2004 Buick Rainier Review

The 2004 Buick Rainier leaves little doubt that an automaker can create two different vehicles with different characters from one platform.

That's good news, considering all the automakers have mapped strategies to expand their lineups more economically by getting as many different vehicles as possible off a couple of platforms.

There were times when the automakers, with General Motors the leading culprit, simply chose badge engineering, which meant Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile vehicles differed only by the shape of the grille and the size of the window sticker.

But we digress.

Rainier (Ray-near, not rainy-er) shares the same platform with the midsize Chevrolet TrailBlazer sport-utility vehicle. Yet in keeping with the Buick image, it's smoother, quieter and peppier than the Chevy.

"Rainier isn't a badge job. It's not a Buick TrailBlazer," insists Tom Wallace, vehicle line executive for midsize trucks at General Motors.

No argument here.

The reason for Rainier's being is twofold: One to attract younger buyers into Buick showrooms because the Buick car lineup hasn't done that very well; the other is to give Buick dealers another sport-utility (with Rendezvous) to have sufficient product to tide them over until the car lineup is redone to attract younger buyers, starting with the '05 LaCrosse successor to the Regal.

Rendezvous comes with three rows of seats to cater more to families who need the space to put the kids. Average buyer age is 50.

Rainier comes with two rows of seats to cater to empty-nesters who may be more apt to tow a boat to the lake than haul the kids to the soccer field. Average buyer age is 55.

Hmm. How can Rainier cater to younger buyers when the average age is 55? Easy, since the average age of Buick car buyers is roughly 65.

But, again we digress.

Rainier is based on the regular-length TrailBlazer that offers two rows of seats, yet it's suspension has been tuned (independent front/air suspension with automatic load leveling rear) to deliver more luxury sedan-like ride.

So it's smooth.

And the windshield and side glass feature an acoustic laminate on the outside and a soft polycarbon lining inside to provide a barrier between occupants and road noise that filters into the cabin.

So it's quiet.

And Rainier is the only regular-length midsize GM sport-ute to offer a V-8, a 5.3-liter that develops 290 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque and is rated at 6,700 pounds towing capacity with two-wheel-drive, 6,500 pounds with all-wheel-drive.

That means Rainier can easily tow the boat to the lake, a feature potential Buick buyers have been asking for.

But when not needing to tow, simply step on the pedal and you scoot from the light or up that steep incline without the V-8 needing to pause for a gulp of energy. Very alert.

So it's peppier, too, even more so than the TrailBlazer and its 4.2-liter, 270-h.p. inline 6.

But you pay at the pump, with the V-8 rated at only 15 m.p.g. city/18 m.p.g. highway.

Also notable are easy to see and use controls in a very user-friendly cabin and a small covered compartment in the floor of the cargo hold to hide items.

But since Rainier went on sale for '04, there have been some gripes. One is that it offers only two rows of seats when the rage is a third row that folds flat into the floor.

Buick responds that if you want three rows, check out the Rendezvous or wait until the '05 model year and check out the Terraza crossover sport van that, like Rendezvous, will offer three rows of seats and, like Rainier, will offer all-wheel-drive.

Those who gripe about three rows, however, should spend 180 miles in the third-row seat of an Acura MDX.

But we digress.

Another gripe is that Rainier offers two-wheel or all-wheel-drive, the latter providing all-season motoring. But there's no AWD low for off-road adventuring. Valid argument for the minority of folks who take a $40,000 vehicle off-road.

Yet another gripe is that while the suspension is tuned to all but eliminate bumps or bruises to cabin occupants from imperfections in the pavement, at times you experience a noticeable body wiggle when it comes to handling.

We experienced the reaction a couple of times when making quick, sharp steering-wheel movements and the body wanted to dance awhile before settling back on a level plane.

And though the V-8 is potent, it has quite a thirst for fuel. Some suggest a 5-speed automatic with overdrive might deliver better mileage than the standard 4-speed automatic with overdrive. Only the addition of a 5-speed automatic would answer that question.

Rainier is available in 2WD or AWD in CXL or CXL Plus version. We tested the CXL Plus with AWD.

Base price is $38,295.

Standard equipment includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes (two-wheel-drive units come with ABS and traction control as standard); power windows, locks and mirrors (heated with redundant turn signals below the glass to warn those behind you are turning); and power seats with memory control.

Also, dual-zone climate control, XM satellite radio (plus $9.95 per month subscription fee); tilt steering with radio controls; AM/FM Bose audio system with six-disc CD player; rear-seat audio controls; leather seats (perforated to breathe and avoid heat build-up and at the same time offering excellent lateral support); 17-inch, all-season radial tires; split/folding rear seats; remote keyless entry; OnStar emergency communication system; and tilt wheel with radio controls and cruise control.

If you opt for the V-8, add $1,500--and set aside a few more dollars for fuel. Other options worth considering are the DVD entertainment system at $1,435, side-impact air bags at $350, heated front seats at $275 that have controls to heat the back or the bottom or both and power adjustable brake/gas pedals at $150.

Too bad the seats don't cool as well as heat. Perhaps an equipment upgrade soon?

The DVD system is almost essential if you travel with kids and want to avoid the constant "are we there yet" harangue.

While Buick says Rainier buyers typically don't have young kids--the reason they want two rows of seats--have to suspect more than a few buyers are grandparents who will transport the grandkids on occasion. A DVD player is a powerful sedative for tykes or teens--and the XM satellite radio tuned to the comedy channel (151) does the same for adults, providing you avoid the X-rated comedy channel (150).

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