2006 Buick Lucerne Review

Buick's new full-size sedan, the Lucerne, tackles one of the automaker's key challenges: capturing younger buyers while simultaneously appealing to its core consumers — a group that's been around an average of 65 years. That's a tough task, but one made easier with the Lucerne's composed ride, capable automatic transmission and high-quality interior materials.

There's much to like about the Lucerne's highway manners. The predominant theme during a three-hour nonstop trip from Chicago to Kalamazoo, Mich., was comfortable, low-fatigue driving. The Lucerne CXS' perforated leather seats no doubt contribute to the car's long-haul capabilities, combining surprising softness with support. The front seats have enough side bolstering to hold occupants firmly in place during quick corners, though large-frame drivers might find the bolstering too aggressive. The Lucerne can be optionally equipped with a 40/20/40-split front bench seat for six-person seating.

The full-size Lucerne's standard engine is General Motors' timeless 3.8-liter V-6, but CXL V8 and CXS models feature GM's Northstar 4.6-liter V-8 engine, which has powered Cadillacs for years. Not since the 1996 Roadmaster sedan has a V-8 been available in a Buick car. Neither the Hyundai Azera, Mercury Montego nor Toyota Avalon — three of the Lucerne's key competitors — currently have a V-8 engine option, though the Azera's 3.8-liter V-6 and the Avalon's 3.5-liter V-6 produce nearly the same horsepower with better fuel economy.

Though it doesn't provide the kind of low-rpm torque typically associated with eight-cylinder engines, the Northstar V-8 hits its stride as the revs rise, and it belts out a pleasing roar when pushed hard. The engine drives a four-speed automatic transmission that delivers firm, quick downshifts with a prod of the accelerator pedal. Never once did the transmission make a clumsy or harsh gear change, which goes to show you don't necessarily need six or seven speeds to have a capable automatic.

Automakers know that full-size car buyers are captivated by oversized trunks. (Why else would Ford boast that its five-person Five Hundred, a Montego sibling, can hold up to eight golf bags?) The Lucerne's trunk measures 17 cubic feet — larger than those in the Chrysler 300 and Avalon but smaller than the Five Hundred's 21-cubic-foot black hole. When released, the Lucerne's trunklid swings all the way up on its own. Even though golf god Tiger Woods is Buick's pitchman, the automaker is mum on the Lucerne's golf-bag-carrying capabilities.

The Lucerne, which shares its platform with Cadillac's DTS, measures approximately 17 feet long and has a curb weight of slightly more than two tons in CXS guise. Despite its size, the suspension manages to keep body roll to a minimum without sacrificing ride quality. This contrasts with Toyota's stiffly suspended Avalon Touring, where limited body roll comes at the expense of ride comfort. Keep in mind these impressions apply to the top-of-the-line CXS, which comes standard with GM's Magnetic Ride Control adaptive suspension system.

Higher trim levels have a variable-assist rack-and-pinion steering system; light steering effort is the norm when driving in town, but the wheel firms up as your speed increases. In all situations, though, the steering is precise. The Lucerne's 42.2-foot turning circle (44 feet with 18-inch wheels and tires), however, is unacceptably large and hinders its parking lot moves. The Montego's turning diameter, in contrast, measures slightly less than 40 feet, while the Avalon's is about 37 feet.

While forward visibility is great, the small back window restricts rear views. If you're looking for some help backing up, the optional Driver Confidence Package includes a rear parking assist system that features LEDs behind the rear seats that light up when you approach an obstacle behind the car. It's much less revealing than a rearview camera system, but it's also less expensive. The system's LEDs and warning tones do nothing to compensate for the thick, visibility-limiting A- and B-pillars.

Buick has done a commendable job with the Lucerne's interior styling. Some may ridicule the dashboard layout for being simplistic, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who'd replace the straightforward climate control and audio system buttons with an integrated control system like Audi's onerous Multi Media Interface. My CXS test car's soft-to-the-touch, tan-colored dash gives the cabin a warm feel. Its woodgrain inserts — though simulated — look believable, and the car's knobs, buttons and turn-signal stalk have a high-quality feel. Front-seat headroom is exemplary, but the optional sunroof likely diminishes it.

The instrument cluster features three circular gauges reminiscent of those in the 1985 LeSabre Estate Wagon. The instruments feature a white-on-navy color scheme and green backlighting for night driving. Though this setup was clearly visible at night, the color combination wasn't as successful during the day. CXS models have turn-signal lights in the side mirrors, but their brightness was a little distracting at night.

Other downsides include a manual-tilt steering wheel instead of a tilt/telescope wheel, shallow front door pockets, a small glovebox, front-seat head restraints that are too far away from an occupant's head for optimal whiplash protection, and a dashboard design that encroaches on the front passenger's space instead of falling away from the occupant.

Backseat passengers enjoy substantial legroom and a comfortable backrest angle in the outboard seats, but the two fixed head restraints are too low for adults. For 6-foot-1-inch passengers, headroom is limited and diminishes even more in the center position, which has a hard backrest and minimal legroom. Unlike the 300, Azera and Montego, which feature standard fold-flat rear seats, the Lucerne only has a pass-thru to the trunk located behind the flip-down center armrest. The Toyota Avalon also has only a pass-thru, but its rear bench seat boasts standard reclining backrests.

Six airbags, including side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags, are standard. The passenger-side front airbag can deploy in one of two sizes based on sensor readings at point of impact for customized protection. Lucernes also have standard all-disc antilock brakes and traction control, but GM's StabiliTrak electronic stability system is standard only on the CXS (it's a $495 option on the CXL V8). Safety-conscious parents and grandparents will appreciate that LATCH child-safety seat upper and lower anchors are included in all rear seating positions; many competing vehicles offer only two pairs of the lower anchors, in the outboard positions.

The fact that the Lucerne managed to impress me — someone decades younger than the average Buick buyer — is a good sign for GM. The question remains: Despite its virtues, will the Lucerne, with its forgettable face, even register with my style-conscious peers when there are striking alternatives like the Chrysler 300 on the road? It doesn't seem likely, and that's a big problem for a brand that could use some younger showroom floor traffic.

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