Tuesday, May 21, 2013
By SCOTT WASSER
The 2012 Buick LaCrosse appears to defy the laws of physics or the principles of automotive engineering ... or simply the common belief that it is impossible to produce a large, luxurious sedan that doesn't consume as much petroleum as a ballroom full of bodybuilders.
Buick’s LaCrosse is a roomy, midsize near-luxury sedan that delivers the fuel economy of a subcompact.
Although the stylish LaCrosse provides ample passenger room, cargo space is tight on models equipped with GM’s hybrid eAssist powertrain.
NUTS AND BOLTS
WHAT IS IT? 2012 Buick LaCrosse Premium I, a luxurious midsize that uses an electronic boost to get great fuel economy.
WHAT'S IT COST? LaCrosse is offered in seven trim levels with starting prices ranging from $31,045 to $39,180. Test car's starting price of $32,440 climbed to $38,175 with options and destination charge.
WHAT I LIKED BEST: Finding this much luxury, refinement and mileage in one vehicle.
WHAT I LIKED LEAST: eAssist eats up trunk space and hurts utility.
WHO'S IT FOR? Anyone who likes a premium midsize ride but hates paying for it at the pump.
IMPORTANT NUMBERS: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, direct-injection inline 4-cylinder. Engine with variable valve timing produces 182 hp, 172 lbs-ft of torque. 11kw electric motor adds up to 15 horsepower, 79 lbs-ft of torque. 6-speed automatic. 111.7-inch wheelbase. 4,026-lb curb weight. 25 city/36 highway mpg (EPA). 10.9 cubic ft. trunk. 0-60 in 8.8 seconds (stopwatch).
The last vehicle this large and luxurious that covered more miles on less fuel may have been a Wells Fargo stagecoach.
The LaCrosse, which became the vanguard for Buick's new direction when it was redesigned for the 2010 model year, has plenty else going for it. But in a class filled with midsize winners such as Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord, its most distinguishing feature is its ability to get better mileage than a Volkswagen Beetle -- 25 city/36 highway mpg, according to the EPA.
That's assuming the LaCrosse is equipped with what Buick calls "eAssist," a gas/electric hybrid drive. General Motors describes it as a "light electrification" system because unlike most gas/electric hybrid cars, the LaCrosse can't be propelled by electricity alone.
Instead, eAssist's small electric motor/generator -- which replaces a conventional starter motor and alternator -- gives the LaCrosse's 2.4-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine a little extra oomph when driving conditions call for it.
For example, the gasoline engine's 182 horsepower and 172 pounds-feet of torque alone might be more than adequate when the 4,000-pound LaCrosse is pulling out of a driveway or ambling along at 70 mph on the highway.
But during more demanding situations, such as highway merging or passing, the eAssist's electric motor delivers (through a drive belt) up to 15 additional horsepower and 79 pounds-feet of torque to the LaCrosse's front-wheel drive.
Think of it as the automotive equivalent of Popeye's spinach... or as the "power-ups" found in countless video games, if you're too young to remember Popeye.
The motor/generator also enables the gasoline engine to shut down when the LaCrosse isn't moving and to reduce fuel delivery when it's decelerating. Generally, I could tell when the motor/generator was restarting or reinvigorating the engine, but the shudder is very mild and unobtrusive.
Buyers who want more power and don't mind 17 city/27 highway mpg, can opt for the 303-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 that is available or standard on six of seven LaCrosse trim levels.
Although eAssist, which is standard on all four-cylinder 2012 LaCrosse models, accounts for most of the car's 25-percent increase in fuel economy, there are other contributing factors:
Last year's tires were replaced by low-rolling-resistance rubber.
A new six-speed transmission reportedly reduces friction loss.
New underbody panels and electronically controlled shutters in the front air vents improve aerodynamics.
A smaller fuel tank (15.7 gallons vs. last year's 18.4) decreases weight.
A lower final gear ratio enables the engine to run at lower rpms on the highway.
Some of those changes would typically have an adverse effect on performance. For example, a smaller fuel tank reduces cruising range and lower final gear ratios can translate to more sluggish acceleration. But the extra power and fuel economy delivered by eAssist more than compensates, according to GM.
After driving a 2012 LaCrosse for a week, I can't argue. The car averaged nearly 33 mpg in mostly highway driving, enabling it to go more than 500 miles between gas station visits.
Other cars get that kind of mileage, but they're often "slug-muffins." Not so for the LaCrosse, which I thought was powered by a six-cylinder until I got around to checking the specs. The LaCrosse is no missile, but I never felt deprived when accelerating from a stoplight or merging and passing on the highway.
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