2012 Buick LaCrosse road test: Big on luxury, small on fuel consumption

2012 Buick LaCrosse

2012 Buick LaCrosse

The 2012 Buick LaCrosse luxury sedan is available with all of the premium features a buyer would expect, and one standard feature that may come as a big surprise.

We’re talking about compact-car fuel efficiency.

Hard as it may be to believe, when properly equipped this rival to the Lexus ES 350 and similarly posh people movers is rated by the EPA at 25 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway.

I admit to my own initial skepticism, but I became a believer after a week of mostly ordinary driving on urban and suburban roads that resulted in 25 mpg in the city and 35 mpg highway. Overall, I averaged 29 mpg.

What’s the trick, you might be wondering.

Buick LaCrosse instrument panel

Buick LaCrosse instrument panel

It’s not a trick, it’s what General Motors calls eAssist, a mild-hybrid powerplant that combines a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine with an electric motor. The engine generates 182 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. The motor, powered by a lithium-ion battery pack mounted in the trunk, adds 15 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque.

A much simpler and less expensive system than the high-tech hybrid package  developed by Toyota, it cannot propel the Buick on electricity alone.

But the electric motor does help the gasoline engine to accelerate and it allows it to shut down at traffic stops and then restart almost unnoticeably when the driver pulls away. At the same time, coasting and braking generate electricity that recharges the battery pack.

The result is an automobile with adequate, if not exuberant, acceleration and surprising fuel efficiency.

Because it is  less complex, Buick can put the base price of the LaCrosse with eAssist in the same ballpark as the more powerful but less efficient V-6-powered LaCrosse.

When Buick began to aggressively modernize its line-up a few years ago, it was generally understood that the competitive target was Lexus. The LaCrosse leaves no question that this was the goal.

After only a short ride, a passenger will notice that this Buick is at its best as  a comfortable and quiet cruiser, ready to run up the miles along the interstate at extra-legal speeds. while its soft suspension soaks up most road imperfections.

LaCrosse rear seat

LaCrosse rear seat

But don’t get the idea that this car carries on the tradition of those big floaty land yachts of old.

The LaCrosse is competent in all normal driving situations. able to get around corners without excessive body lean and able to accomplish Its duties without constantly reminding the driver of its front-wheel-drive configuration.

A couple of miles on a curvy back road is enough to prove its competence and remind the driver that it is a close relative to its German luxury/sport counterpart, GM’s Opel Insignia.

For luxury-car buyers, one of the most important considerations is an atmosphere of peace and quiet inside the cabin. Here, the Lacrosse excels.

As the result of a sound-deadening package Buick calls Quiet Tuning, the distractions and annoyances of the outside world are mostly prohibited from filtering inside the passenger cabin.

Unless it is is pushed hard enough to unmask the grittiness inherent in the four-cylinder engine, the Buick  goes about its business silently and smoothly, pretty much the same as its V-6 counterpart.