted the car’s ride comfort and road noise against the Lexus ES to make sure it can punch above its weight, and in most metrics, it outperforms that car. We drove two LaCrosse models, a Premium model with 18-inch wheels and one with 20s, and despite sharing a trim, the cars were vastly different.

The 18 is built for comfort first and foremost. The interior is pin-drop quiet, the steering is light but precise, and it handles the way you’d want a big, luxurious car to on a long drive. The 20-inch car, however, was our favorite. Aside from the larger wheels, there was no real visible difference between the cars, but this one features a sport mode, which changes shift points and firms up the steering in a way that makes it much more fun than you’d expect. Coupled with that 5-link at the rear and Continuous Dampening Control, it made for a surprisingly lively ride through the Oregon countryside, while staying firmly grounded, and inspiring confidence. With the push of a button, the car transforms from a highway cruiser to a mild sporty sedan, and that’s more than enough to make most LaCrosse buyers happy. 

Will the LaCrosse single-handedly revitalize the full-size sedan market and get millions of buyers to abandon their SUVs and crossovers for it? Absolutely not. But as the demand for big sedans has tapered off, automakers have invested less and less time into their products, making the current full-size options pretty boring. The 2017 LaCrosse is the antidote to that — a much-needed shot in the arm for the competition, and a new benchmark by which all the others will be judged. It’s a big, good-looking, luxurious, well-balanced sedan that seems to embody modern Buick and has a good shot at dominating its segment. Buick’s big push may have been somewhat under the radar before, but with the new LaCrosse as its flagship, you might just start to notice the brand a lot more.

(cheatsheet.com, http://goo.gl/9L7dbU)

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