Friday, October 06, 2006

Is Lucerne Good Enough to Save Buick?

These are tough times to be in the car business, especially if you work for a company with a highly problematic image like Buick – once known as just a step below Cadillac but in recent years more often associated with age and fade.

Now along comes the Lucerne, a thoroughly contemporary full-size near-luxury sedan that shares its basic platform and powerplant with none other than Cadillac. Contemporary the Lucerne is but is it sufficiently compelling to restore luster to Buick’s position in the automotive universe?

Initial sales look promising, with nearly 68,000 Lucernes sold during the first eight months of 2006, its first year on the market. That’s more than either the Toyota Avalon or Lexus GS series, two rivals Buick marketers suggest are Lucerne targets, but substantially less than Chrysler’s 300 and only a couple thousand more than the Ford Five Hundred.

Still, the front-wheel-drive Lucerne is a vast improvement over the LeSabre and Park Avenue models it replaced. The platform, which is shared with Caddy’s DTS, is stiff and tight, which contributes greatly to the Lucerne’s unexpectedly agile dynamics.

The steering provides good feedback, the brakes are powerful and the stiffened suspension in my top-of-the-lineup CSX tester kept things mostly flat and properly pointed when the driving got frisky.

The Lucerne’s most attractive features are its locomotive-like 4.6 liter Northstar V-8, which is good for 275 horsepower, and a rather pleasant passenger cabin. The Northstar propels the Lucerne to sub-seven second 0-60 mph times, while keeping fuel economy within a reasonable range so long as one doesn’t get overly aggressive with the gas pedal.

Inside the Lucerne, everything is in the right place, looks sharp and not at all plasticky. The seats are quite comfortable and Buick makes it possible to load a Lucerne with more than enough features like Onstar and satellite navigation to make you forget you aren’t behind the wheel of a Caddy.

The exterior styling is less successful, at least in my view. The ventiports are a Buick icon but I doubt anybody not in a retirement home cares anymore. The overall look is clean and fresh, but not overly striking.

Competent, comfortable and contemporary the Lucerne certainly is, but will it attract a new generation of loyalists to the Buick standard? Count me unconvinced. But open to persuasion.