First drive: 2017 Buick LaCrosse [Review]

Buick\'s big sedan is back with a little more attitude.

Youth. Excitement. Dynamics. Paddle shifters. "That's not your grandpa." Sound familiar?

Say what you will about Buick's recent marketing blitz, but it's hard to argue that its products haven't come around. Mazda it is not, but the Buicks you buy today are nothing like those of the "old GM" era. Remember, when Chevrolet was selling a Malibu so nondescript that its own advertising campaign took cracks at it just a few years later, Buick was still more boring than that.

We'll admit then that when it comes to Buicks, the bar for excitement isn't set all that high. One could argue perhaps that this makes it even more difficult for these cars to really shine. If everything beats expectations, perhaps it's time to raise them?

So, when Buick's product team invited us to drive the 2017 LaCrosse in Portland, Oregon, we left our preconceptions at the door. "Wow us," we challenged them. Read on to find out how they did.

Modern DNAThe 2017 Buick LaCrosse is genuinely new. It's the first vehicle under the entire GM umbrella to ride on the company's new P2XX large-car platform. For those who aren't versed in GM chassis nomenclature, that is the long-wheelbase variant of E2XX, which debuted under the new Malibu. It's a descendant of the Epsilon II architecture, which isn't exactly archaic. The Impala (a surprisingly good car in its own right) debuted on this chassis for 2014, which is pretty much yesterday in automotive industry years.

What does all that mean? Basically, you take all the great things about GM's Epsilon II architecture (advanced independent suspension design, excellent cabin NVH, etc.) and combine it with technologies and materials intended to eliminate weight. In other words: same great taste, less filling.

Buick LaCrosse Chief Engineer Jeff Yanssens put it a different way, but kept somewhat to our food theme. In his words, the 2017 Buick LaCrosse is a Sears Kenmore fridge lighter than the car it replaces.

That translates to roughly 300lbs if, like most normal human beings, you spend more time opening refrigerators than moving them. Buick accomplished this with more extensive use of high-strength steel and by using lower-mass materials for noise isolation. Having a V6 as the standard engine (rather than a four-cylinder) gave them a head start on NVH. We'll touch on that a bit more later.

Equally Modern PowertrainBuick's standard (and only) engine for the 2017 LaCrosse is a 3.6L, direct-injected V6. It produces 310 horsepower at 6,800 RPM and 282lb-ft of torque at 5,200 RPM. It's paired to a traditional eight-speed torque converter automatic with wheel-mounted shift paddles. It can be had in either front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive variants. The latter is available only on the range-topping Premium trim.

We mentioned before that starting with a V6 gave Buick's engineers a leg up in certain aspects of the LaCrosse's development. One of those was auto stop/start technology. The large engine starts and stops more smoothly than most four-cylinders, making it easier to deliver a seamless start-up when pulling away from a stop. Buick's engineers are so confident in its unobtrusiveness, in fact, that auto stop/start cannot be disabled in the 2017 LaCrosse.

Refined DynamicsLet's play a quick game of word association. When we say "Buick," what do you think of? Probably not "performance." Sure, the brand has built a smattering of quick and fun cars, but those are the exception rather than the rule.

Buick's product planners aren't so blinded by their own ad campaigns that they expect to be producing world-class sport sedans, but they do want you to associate the brand with competent road manners and yes, perhaps, just a little bit of fun.

So how did they go about accomplishing that without giving up the LaCrosse's core mission of transporting its occupants from point A to point B in style and comfort? It's all in the chassis.

You can have your LaCrosse tuned one of two ways (technically three, but bear with us). The luxury option is a set of 18" wheels and a conventional front strut suspension along with fixed-rate dampers. The sportier option gives you a set of 20" wheels, a more aggressive tire compound and GM's HiPer Strut front suspension with active dampers (not to be confused with MagneRide).

20" wheel vehicles also get a sport mode toggle, which cranks up the steering effort (but not the ratio) and alters the transmission shift programming to hold lower gears longer.

Why did we say before there are technically three options? Well, when you add all-wheel-drive to the LaCrosse, that muddies the waters a bit. HiPer Strut, like Ford's RevoKnuckle, is designed specifically to mitigate torque steer. That's a problem you might encounter when hustling a front-wheel-drive car with a 310-horsepower V6. When you step up to all-wheel-drive, that's no longer a priority.

But fear not: You can still get the active dampers, the bigger wheels, sport mode and the stickier tires if you opt to power all four wheels. And, no matter which wheel and tire package you choose, every LaCrosse comes with a sophisticated five-link independent rear suspension.

Concept-Inspired LooksWe'd be lying if we said we weren't immediately impressed by the 2017 Buick LaCrosse's new looks. Its Avenir-inspired waterfall grille wears the classic tri-shield insignia with pride (as well it should). For a car this large (197.5 inches nose-to-tail), it looks small and sleek at first glance.

The new LaCrosse sports a few other signature exterior details too, including the omnipresent fender portholes and a pronounced rear fender crease that fades elegantly into the c-pillar.

Inside, you'll find what we'd consider a classic, organic Buick cabin with some elegant modern touches. The infotainment screen sits unshielded on top of the center stack above just a handful of audio and HVAC controls--very clean. Below those you'll find one of the most radical departures from the norm that you will see in this cabin.

Buick's new gear selector is an interesting touch, to say the least. Interesting and unexpected. It's not difficult to grok, and Buick's product folks went to great lengths to emphasize how difficult it is to confuse any of the options it presents. Indeed, it would be impossible to confuse "drive" and "reverse." Even if you do, the cluster will light up with warnings if you misbehave.

Composed and ComfortableThe real beauty of the LaCrosse is that you get to choose your own adventure. Buy it with 18-inch wheels and you get a quiet cruiser that can hustle a bit without getting too out of sorts. Buy it with the 20" wheel package and enjoy the smug satisfaction of being able to keep pace with a lot of supposedly hotter cars.

The real gem here is that rear suspension. It's practically infallible. Even without all the gee-whiz trickery of the active damper setup, the rear end of the new LaCrosse always feels like it's exactly where you want it to be. Go a little hot into a corner and it'll still find that magical set. Your passengers will love how smoothly it transitions and how comfortably it rides, too. Win-win.

No matter how you spec it, the 2017 Buick LaCrosse takes a very specific approach to driving dynamics. This isn't a car you grab by the scruff and toss around. If you want a GM sedan for that, buy a Chevrolet SS. Speed sneaks up on you in the LaCrosse. It's the look-down-and-you're-doing-80 kind of speed, not the "hey, watch this!" kind.

We're pleased to report that we never found ourselves frustrated with our inability to disable the auto stop-start. It just works, and very unobtrusively. It's a nice bonus selling point to that excellent V6, you know, in case you needed another excuse to buy a car without a four-cylinder engine.

Leftlane's bottom lineWe went in expecting a fancier Impala with a higher price tag, but what we found was a premium car that deserves to be respected in its own right. The large sedan segment may not be on fire these days, but the 2017 Buick LaCrosse is plenty hot.

2017 Buick LaCrosse Preferred base price, $36,065; as-tested, $36,990Destination, $9252017 Buick LaCrosse Essence base price, $38,665; as-tested, $41,21520-inch wheel package, $1,625; Destination, $925

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