What It Is
Buick's full-size sedan with an extensive refresh.
It rides better than the more expensive Cadillac XTS. No, really.
Thick pillars can impede visibility.
Buick's premium full-sizer is a real luxury car now, and the competition should be worried, Cadillac included.
Conventional wisdom says the full-size sedan is dying; it's been bleeding since more efficient SUVs and midsizers became prevalent years ago. Yet now, more than any time in recent memory, large cars are staging a comeback with the 2014 Buick LaCrosse joining the scrum. Since going on sale in its current generation for 2010, the Buick LaCrosse has steadily moved upmarket and eaten into Lexus ES sales. Quite substantially, in fact. It's all the more impressive because just four years ago Buick was written off as a brand that only catered to shoppers moribund into senility.
But times are looking good for Buick these days. The average age of a Buick buyer has fallen from 67 to 57 over the course of just five years. The LaCrosse's owners average 60. And Buick has become General Motors' role-player in the soft, smooth, and comfortable luxury segment, allowing corporate cousin Cadillac to fill a sportier role. Not like Buick has ever strayed too far from that, but now the brand is actually bringing customers back from foreign makes who gave up on it well before getting social security checks in the mail.
Buick invited us to drive its latest LaCrosse in perpetually sunny Santa Monica, allowing us to sample the all-wheel-drive version of its V-6-powered sedan along with three front-drivers equipped with its HiPer strut adaptive suspension, including one with a new ultra-premium interior package. While not a complete redesign, Buick says the changes made to the car should warrant comparisons to the latest and greatest models from Lincoln and Lexus. And it might even be better.
WalkaroundWhen you look at the 2014 Buick LaCrosse, much like the '14 Buick Enclave we drove a few months back, you know it's different from last year's car. But it's hard to pinpoint exactly what changes were made, so here's the breakdown: Buick completely revamped the front and rear, adding LED headlight accents, a larger shield-shape waterfall grille with piano black accents, and a larger grille badge to hide a bunch of new technologies like active cruise control. The LaCrosse's hood portholes were also relocated back to the sides of the hood where they belong instead of on top.
Around back are updated LED tail lights, a bit more chrome, and some subtle tweaks to the bumper. Wheel choices include 17- or 18-inch wheels for the LaCrosse eAssist mild hybrid or 18-, 19-, or 20-inch wheels for the various option levels of front- and all-wheel-drive V-6 cars. While the 2013 LaCrosse starts at $32,555, including $895 for destination and handling, the both the V-6 and eAssist 2014 models come in at $34,060 for starters, including a $925 fee for destination, signaling that Buick wants to keep the LaCrosse movin' on up. While all the '14 tweaks seem subtle, combined with what's inside the car--we'll get to that in a second--they certainly help present an argument in Buick's favor that this isn't just a Chevy Impala with more chrome and a higher price.
Sitting DownMuch like the exterior, the LaCrosse's cabin is more evolution than revolution, sticking to the same basic sweeping dashboard design as the 2013 model, but simplifying the buttons on the dash, tightening up ergonomics for both front and rear passengers, and introducing Buick's latest version of IntelliLink, which mimics the available MyLink system found in the Chevrolet Impala. Standard seat covers now include a cloth and leatherette combination instead of the cloth-only found in the outgoing car; all of the cars we drove had leather.
Of particular note is the new Ultra Luxury Interior, which throws in real wood accents, aniline black leather, a microfiber suede headliner, and jet black and sangria-colored accents. It's a $2,495 option package that steps uncomfortably close to the Cadillac XTS in terms of interior ambience and elegance; it's an utterly lavish option for those who want the luxury but can do without a pretentious badge.
Also not helping matters for Cadillac is the Buick LaCrosse's new 8-inch reconfigurable TFT gauge display that has recently become par for the class. The biggest things going for the Cadillac over its corporate cousin are its leather-wrapped dashboard, much thinner pillars that make outward visibility a bit easier, and its CUE infotainment system with haptic feedback, but they come in a car that's thousands of dollars more. And truth be told, though, Buick's IntelliLink is easier to use and faster than CUE, and it works just as well.
If you're into the finer things in life like microfiber suede headliners, heated and cooled seats, and as much active and passive safety technology as you could ever want, you no longer have to reach to the next brand up to get all of it.
DrivingBefore our drive, one of Buick's chassis engineers proclaimed that the new LaCrosse, complete with its available adaptive suspension, has a better ride than the Cadillac XTS--quite the thesis statement if ever there were one.
We drove with said engineer and a few of his cohorts throughout the day, hearing the spiel on how the electronically adjustable HiPer strut suspension would correct itself dozens of times per second. To call it smooth wouldn't aptly describe just now amazing the ride is. On the way into our lunch stop, driving over a cobbled farm access road, I was expecting the LaCrosse to wobble and wave through the uneven surface; it didn't. The LaCrosse just glided over the dips and muffled the gravel beneath the tires as if it were still on the near-perfect California country highways we'd been traveling on all day. If this isn't the quietest, smoothest car this side of a Lexus LS, I'd be surprised. No matter the surface, the car effortlessly gobbled away the miles without so much as a hint that this car was anything like the floaty, tipsy land yachts Buick used to make. Driving it back to back with an all-wheel-drive LaCrosse that isn't available with the active suspension further demonstrated how well Buick has worked its magic with its upgraded struts, as the all-wheel-drive LaCrosse's cosseting ride couldn't begin to match the other cars we sampled.
Another benefit of HiPer struts--and even the all-wheel drive model for that matter--was the lack of torque steer, the sensation of the steering wheel tugging under quick acceleration in front-wheel-drive-vehicles. Whether flooring it in sport mode or driving the LaCrosse normally, its transmission shifted seamlessly. The LaCrosse's composure couldn't be shaken; we can't imagine the standard-suspension front-drive car fare as well. If you're shopping for a LaCrosse, we can't recommend getting the HiPer strut suspension enough, as it transforms this sedan into a first-class vessel of serenity. Throughout the day, we saw an average of 20-21 mpg with the 304-horsepower V-6 models. We assume the eAssist mild hybrid would have done better, but there were none on-hand for us to sample.
SummaryIt seems like every time we come back from one of these press junkets, the latest full-size sedan inevitably becomes the best in our minds. It has happened with the Cadillac XTS, Hyundai Azera, Chevrolet Impala, and Kia Cadenza, each of which should be on your full-size sedan shopping list. We hate to do this to you, but we're going to ask you to inconvenience yourself one more time and stop by your Buick dealership because the 2014 LaCrosse might just be the next practitioner of one-upmanship.
While the LaCrosse carries the same flaws as its predecessor that no refresh could eliminate--like its high trunklid that compromises some rear visibility, and thick pillars all around--this really isn't the same car as the one that preceded it. It's not geriatric. You don't sink into ultra-plush amorphous seats; you sit on firm tufts that support every inch of your backside. There's more gadgetry in the car than even the biggest technophile may ever know what to do with, but you don't have to be that follow CNET religiously to figure out how to use it. The LaCrosse doesn't make you feel seasick on long journeys, wading down the road; it just coddles you with a sumptuous ride, which Buick's engineers say is hardly changed from the notoriously comfort-minded Chinese version--Buick's biggest and most important market.
All told, Buick took what was already a solid offering in the segment and tweaked everything about it. It may be presumptuous to call it the best car in its class at this point, but we can tell you that it makes the more expensive Cadillac XTS seem practically irrelevant. And if you're looking for the most comfortable car under $50,000 and want a new-car warranty with it, you're going to be hard-pressed to do any better than the 2014 Buick LaCrosse.