By Allen Penticoff
While I personally like small cars, I admit they are not for everyone. Nor do “economy” cars appeal widely, either. Thus, there is a large segment of the automotive market that caters to larger people, and those who find value in luxury.
You can spend well more than $100,000 for a luxury hybrid car if you so desire. However, this review will be of the reasonably affordable ($36,700, as tested) 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist, which Buick defines as “Full-size luxury. 36 mpg highway.” I will focus on the LaCrosse’s eAssist technology rather than comment about its ride, comfort and appointments — all of which are excellent, in Buick tradition.
If you could reasonably stop the engine of your vehicle every time you came to a complete stop, you would save considerable fuel and pollution. The EPA estimates 17 percent of a vehicle’s fuel is wasted in sitting at idle. But the life of your starter, to say nothing of your nerves, would be short if you had to restart the vehicle every time you stopped. eAssist is General Motors’ name for their start-stop hybrid technology that automatically shuts down the engine when you come to a complete stop after a few seconds, then when the light turns green and you step on the accelerator — the big starter/electric motor gets you rolling while the engine is restarting. There is a brief moment when you are in “hybrid” mode, but it doesn’t last long.
General Motors will be expanding this eAssist offering to the Chevy line soon as well, and most likely throughout much of their product line eventually — as are other manufacturers. This technology allows them to meet pollution and economy targets without the full-on expense of a true hybrid package.
As discussed in the last Mr. Green Car, batteries are an expensive upkeep item eventually. With these partial hybrids using start-stop technology, the traction batteries can be much smaller and less expensive, yet still provide much of the benefit of being a hybrid. In the case of the LaCrosse, that is a city fuel economy of 25 mpg.
Sales Manager Chuck Hayes of Bocker Buick in Freeport let me have a nice, new black LaCrosse to myself for testing recently. In driving the LaCrosse, I found the 2.4-liter four-cylinder 185-hp ECOTECH (everyone has a cute green name for their engines these days) engine a bit busy for a Buick, but not overly so. I found the acceleration was quite good for a car this size.
The jewel-like, mostly analog (needles/dials) instrument pod is relief from increasingly common digital readouts. In the lower left corner, there is a nice analog economy gauge — it would be a more encouraging feature than many I’ve seen.
When you let off the accelerator pedal to brake or coast, the fuel system stops injecting fuel, and the electric motor starts to generate electricity to recharge the lithium-ion traction battery. When you come to a full stop — keeping an eye on the analog tachometer — at first, it will drop to an idle. Then, if you are stopped more than a couple of seconds, the engine will shut down completely, and the tachometer will indicate you are in “auto-stop” mode. It then gets eerily quiet.
At the release of the brake, the system resets, and with the press of the accelerator, away you go. No notion of waiting or starting; the electric motor gets you rolling, and the center display will briefly indicate you are in hybrid mode — just a flash. Pausing stops, like when making a right turn at a traffic light, will not engage the auto-stop system. All this is seamless and invisible to the driver, except the quiet. Because of the technology, all the electrical gizmos in the car keep right on working like nothing ever happened. I would turn off the power flow display for everyday driving.
The 2012 LaCrosse can be optioned to the nines. Nearly every feature available to the luxury car buyer is available in one of the seven option levels — plus additional à la-carte features. I liked the standard six-speed automatic transmission, with a console-mounted shifter that was elegant to the hand and a delight to shift in select shift mode. In select shift (as in most cars with select-shift automatics), the transmission automatically resets to first gear when you come to a stop. No searching around for any one gear — click up or down to the next. Left in a lower gear, like second or third, the acceleration is sporty. Then, the tachometer is truly useful.
Powertrain options include a 303-hp 3.6L V-6 engine and all-wheel-drive (AWD), which mandates the V-6. Here, you can see what these options do to fuel economy. The EPA gas mileage ratings for the front-wheel-drive V-6 is 17 city/27 highway, while the AWD version is 16 city/26 highway. At $4 per gallon for gas once again, one would have to think long and hard at purchasing these power options. Based on 15,000 miles of highway driving and $4 gallon gas, the eAssist LaCrosse will save you about $640 per year in fuel cost.
The LaCrosse is 60 percent domestically sourced — assembled in Kansas City. So, if you’re in the market for a roomy, luxurious, American-made car that’s efficient, too — the LaCrosse eAssist should be on your list of candidates to consider.
From the March 7-13, 2012, issue