By Christopher Jensen, Special to Tribune newspapers
7:15 PM EDT, September 7, 2010
The Buick LaCrosse, which was new last year, is now confronting competitors such as the Lexus ES 350 and Acura TL with a new and unconventional weapon: a smaller engine.
The least expensive LaCrosse comes with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder rated at 19 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.
The 182-horsepower Ecotec was added this year as the standard engine on the entry-level CX and CXL front-wheel-drive models. It replaces a 3.0-liter V-6, which will be discontinued for the 2011 model year. That means the only other engine will be a 280-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6. With either engine, the transmission is a 6-speed automatic.
The LaCrosse that Buick lent me for a week was a 2010 CX. But the 2011s are already being produced. The base 2011 CX is $26,495, which is $1,090 less than the 2011 model with the 3.6-liter V-6 engine.
Despite being the entry-level model, the CX has a charming interior, and Buick has done a good job with keeping it quiet. There is room for two 6-foot adults in the back seat, and the trunk size (13.3 cubic feet) is competitive. The biggest complaint is that greatly restricted rearward vision makes backing up worrisome.
The suspension is wonderfully well-rounded. Not only does it do a good job of fending off impacts, but the body feels solid, and the CX is satisfying to drive. The steering has a nice weight, and the CX is reasonably quick to change direction. Only on the tightest, sharpest turns does it feel nose-heavy, something common to most front-wheel-drive vehicles. Despite the comfy ride, the body lean isn't excessive even during hard cornering.
But the real question is how the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder deals with the CX's 3,800-pound curb weight, which does not include occupants or luggage. Most of the time — with two adults and maybe 100 pounds of luggage — the acceleration was adequate.
That means no major problems merging onto a busy interstate and the ability to keep up with 75 mph traffic, even in hill country. However, when pushed hard there is a strained, slightly droning sound and mild vibration felt through the steering wheel. Also, some patience is necessary. There is simply not the power to make a fast pass on many two-lane roads.
Buick portrays the LaCrosse as a near-luxury vehicle, but if the goal is good fuel economy in a midsize sedan, there are some other possibilities. The Toyota Camry Hybrid is rated at 33 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is rated at 41 city/36 highway. The Camry is priced close to the CX, while the Fusion is about $1,400 more.
Even the base LaCrosse is loaded with standard safety equipment, including electronic stability control. The LaCrosse has received a "top safety pick" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety because it got "good" ratings for frontal, side and rear impact crash tests as well as roof strength.