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The most popular large car in America is all-new, but its successful formula doesn’t change. The new LeSabre has room for six, familiar but handsome styling, and front-wheel drive with Buick’s popular 3.8-liter pushrod V-6.
Buick doesn’t follow the rules of American consumer marketing. While most American businesses obsess over the youth market (a few years ago, it was "baby boomers," now, it’s "Generation Xers"), Buick seems quite happy to aim its marketing guns at older folks who like to "buy American." Few Buicks are left that appeal to young buyers, in fact. The wild, turbocharged Buicks offered from the 1980s are long gone, and the sporty Riviera coupe is being dropped after 1999, which leaves only the supercharged Regal GS.
Such marketing may seem risky, but selling to the older crowd has paid off
handsomely for Buick. The LeSabre, Buick’s entry-level large sedan, has been the
best-selling full-size car in America for the last seven years. In 1998, more
than 150,000 went out dealership doors.
A Y2K redo
The LeSabre is all-new for 2000. Buick doesn’t have any intentions, though, of giving up the LeSabre’s sales crown, and the new LeSabre retains nearly all the features that make the current model so popular: its sober, conservative styling; its V-6/front-wheel-drive powertrain; and its ability to seat six passengers. This will be the third Buick (along with the Park Avenue and Riviera) to be designed on GM’s ultrastiff "G" platform. (The Park Avenue and Riviera were the first two.) Such a move allowed engineers to improve the LeSabre in most — but not all — ways.
The only measure by which the LeSabre doesn’t improve is interior room. The Olds Aurora was the first car to use the G platform. You may remember that the Aurora’s impressive body stiffness seemed to come at a price — its thick doorsills and roof pillars encroached on passenger leg and head room. (The Cadillac Seville also has this problem.)
Interior room is not the LeSabre’s strongest suit, either. Compared to the 1999 model, the 2000 LeSabre is slightly smaller inside in most dimensions. Most passengers, though, will probably never notice. There’s still ample room inside for five passengers, or six if you buy the front bench seat. Clearly, though, this car is not as efficiently packaged as Chrysler’s new LH sedans are.
The LeSabre doesn’t handle as well as the LH cars, either. The new body has
27 percent higher resistance to bending and 62 percent higher resistance to
twisting. Buick used these advantages not to make the LeSabre handle with
European sports-sedan precision but to improve ride isolation. This is clear
from the way the LeSabre bounces up and down when you drive over large bumps. A
"Gran Touring" package with stiffer shocks and springs and wider tires improves
the situation somewhat, but this Buick would never be our car of choice for
carving up a mountain road.
A composed ride
The LeSabre may be soft, but at least it isn’t sloppy. The front-strut, rear trailing-arm suspension provides some feel of the road at the steering wheel. It also has excellent resistance to brake dive — often a big problem for soft-suspension cars. The four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are from the Park Avenue. They erase high speed consistently and with little fade during heavy usage.
Surprisingly, while the 2000 LeSabre is the newest body on this platform, it isn’t the stiffest. Concessions were made to body strength to keep the weight down. At 1620kg, this is the lightest of all the G-body cars so far. In addition, engineers also wanted a low trunk lift-over height, which also came at the slight cost to stiffness. Buick believes its customers will accept such compromises.
Such justification is used for many decisions on the LeSabre. Take the driveline, for example. The LeSabre has the same cast-iron pushrod 3.8-liter V-6, mated to a four-speed automatic, that is used by every other GM division except for Cadillac. When questioned whether the LeSabre could benefit from more modern technology — the DOHC 3.5-liter V-6 from the Olds Intrigue comes to mind — Buick Brand Manager Joe Fitzsimmons replies that this engine "has on-demand torque for passing, it’s bulletproof, and drivers don’t even have to think about it. That’s enough for our owners."
He’s probably correct. The V-6 can push the LeSabre to 60 mph in about eight seconds, which is more than quick enough. Its moaning at wide-open throttle may not sound very sophisticated, but the V-6 does rev smoothly, and it also gets respectable gas mileage: 19 mpg on the EPA city cycle and 30 mpg on the highway cycle.
Such numbers are hard to beat in a full-size car of this price. The 2000 LeSabre will start at about $23,000, which includes power seats, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; air conditioning; and front and side airbags. Options include traction control, rain-sensing windshield wipers, a sunroof, and an air filtration system. Ford’s Crown Victoria costs about the same, but it’s a heavier, rear-wheel-drive car that can’t match the Buick’s refinement. The base Dodge Intrepid (Chrysler’s least expensive LH car) is about $3,000 less than the LeSabre, but it’s much slower and isn’t as well-equipped as this Buick.
Upright good looks
The LeSabre isn’t as sleek as the Intrepid (or any of Chrysler’s LH cars, for that matter), but Buick doesn’t want it to be. Like its bigger brother, the Park Avenue, the LeSabre’s low front end and raised hindquarters give it a muscular, forceful presence. This is obviously a large car, and it is meant to look like one. Buick design cues abound. The front resembles the Riviera, with composite clear-lens projector-beam headlamps and an oval grille. The taillamps resemble those of last year’s LeSabre. There are clever details, too, like the graceful ridges that span the roof to direct rain away from the doors instead of the conventional rain gutters. Still, the LeSabre’s styling is clearly evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Inside is more of the same. The chrome-laden dashboard of last year’s car is replaced with a more tasteful layout, with larger, more complete gauges, including a tachometer. The spokes on the steering wheel (which looks like it was stolen from a Porsche) have helpful switches to control the cruise control and stereo. The front seatbelts are integrated into the seatbacks, and the center position seatback folds down to make an armrest. The shapes and colors are subdued but tasteful, and the fake wood strip splashed across the dashboard and doors is a surprisingly good imitation of the real thing.
GM was criticized for decades for building look-alike cars that were both unreliable and had major design flaws. The 2000 LeSabre has no such problems. It may not be very exciting, but it’s a solid and modern package that should easily exceed the expectations of its likely customers. If recent-year Buicks are any indicators, it should be reliable, too. We think the LeSabre could hold on to its top sales title for some time.