Driving Impressions

By March 13, 2010

We had a pleasant summer day to drive a variety of LaCrosse models in and around the Ann Arbor, Michigan area, extending out to the country roads around Plymouth. These included plenty of two-lane backcountry roads, a smattering of stop-and-go urban congestion, and some interstate highway cruising thrown in.

We spent most of our time in a fully equipped LaCrosse CXS that, with options, pushed the sticker price north of $39,000. That gave us a chance to experience the 3.6-liter V6 and the sporty touring package, plus technology features like the heads up display, navigation system and heated and cooled leather seats.

We also had an hour in a well-optioned CXL with the 3.0-liter V6, and did not discern all that much difference in power or performance. Both powertrains allow for easy loafing about, even under 2000 rpm, and both quickly rev to 7000 rpm when the throttle is pinned to the floor. When passing, we saw the automatic transmission shift directly from 2000 rpm to 5000 rpm, on the way to 7000 rpm, accelerating smoothly. That meant we were exposed to oncoming traffic for a minimum amount of time, regardless of which V6 we drove. Both engines do need to rev to make peak power, seeming to catch fire at 4500 rpm. Both engines make a pleasantly balanced, muted mechanical whir when revved, but otherwise run very quietly.

The 3.0-liter V6 is rated at 255 hp and 252 lb-ft torque. The 3.6-liter V6 is rated at 280 hp and 259 lb-ft torque. Those numbers suggest the main power benefit of the 3.6-liter engine comes when revving at higher rpm. Both engines get an EPA-estimated 17/27 mpg.

Engine choices might not be all that crucial, however, because the six-speed transmission is actually the key component. The six-speed transmission replaces the dated four-speed automatic of the previous generation. It's intelligent, smooth shifting, and it makes the engines more responsive.

Driven as an automatic, the transmission is a gem. If you prefer to select a gear on your own, it will allow manual shifts. We were impressed with the transmission. We found using the sport mode manual is hampered by the location of the shifter, which is relatively far back in the center console. It was hard on our wrist to maintain grip on the shifter, which tells us the LaCrosse wasn't really designed for the guy who has to shift and downshift every gear on his own. Our preference was to put it in Drive and let the automatic take its cues from our throttle input.

Steering is surprisingly neutral, especially considering the front-wheel-drive layout, and pleasingly quick and precise. There are only 2.75 turns, lock-to-lock, and yet the car never feels twitchy on the road. The electronically controlled steering system has variable assist programming, so it gave us a firm, controlled feeling at speed and very light effort when parking.

We saw no apparent torque steer in normal driving, just a strong return-to-center tendency. In hard cornering at full throttle we saw the steering pull slightly to the left. In short, the car handles very well.

The CXS we drove had the touring package and we found that when driven hard, it gripped the road well and felt solid and controlled. The touring package includes the best handling components, such as H-arm rear suspension, 19-inch wheels, and continuously variable real-time damping. We're not sure if every LaCrosse would handle as well, but we can say with this equipment, a very favorable ride/handling tradeoff has been achieved. Relaxed driving on choppy roads reveals a high degree of cabin isolation from the pavement. It's the kind of ride quality intended to provide superior comfort on long, straight roads that run between endless cornfields, or at higher speeds on the interstate. We could hear tire deflection as we passed over cracked tarmac, but we did not feel anything annoying. The driving was quiet, smooth and relaxed, and yet, the car does not float or wander. The chassis is still connected with the road, conveying a definite sense of control and agility.

The brakes are impressive both in terms of pedal effort and overall feel. The system uses 12.6 inch front discs and 12.4 inch read discs, with aluminum calipers on all four corners. They offer gentle stopping at the very top of the pedal, making it possible to bleed in braking gently, for smooth, progressive stops. As we look back on GM braking systems of the past, which had good stopping power but poor pedal feel, we are all the more satisfied with this improvement. Every car should have brakes this good.

There has been a focused effort at noise control in the new LaCrosse, with mostly excellent results. Buick engineers have clearly studied sources of noise, then systematically damped, cancelled, or isolated those sources using materials like acoustic glass, liquid and fabric sound deadeners, engineered seals and tuned mounting systems. The car runs quietly to begin with, given the gentle nature of the V6 engines and tall overall gearing that permits low-rpm operation. But these sound control efforts have definitely bourn fruit, as the LaCrosse now has a sound level measured at a quiet 35.5 decibels at 70 mph. We're not sure how that compares with the competition, which is also achieving remarkable noise suppression, but we can tell you that during our drive time, the loudest noise in the cabin came from the air conditioning fan.