Finally, there's a Buick LaCrosse sedan that puts many of today's most topical fuel economy features into its base model, at no extra charge.
The new, 2012 Buick LaCrosse lineup has a base model with four-cylinder engine mated to an electric motor, with regenerative braking, wind-smoothing, aerodynamic touches and automatic engine stop at traffic lights, to deliver improved gasoline mileage. It's called the LaCrosse with eAssist.
A LaCrosse with only four cylinders isn't offered anymore, because who would want it?
The 2012 LaCrosse with eAssist delivers 6 more miles per gallon in both city and highway driving than a solitary four cylinder did in the 2011 LaCrosse, according to federal government estimates.
Specifically, the 2012 LaCrosse with eAssist is rated by the federal government at 25 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.
This compares with 19/30 mpg for the 2011 LaCrosse with four cylinders and no eAssist.
Better yet, real-world, combined city and highway driving, as opposed to government laboratory testing that provides those government fuel rankings, can net between 31 mpg and 33 mpg in the LaCrosse with eAssist, based on the test car and federal government posting of real driver data.
Plus, the 2012 LaCrosse earned five out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in government front crash testing and five out of five stars for front-seat occupant protection in a side crash. Rear-seat occupant protection in a side crash garnered four out of five stars.
To be sure, the LaCrosse, which is Buick's most expensive sedan in terms of base price, doesn't come cheaply.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $31,045 for a base, 2012 LaCrosse with front-wheel drive, 182-horsepower, Ecotec, four-cylinder engine mated to a 15-kilowatt electric motor and a six-speed automatic transmission. This base car doesn't have leather interior, navigation system, rearview camera, rear park assist, sunroof or power-adjustable front passenger seat.
Buyers must move up to models with options and packages to get these items. As an example, the test car had leather-trimmed seats, eight-way, power front passenger seat, navigation and rear park assist, among other items, and topped out at more than $37,000.
The 2012 LaCrosse is available with all-wheel drive, too. But it comes only with a 303-horsepower V-6. A V-6-powered, 2012 LaCrosse has a starting retail price of $35,745. The government fuel economy rating is 16/26 mpg.
LaCrosse competitors include the 2012 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, which has a 156-horsepower four cylinder mated to an electric motor. Starting retail price is $35,630, and the government fuel economy rating is 41/36 mpg. Because the MKZ Hybrid is tuned to tap its electric power frequently in slower-speed driving, its city mileage is higher than the highway mileage, where the engine is the primary power source.
Another competitor to the LaCrosse is the non-hybrid, 2012 Acura TL sedan, which starts at $35,705 and is rated at 20/29 mpg.
Introduced in the 2005 model year, the LaCrosse has come into its own as a second generation model with refined exterior and interior styling. The car is attractive, with a sloping roofline that, while pinching a few inches of headroom, gives the LaCrosse a graceful silhouette.
Categorized as a mid-size car, the 16.4-foot-long LaCrosse is at the larger end of mid-size. It's 3 inches longer than a 2012 Acura TL sedan and 7.2 inches longer than an MKZ Hybrid.
The inside of the LaCrosse feels comfortably roomy for four, with back-seat legroom measuring a surprising 40.5 inches compared with 36.7 inches in the MKZ and 36.2 inches in the back of the TL. Still, at 6.1 feet wide, the LaCrosse is narrower than the TL and three adults sit closely in the back seat.
The most memorable part of the test LaCrosse drive experience, though, was the smoothness of the automatic engine shutoff and automatic restart at stoplights, stop signs and sometimes, backed-up traffic.
Plenty of hybrid vehicles have auto-stop, but often there's a noticeable roughness — almost an uncomfortable feeling the car is about to stall — as the engine restarts.
There was none of this in the LaCrosse, where auto-stop is handled by a belt/alternator/starter system that quickly restarts the engine at 500 rpm, not a lower rpm that's typical of an ignition-keyed starter.
The 2.4-liter, double overhead cam engine also doesn't have the performance-snipping Atkinson cycle. Instead, it has performance-boosting direct gasoline injection.
Likewise, the transmission isn't a continuously variable type that's typical in hybrids and that sometimes draws criticism for engine drone sounds.
Instead, the LaCrosse has a regular six-speed that's specially tuned for responsive power, and the test car readily moved with verve and pep, especially in city traffic.
The only time engine sounds and acceleration consistently disappointed was in pedal-to-the-metal acceleration, when the four cylinder got buzzy and strained. Zero-to-60-mph is a lazy 9.2 seconds.
But in most driving situations, the LaCrosse moves with confidence, and the fuel mileage — 32.3 mpg in city/highway travel in the test car — can make a fair tradeoff when gasoline is nudging $4 a gallon.
Be aware that engineers repackaged the gas tank in the eAssist LaCrosse to a smaller-capacity 15.7 gallons than non-eAssist LaCrosses have.
Trunk space measures just 10.9 cubic feet in the LaCrosse with eAssist, because space is taken up by the lithium-ion battery pack. This is less cargo room than the 12.5 cubic feet in a 2012 Honda Civic sedan.
There has been one safety recall of the 2012 LaCrosse, and it required dealers to reprogram the electronic stability control system because it might malfunction and make it difficult for drivers to maintain control of the car.
And Consumer Reports says LaCrosse reliability is below average.