Quick Spin: 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist
It's hard to talk about all of the good things General Motors is doing these days without referencing the Chevrolet Volt – it is perhaps the most talked-about car on the scene, green or otherwise. In showing the world that highly efficient, practical cars aren't so far out of our reach, GM is preparing to launch a slew of fuel-sipping vehicles in the near term.
We've already spent time with the honest-to-goodness 42-mile-per-gallon Chevrolet Cruze Eco, but the next chapter of GM's efficiency story lies in Buick's eAssist mild hybrid system, coming to both its LaCrosse and Regal sedans later this year.
We recently had the chance to drive the 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist on the roads near GM's proving grounds in Milford, Michigan, and while some hybrid systems vastly change a car's overall driving experience, we walked away from our time in the Buick feeling as good as we ever have in a LaCrosse. The beauty of eAssist is that it functions in an almost entirely transparent manner, and that's a very, very good thing.
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Photos copyright ©2011 Steven J. Ewing / AOL
The LaCrosse is a sharp-looking sedan, and Buick made a point of not changing 98 percent of the car's exterior design in fitting it with the eAssist package. The only real change is the addition of model-specific 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Michelin Energy Saver A/S 245/50-series rubber. These tires were designed by the Bibendum Bunch specifically for GM, and while we're perfectly happy with the use of these energy-saving tires, we'd be thrilled if they were fitted to slightly larger wheels, if only for aesthetics. The LaCrosse's large dimensions and wheel wells designed to properly house 19-inchers at all four corners just make this eAssist-specific set look teeny-tiny.
There are no eAssist badges on the LaCrosse, either – an intentional omission that GM admits will have both positive and negative ramifications. While having a badge on the car is basically free advertising for one's green initiatives, GM didn't want to alter any other parts of the LaCrosse's design, however small. This is an interesting decision, especially from the company that was perfectly okay with fitting an obnoxious decal package to its Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade hybrid SUVs.
Buick engineers have spent a lot of time enhancing the LaCrosse's aerodynamics, and in doing so, they've managed to cut the sedan's coefficient of drag from 0.314 to 0.30. Active air shutters are used on the lower front air intakes – the same parts as the Cruze Eco, actually – and covers have been added to the underbody to keep air flowing smoothly beneath the car. You won't notice any of this during a walk-around of the eAssist LaCrosse, but get the car up on a lift, and you'll definitely be able to point out all of the changes.
The LaCrosse's comfortable, well-appointed cabin hasn't been altered much, either. There was no sacrifice in luxury or available features, and the only big changes to note are the slightly revised gauge cluster with a revised tachometer and eco driving gauge, and new functionality built into the large LCD screen that shows the eAssist's power flow while in motion.
As we previously discussed, Buick is eliminating trim levels for the 2012 LaCrosse, and optional amenities will be clumped together in large option packages. eAssist vehicles can be had with all the same kit as the V6 LaCrosse – save all-wheel drive – including leather, a panoramic sunroof, HID headlamps, navigation and so on.
The eAssist powerplant will serve as the base engine for the 2012 LaCrosse, with GM's 3.6-liter direct-injected V6 available as a no-cost option. In this case, the eAssist hardware is mated to The General's already efficient 2.4-liter Ecotec inline four-cylinder engine that produces a perfectly adequate 182 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. The 115-volt lithium-ion battery and 15-kilowatt electric motor combine to offer as much as 15-hp worth of assist during initial acceleration, and eAssist uses other typical mild hybrid features like regenerative braking, fuel cut-off, torque smoothing and start-stop to maximize efficiency.
The end result? An EPA-estimated 25/37 mpg city/highway fuel economy rating. These aren't the lofty 40-plus-mpg numbers we're getting so used to hearing about, but in the 3,835-pound LaCrosse, it's hugely impressive. No other cars in the Buick's size category even come close.
Perhaps the best part about driving the LaCrosse eAssist is how unobtrusive the system is to the car's already serene driving experience. Sure, you notice the start/stop system at lights, but there's no engine shake upon startup, and because of all the sound-deadening put into the LaCrosse's interior, you barely hear it all working. The engine turns on as soon as the brake pedal is released, so there's no delay in power upon pressing the accelerator.
It's not quick, this LaCrosse, but it accelerates smoothly and it never feels overly sluggish, the six-speed automatic transmission firing off shifts smoothly in an effort to keep engine revs as low as possible. What's more, eAssist sends electric boost to the engine – almost like a turbocharger – to eliminate the need for downshifting during mid-range acceleration. When the transmission does kick down, however, we found that the noise isn't pretty, especially higher up in the rev range. Keep steady on the accelerator, however, and it's something you won't notice.
Adding eAssist doesn't really change anything else mechanically, but the special fuel-saving tires required slight readjustments to the steering and suspension system – a minor complaint. Even with its newly fitted electrically assisted steering, driving the LaCrosse is perfectly pleasant; steering response is good without feeling overboosted, and very much in-character for a big, loping sedan. The brakes have a linear, secure feel, whereas most regenerative systems are a bit touchy upon initial touch of the stop pedal. Suspension damping is perfectly tuned for a vehicle like the LaCrosse, offering a smooth, comfortable ride even over the broken pavement surrounding GM's test facility.
Buick tells us that the eAssist system is pretty much plug-and-play with GM's 2.4-liter engine, which is why we'll be seeing it on the smaller Regal later this year. Beyond that, there are plenty of options for further placement. Could we see an eAssist-equipped Verano? Maybe. What about a GMC Terrain, Chevrolet Equinox or next-gen Malibu? It's not such a far stretch.
Buick says that the 2012 LaCrosse will be priced from "around $30,000" when it hits dealerships this Fall – a price jump of over $3,000 based on the 2011 model's MSRP. And while that's quite a hike, Buick has added more features like a premium audio system as standard equipment in order to keep things competitive. It's still a decent price to pay when you consider that the LaCrosse offers solid value and eAssist represents a 25-percent gain in fuel economy.
Buyers will shortly be able to walk into a showroom and see two LaCrosse models at one price point – the eAssist focused on efficiency and the V6 geared toward a more commanding driving experience. It's a great proposition for new buyers, but with a mild hybrid system that's so streamlined and nicely integrated – not to mention one that carries a 37-mpg highway economy rating – we doubt Buick dealers will have any trouble making substantial sales strides with this new eAssist system.
Photos copyright ©2011 Steven J. Ewing / AOL
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