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Subtly Sexy, Satisfyingly Solid

2005 Buick LaCrosse CXS

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page G01

Of all the current mid-size family sedans, many of them indistinguishable in exterior design and equally bland in performance, I'd really rather have the 2005 Buick LaCrosse CXS.

It is different.

2005 Buick LaCrosse

Nuts & Bolts

Caution: Hard-charging drivers should look elsewhere. The Buick LaCrosse is a fine car, but it's nobody's BMW. Nor is it meant to be. It adheres to Buick's mission to provide a quiet, supremely comfortable, safe, pleasurable ride.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all three categories, assuming that you bring the right attitude to its steering wheel. This is the perfect Sunday driver that also works remarkably well as a daily commuter.

Head-turning quotient: A classic beauty -- attractive in the manner of movie stars who age well. They never stop looking good and never stop being sexy.

Body style/layout: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive sedan with traditional notchback trunk.

Engines/transmission: The CX and CXL are equipped with a reworked version of GM's venerable 200-horsepower, 3.8-liter Series III V-6. It's been engineered to run more quietly. The CXS gets the more sophisticated 240-horsepower (at 6,000 revolutions per minute) 3.6-liter V-6 VVT (variable valve timing). It develops 225 foot-pounds of torque at 2,000 rpm. Both engines are mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.

Cargo and fuel capacities: All LaCrosse models have seating for six people available. Front bucket seats are standard. Cargo capacity is 16 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 17 gallons of gasoline. Regular unleaded is recommended for all three models.

Mileage: I averaged 26 miles per gallon on the highway in the tested CXS.

Safety: Side-curtain air bags are optional. Buy them ($395). Generally, the CXS is well equipped with standard features in this department.

Price: Base price on the Buick LaCrosse CXS is $28,335. Base dealer's invoice price is $25,927. Price as tested is $33,650, including $4,655 in options and a $660 destination charge. Dealer's price with options and transportation charge is $32,736. Prices sourced from Buick, Edmunds.com, KBB.com and Cars.com., an affiliate of The Washington Post.

Purse-strings note: Watch those options. Compare with Chrysler 300, Ford Five Hundred, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata.

I have no doubts about the LaCrosse's durability, although I've driven it only a few hundred miles at this writing. Quality announces itself early.

The materials chosen and the care of their assembly speak to the attention and love -- or lack thereof -- involved in a car's creation. They speak well of the LaCrosse CXS.

But that testimony alone would not be enough to declare the front-wheel-drive LaCrosse CXS, or its sibling CX and CXL models, winners. Nearly all cars competing in the brutal market for mid-size family sedans, including models from South Korean auto manufacturers Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp., have excellent build quality. It is, as so many auto industry executives have said, "the price of admission."

But so many of those cars in the sub-$30,000 category lack moxie, swagger, funk. They are afraid of sensuality, incompetent in the matter of flirtation, joyless in their mission of carrying people and cargo from one place to another. In short, they are emotional ciphers. The Buick LaCrosse CXS isn't.

Instead, it is a delightful rendition of the automobile as functional art, much in the manner of most things Jaguar, but with a welcome bit of Detroit strut thrown into the mix.

The LaCrosse CXS will not please everyone, and that is a good thing. The only thing Buick ever got by trying to please everyone was guaranteed mediocrity.

The LaCrosse CXS, instead, is aimed at a specific psychodynamic group. I call them The Cruisers. They are people, men and women, who love driving; but they have neither longing for, nor dreams of, finishing first in a Formula One race. They are beyond that, having already succeeded at arguably more difficult tasks -- rearing children, keeping a family together, running a small business, or simply having lived long enough to appreciate that there is more to life than going fast.

If you think that means the LaCrosse CXS is for people who are too tired for dance or romance, you are missing the point. The car is equipped with General Motors Corp.'s new 3.6-liter V-6 engine, which employs electronic variable valve timing and lift controls to help produce a maximum 240 horsepower with a minimum fuel penalty.

A structurally more rigid body mated to a largely revised suspension system -- 80 percent redesigned and recalibrated front and rear -- helps to ensure that the Lacrosse CXS handles better than any Buick that has gone before it, and that it is globally competitive with and better than some similarly priced rivals in the handling category. It can boogie.

But what I like most is the Lacrosse's elegantly understated attitude. My tension level goes down when I'm behind its wheel. My road passion rises, but my blood pressure drops. I'm out having a good time with a beautiful friend -- curvaceous, naturally seductive, wonderfully refined. But we have nothing to prove to each other, no need to show off or perform. We're taking a cruise, not a test.

This easy loving occurs within the context of safety. Excitement is one thing. But the afterglow dims in the wake of mistakes. The LaCrosse CXS comes with enough standard protection to help you survive those errors, and maybe avoid them in the first place.

Within its tight, rigid body is a dual-purpose aluminum engine cradle. It isolates much of the engine's noise from the passenger cabin. But in a frontal or frontal-offset crash, the cradle also lowers the engine and prevents its potentially deadly intrusion into the cabin.

Standard dual-stage front air bags are designed to deploy based on crash speed -- inflating faster in higher-speed hits than they do in lower-speed collisions. GM's OnStar safety communications system, which automatically summons emergency aid when the car's air bags inflate, is also standard. Ditto four-wheel disc brakes, standard on all LaCrosse models. But anti-lock brakes are optional on the CX and CXL; they're standard on the tested CXS.

The CXS also uses GM's Level II stability control system as standard equipment. It helps mitigate driver errors that can lead to loss of steering control, and to possible rollovers. GM's more sophisticated StabiliTrak (Level III) stability control system is optional on the LaCrosse CXS. Side-curtain air bags, designed to protect heads and chests in side-impact collisions, are also optional.

Buy the safety options, even if that means sacrificing optional goodies such as a premium sound system. Besides, the LaCrosse CXS looks and feels so good it makes its own music on the road.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company