Review: 2011 Buick LaCrosse CXL 4 Cylinder

By Charles Krome

When the Buick LaCrosse was redesigned for 2010, the car immediately jumped to the head of the class of near-premium, front-wheel-drive, full-size-ish semi-luxury sedans. Especially notable was the LaCrosse’s striking exterior, with its distinctive character line and aggressive proportions, and that seemed to say the car was destined to be more than just an American version of the Toyota Avalon or Hyundai Azera. Well, after spending a week in a 2011 LaCrosse CXL, courtesy of Buick, which also provided a free tank of gas, it’s now clear that the car has more than fulfilled that destiny.

The story still starts with the LaCrosse’s exterior design. The car shows the traditional long-hood/short-rear-deck appearance of a traditional sports car—accentuated by that side character line—as well as wheel arches that extend beyond the body of the car itself and a steeply raked front windshield, so the overall impact is surprisingly athletic. Yet at the same time, the refined light treatments and the way the rear glass gently slopes down to the trunk provide a fair amount of streamlined sophistication. It makes for a much more eye-catching silhouette than found on the Buick Regal or Verano, or most of the other mainstream sedans on the road today.

Of course, that being said, it’s time for Buick to drop the portholes from the LaCrosse’s hood. They stick out, both literally and figuratively, in a manner that takes away from the LaCrosse’s clean lines, and Buick traditionalists may recall the number of holes is supposed to reflect the number of cylinders in the car’s engine—which wasn’t the case on the I4-powered CXL I drove.

As for how well that 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder does its job, I’ve got mixed feelings. Despite relying on just 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque to haul around more than 4,000 lbs. worth of Buick, the engine does its job fairly well. This is no sport sedan, but acceleration was more than adequate, and because the car is so quiet, I often found myself zipping along some 5 to 10 mph faster than I would have otherwise expected. Fuel efficiency worked out to an overall 20 mpg or so, a mark I have to call impressive when I consider how long I let the car warm up during last week’s single-digit mornings; I also let the kids watch a half-hour video with the engine running so they could test out the rear-seat DVD system (with wireless headphones) while I took photos. On the other hand, the Ecotec didn’t always sound very happy under hard acceleration, something that was particularly noticeable given how well the Buick Quiet Tuning efforts were at reducing other unwanted noise.

The CXL also featured the GM Driver Shift Control setup for manual shifting of the LaCrosse’s six-speed automatic. This is a nice piece of engineering, and I like the fact that you actually move the gear shifter itself a bit to switch gears, but it didn’t really add to the driving experience—again, this is no sport sedan. However, the suspension was very nice, so it’s easy to believe the six-cylinder LaCrosse, especially when outfitted with the HiPer Strut system, can track the corners exceedingly well despite its size. Body roll was well-limited, the ride was firm but still absorbed much of what Detroit’s rough winter roads had to offer, and braking, particularly brake feel, was good.

The Buick’s interior was another notable strength. As I’ve mentioned before, GM designers use a sort of wrap-around effect in the cabin, in which the dashboard’s design elements, like its wood trim, curve into the front of the doors. It creates a welcoming environment that makes for a sharp contrast to the 90-degree angles in something like the Lincoln MKZ. “My” LaCrosse was loaded up with goodies, and all seemed to work as advertised: The Harman/Kardon 11-speaker sound system was excellent, that rear-seat entertainment package was duly entertaining and the touchscreen controls were forgiving of my sometimes inaccurate fingertips. The short story here is that I didn’t feel like I was missing much as compared to the MyFord Touch system I experienced recently.

There also were some interesting touches, like a narrow pass-through space from the cabin into the trunk, hidden behind the fold-down middle armrest in the rear seat, and the head-up display, which projects the vehicle’s speed, etc., on the front windshield. Frankly, I’m surprised more automakers don’t incorporate this as a way to help keep drivers’ eyes on the road.

There were a few nits to pick. Many of the little items that had to move freely in the interior—the vanity mirror covers on the windshield visors, the top of the storage compartment between the front seats, that rear-seat armrest—seemed a bit flimsy, and that really stood out considering the impressive materials found elsewhere. The wood trim on the steering wheel was like a block of ice most mornings; I’d prefer the whole wheel be wrapped in leather. There’s wasn’t much room around the pedals, either, so my feet and legs sometimes felt a little cramped.

But at the end of the day, this LaCrosse came absolutely chock-filled with premium options, yet still showed a sticker price of just $37,410, including $7,605 worth of aforementioned options and a $750 destination charge. In this segment, that makes the LaCrosse a relatively high-value proposition that should be on the consideration lists of any near-premium customers—and perhaps those of some out-and-out luxury buyers as well.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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  1. So, all this attention is lavished on the Buick Lacrosse when the Taurus is chided for being too heavy, too tall, too…much of a game changer for Ford, meaning all you road testers need to adjust your attitudes. The Taurus is now in the near luxury class, the bargain of the bunch, in fact. Rather than accept the goodness of a car that, fairly well equipped, starts at Accord prices, you rig the tests with a Taurus Limited with AWD and pronounce it “too slow,” particularly when compared to its FWD competition. Furthermore, why no go all the way and compare that nearly $40,000 Buick 4 to the Top Taurus, the SHO? Talk about bang for the buck…

  2. Everyone’s welcome to their opinions, of course, but I do want to make it clear that I usually don’t get to pick and choose which vehicles I receive from the automakers.

    Also, just to play devil’s advocate here, I think Ford is running a bit of a risk with making the Taurus a near-luxe entry … Not only does that step on Lincoln, but it also shuts out customers who prefer more basic transportation options. There’s a reason the old-school Chevrolet Impala outsold the Taurus by 3 to 1 last year, and it’s not just because of fleet sales.

  3. I agree that Ford should consider leaving out some of the luxury features of the Taurus (as well as the Fusion, Edge, Flex, and Expedition) to leave room for Lincoln, but it isn’t like you can’t buy a basic Taurus. A Taurus SE starts at about $26k, which is in the same ballpark as the Impala LS ($23k), Azera GLS ($25k), and Avalon XL ($28k). How widely available a basic Taurus is, I don’t know, but I do recall reading an article that stated Ford had underestimated the demand for the more well-equipped models.

  4. I sampled a LaCrosse with this powertrain last year, and was left thoroughly unimpressed. Shifts were slow and the car didn’t seem to produce enough power to motivate its sizable body. For whatever it’s worth, a Regal with the same engine doesn’t feel any better by the seat of one’s pants.

  5. I would agree the powertrain was the weakest part about this car, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t say it’s a deal-breaker.

  6. Charles,

    Thank you for such an interesting writeup of the four cylinder LaCrosse. I am curious what your opinion will be when you test drive the upcoming E Assist version of the four cylinder LaCrosse.

    Do you feel the vehicle’s acceleration will benefit in daily driving from the 15 extra hp and 79 lb/ft of torque even though it adds 65 lbs?

    I’m quite excited to hear that new E Assist LaCrosse gets an impressive 37 mpg with such a device.

    Do you think at some point in the near future you will be able to do a driver impression on the new E Assist LaCrosse for comparison?

    Thank you again for your insights on the new four cylinder LaCrosse. This has been quite informative.

    Jonathan Brown

  7. Thanks, Jonathan.

    As regards the LaCrosse with eAssist, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I get one.

    Now, regards the power increase, I’m no math expert, but if your numbers are right, eAssist makes for about a 1.6 percent increase in weight while delivering an 8.2 percent increase in horsepower and a 45.9 percent increase in torque.* And with that torque coming from the electric system, it will be available right away—off-the-line acceleration should be notably perkier.

    *Here’s my thinking: Buick has said that eAssist will be part of the base powertrain, which means the engine will be the current I4 that makes 182 hp/172 lb.-ft. of torque. Then, the curb weight of the LaCrosse CXL FWD is 4026 lbs.

    Now, I know Buick offers the LaCrosse CX as the entry model today, and the curb weight of that is 3829 lbs. But here’s a bold prediction: Buick will cut the CX model for 2012.

    The CX starts at $26,995, while the Regal’s base MSRP is $26,245. That’s way too close together. So, cutting the CX will make more room for the Regal.

    The CXL FWD, which starts at $29,555, will become the new base model. The higher MSRP here will also better help cover the cost of eAssist.

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