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Big like a Buick: Lucerne is stylish, impressive, comfortable - and large

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Way back when, Buick was known as the doctor's car. It had some luxury, but wasn't as conspicuous as a Cadillac.

The marketing message since then has wandered, if not become hopelessly lost. The image now is that of the "retiree's car."



Not good. Not even fair. There are plenty of Americans who could enjoy a smartly styled large car such as the Lucerne.

This front-wheel-drive sedan is a corporate recipe shared with the Cadillac DTS, but very different in styling and presence. And it has some big tire tracks to fill; the Lucerne replaces two Buicks: the LeSabre and the Park Avenue.

Lucerne's wheelbase is almost 2 inches longer than the Park Avenue, and while the body is more than 3 1/2 inches shorter, there's an impressive 41 inches of leg room in the back seat.

The low transmission tunnel hump in the back seat area and wide-opening doors make this big car more comfortable for three passengers than the top European models.

It is sold in three trim levels with two engine choices, a front bench or bucket seats, and one four-speed automatic transmission.

The CX and CXL come with the 197-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 and have starting prices of $25,990 and $27,990.

The CXS, at $34,990, adds the 275-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8, which can be added to the CXL as a $2,000 option.

The CXS test car had a window sticker of $38,135 and came with some useful options, such as the driver confidence package ($595) that included rear park assist, which alerts to objects or parked cars.

The base Lucerne V-6 is a low-tech price leader for those buyers still young enough to trade in their old LeSabres and not suffer sticker-shock palpitations.

The CXS has a different destination, but it also struggles with the old-tech four-speed automatic.

Something as brand new as this car deserves a gearbox to flaunt, something with six or seven speeds.

But I really can't complain about the four-speed. Shift points are smooth and well-timed and there is no hesitation to kick down a gear for passing power. There is no sport mode, however, and not much incentive to manually move the gated shifter just for the sport of it.

GM contends the four-speed is an efficient gearbox that helps stretch fuel economy. The V-8 rating of 17/25 miles per gallon compares to the V-6 at 19/28. That's not a big enough difference to miss out on the CXS extras, such as the 18-inch Bridgestone Turanza touring tires, larger front disc brakes or the ultrasmooth magnetic variable assist power steering.

The CXS also comes with Magnetic Ride Control, which GM says is a magic solution of "magnetically charged particles suspended in a synthetic fluid to continuously adjust the fluid's viscosity to varying road surfaces and driving characteristics."

It looks like Silly Putty in a hollow stabilizer bar that can instantly firm up or relax, to cancel the big roll and jounce after flying through a big dip in the road.

And then there's the everyday pleasure of the power. The CXS doesn't struggle to take its place on the highway.

The body is shapely enough, with "fast" angles to the windshield and rear glass. Trouble is, that fast windshield complicates cornering views at the base of the windshield pillars at the mirrors. It's not a flaw to kill the deal, but something to consider.

The interior is more of the much-improved quality seen in all GM's divisions.

The seats are full and supportive. The leather has satisfying texture and feel. And there is sufficient attention to panel alignment and refined materials to suit the image of an upscale car.

One shaky point was the console gear shift that was notchy, and the mounting plate moved as the lever was pulled into gear, almost as if not securely fastened. That might be business as usual in a Chevy, but Buick should do better.

However, expense wasn't spared to soundproof the cabin. Lucerne is a study in quieting unwanted noise, a GM effort known as Quiet Tuning.

It includes laminated (and thicker) glass in the side windows, noise-reducing outside rearview mirrors, lower-profile windshield wiper blades, composite wheel housing liners, and nylon baffles in the roof pillars, rocker panels and cross-car structures.

Even the V-8 gets silencers in the form of a soundproofed engine cover and pistons coated with a Grafal polymer, which is a different kind of fairy dust.

The multilayer steel laminate used for the dashboard/cowl stamping is nifty stuff. I've given it the thump test at demonstrations for the media. The standard steel panel has a tinny whang when whacked. The laminate panel is muffled, like something parents would like to use to panel a teenager's bedroom.

Tires for all models are top choices - 16-inch Bridgestone Insignia SE200 for the V-6; 17-inch Continental Touring Contact all-season on the CXL; and 18-inch Bridgestone Turanza EL400 for the V-8.

Several men and women mentioned during the test week that a big car like this one has definite appeal, but they're not quite ready for a Buick. Me neither, but Lucerne is a good example of what GM is doing right these days. The products - the vehicles - are good and so is the pricing. Now GM needs to get the marketing and advertising right to bring in the buyers.

SPECS BOX
2006 Buick Lucerne CXS

Body style: Full size 5- or 6-passenger, front-wheel-drive sedan

Engine: Aluminum 4.6 liter V-8 with DOHC and 32 valves

Horsepower: 275 at 5,600 rpm

Torque: 290 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

EPA fuel economy estimates: 17 mpg city, 25 highway

Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons; premium recommended, not required

DIMENSIONS
Trunk space: 17 cubic feet

Front head/leg/shoulder room: 39.5/42.5/58 inches

Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 37.6/41/57 inches

Length: 203.2 inches

Wheelbase: 115.6 inches

Curb weight: 4,013 pounds

FEATURES
Standard equipment: Remote keyless entry, dual-zone automatic air conditioning with particulate filter, 6-speaker CD audio system, cruise control, carpeted floor mats, leather-trimmed seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power locks-windows, power (folding) outside mirrors, solar-ray tinted glass, structureless wiper blades

Safety equipment: Front air bags, front and rear head curtain, Stabilitrak and brake assist

CHASSIS
Brakes: 4-wheel disc with power assist; vented front, solid rear

Steering: Magnetic variable-assist rack-and-pinion; turning circle, 44 feet, with 18-inch wheels

Suspension: 4-wheel independent with Magnetic Ride Control

Tires and wheels: P245/50R 18-inch Bridgestone Turanza EL400 on alloy wheels

PRICING
Base price: $35,990; price as tested, $38,135

Options on test car: 18-inch chrome wheels ($650); Driver confidence package ($595) adds remote vehicle starter system, theft-deterrent system and rear parking assist; heated and cooled front seats ($500); 6-disc CD and MP3 audio system upgrade ($300), and heated washer fluid ($100)

Warranty: 4-years/50,000 miles

The competition: Ford Crown Victoria, Toyota Avalon

Where assembled: Detroit (Hamtramck Assembly)

PLUSES: Big breathy V-8 Buick is just what the brand needs.

MINUSES: Notchy movement to the console shifter seems cheap, not solid; outswept windshield pillars can inhibit cornering views; Queen Mary-class 44-foot turning circle with 18-inch wheels.


Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at mark.maynard@uniontrib.com.


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