2012 Buick LaCrosse Premium I Road Test

2012 Buick LaCrosse combines modern sensibilities with retro luxury drive.

What It Is
Full-sized premium sedan that continues to drive like a Buick
Best Thing
Significant fuel savings
Worst Thing
Large blind spots, overassisted steering, and soft suspension may make quick maneuvering difficult
Snap Judgment
2012 Buick LaCrosse brings the luxury boats of yesteryear into the modern era.

Big cars are back. At least, that's what it looks like. The past year has seen introductions of refreshed or all-new versions of the Toyota Avalon, Hyundai Azera, and Chevrolet Impala, with new entries like the Kia Cadenza waiting in the wings. All of them bridge the gap between their affordable midsize sedan counterparts -- Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Chevy Malibu and Kia Optima -- and more premium offerings from Lexus, Cadillac, etc.

Then there's Buick, the original purveyors of big American cars? While it has a solid product lineup, it still has something of an identity crisis. In other words, is Buick an upscale mainstream brand? Or is it an affordable premium brand? Its biggest sedan these days is the LaCrosse, a plus-sized midsizer that's been crusising along for a few years now, with steady sales, a comfy interior, sharp modern styling, and solid stuff-per-dollar quotient. But where does it fit in the full-size sedan segment? Is Buick on target when it says the LaCrosse goes head to head with the Lexus ES? Or is the LaCrosse more of an Avalon competitor instead? We spent a week in the 2012 Buick LaCrosse to find out.

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What We Drove

The 2012 Buick LaCrosse Premium I is the entry model for the LaCrosse lineup. Starting price is $33,935 which includes the $875 destination and handling fee. The LaCrosse Premium I, also known as the Buick LaCrosse with eAssist, comes standard with a four cylinder engine coupled with an electric motor; the rest of the LaCrosse lineup is powered by a 3.6-liter V-6 engine. The Buick LaCrosse with eAssist generates a combined 182 horsepower while getting an EPA-estimated 25 mpg city, 36 mpg highway, and 29 mpg combined. Standard features are plentiful as expected in a premium brand, with the LaCrosse equipped with powered eight-way driver's seat; leather-wrapped steering wheel; LATCH child seat anchors, and Buick's "Quiet Tuning", which tunes out all but the loudest exterior noises. Two packages that came standard with our LaCrosse add powered eight-way seat for the front passenger; heated leather seats; heated side rearview mirrors; and rear parking sensors. Two optional packages were included: an entertainment package that added a potent Harman/Kardon auto system ($600); and the driver's confidence package which adds powerful headlamps and the always cool head-up display on the windshield ($1,440). Finally, GM made sure our media vehicle was dressed to impress, so it had the already attractive car painted crystal red ($325).

Airbag protection included standard front and side bags for driver and front passenger as well as side curtain bags for both rows; "Stabilitrak" stability control with traction control; and tire pressure monitoring system. The National Highway Safety Administration gave the 2012 LaCrosse with eAssist five stars out of five in its front and side crash tests, four stars in its rollover scenario, and an overall five stars. The private, non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the 2012 Buick LaCrosse lineup as a Top Safety pick, getting its top "Good" rating in its (moderate overlap) front, side, and roof strength tests.

The Commute

The first thing we immediately noted in the 2012 Buick LaCrosse is its pin-drop quiet interior. General Motors calls this Buick's "Quiet Tuning" which means that jazz station playing on the LaCrosse's excellent sound system won't be interrupted by that eighteen wheeler passing in the lane next to you. Talk frequently on your smartphone? Listeners on the other end won't be complaining about car noise from your end since isn't any. Road, wind, and engine noise virtually non-existent even at highway speeds though the four-cylinder engine did sound surprisingly coarse when revving up. Still, if quietness is part of your definition of luxury, the LaCrosse in the lexicon.

You'll also see the LaCrosse under the definition of cushy ride, a throwback to the days of American luxury cars floating their way down the road. GM has brought back such a ride in the Buick LaCrosse, though modified to modern tastes: the LaCrosse was surprisingly firm in making quick turns for example.

Which was a good thing. Some of us found the LaCrosse steering overassisted, which made it hard to gauge the LaCrosse's reaction in maneuvers such as quick lane changes. It's as if there was a delay between the steering input and the car's long body. This was compounded by the Buick LaCrosse's C-pillar, or frame surrounding the rear window. They're very thick and it's really easy for even a large vehicle to slip into its blindspot. The small rearview mirrors didn't help, and we came to rely on the blindspot detectors.

The LaCrosse is a genuine highway cruiser, not a street rocket. The LaCrosse seats are comfortable, wide, and yet just firm enough that you don't sink into them like into a worn out couch. The rear row is huge, with plenty of head and legroom for six-foot adults. That rear space was surprising given the LaCrosse swoopy roofline. Finally, the 2012 Buick LaCrosse's four-cylinder engine is sufficient to get the large sedan up to speed and stay there. We found the LaCrosse nailed its estimated fuel economy of 29 mpg in regular driving, though several of us broke the 30 mpg line thanks to the eAssist "mild hybrid" electric motor system.

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The Grocery Run

The Buick LaCrosse is a large car with a spacious interior, especially the second row. Our team members with families had no issue with the LaCrosse's LATCH system. GM has been aiming to make Buick appeal to a younger demographic, and the LaCrosse's deep trunk provides plenty of room for the weekly groceries for families, even with a stroller in the trunk. Note this is true even in our LaCrosse with eAssist: the batteries didn't significantly impact trunk space like other hybrid vehicles.

Speaking of shopping, drivers will appreciate the assisted steering in the Buick LaCrosse. Tight space between two full-size SUV or crossovers? Not a problem. The LaCrosse has a surprisingly tight turn radius for such a large vehicle as long as you don't do it quickly.

Utility-wise, the Buick LaCrosse matches most cars in this segment. The side pockets are on the slim side but extend out to hold maps (remember those?), books, and CDs/DVDs. However, there's no space for water bottles. Cupholders passed our large Slurpee cup tests (barely). The LaCrosse's storage unit in the front row has two levels and is deep enough for a small purse. Oddly, there's no sunglass holder in the LaCrosse.

The Weekend Fun

As we mentioned above, the Buick LaCrosse is a cruiser which we put the test with a long drive from Los Angeles to Orange County to San Diego and back. The eAssist mild hybrid came in handy here and we averaged nearly 30 mpg in the bumper-to-bumper traffic afflicting California freeways even on the weekends. Unlike many hybrids, the LaCrosse's climate control system was not affected: we noticed no change in temperature when we were in standard driving or ECO mode.

But it was the LaCrosse's Quiet Tuning that really made the ride a joy, turning the interior into a mini concert-hall. Miles flew as we listened to retro tunes on the LaCrosse's premium Harman/Kardon audo system like Rump Shaker by Wreckx-N-Effect; Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back; and the always-classy Touch Me I Want Your Body by Samantha Fox. Unlike many cars with numerous infotainment features, we found the LaCrosse's controls easy to use. We never felt we had to break out the instruction book. Our more techie members had no issue syncing their smartphones to the Buick LaCrosse's systems, either.

Finally, one feature we enjoyed was Buick LaCrosse's head-up display system. A projector in the dash displayed an image on the windshield. While the information was normally the LaCrosse's speed and outside temperature, the display system would also show what music was currently playing. Since the same information was available on the instrument cluster and large display screen on the center stack, it was redundant. Still, it kept our eyes on the road, which is always a good thing.

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We found the 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist a credible vehicle for the growing premium segment. Both the LaCrosse's exterior and, especially the interior, elevates the sedan from mainstream vehicles like the current Toyota Avalon and nearly match entry-level luxury vehicles like the current Lexus ES. That may all change when the all-new versions of those vehicles make their debut later this year, especially the former. The LaCrosse's eAssist actually does offer a significant difference in fuel economy compared to the non-hybrid versions, so we'd recommend it for those buyers prioritizing fuel economy for their premium vehicle.

Otherwise, all LaCrosse sedans offer nice interiors, space, and quietness matched by the rest in one attractive package. The Buick LaCrosse separates itself from the competition with its floaty suspension, which is gone in virtually all car segments.

From a long-term perspective, Intellichoice gave the 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist an "Excellent" rating. This figure is based on the much lower fuel costs incurred due to the hybrid powertrain, which are around $3,500 lower than the average in the Premium Passenger Car class. The LaCrosse eAssist is about average in almost all other areas of ownership costs.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $36,175 Fuel Economy EPA City: 25 mpg EPA Highway: 36 mpg EPA Combined: 29 mpg Estimated Combined Range: 455.3 miles Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: pull Intellichoice ranking; Excellent, Good, etc.

Notebook Quotes

"The car is really comfortable, and even with the eAssist stuff in the trunk there's still plenty of space for just about everything." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"If it's an Avalon competitor, it's a little more expensive for what you get, but it has a much nicer interior than the current Avi. If it's an ES competitor, its interior isn't quite as good, its sound deadening isn't nearly as good (which basically means almost nothing is because the Buick is pretty darn quiet), and it's considerably cheaper." -Jacob Brown, Assistant Editor
"Fuel economy is pretty dang great, though, and I got it up to 38 mpg highway, and in mixed driving -- albeit hard driving with lots of idling and photo passes -- the LaCrosse stayed around 29 mpg." -Jason Brown, Assistant Editor

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