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2005 Chicago Auto Show Index by TCC 

2006 Buick Lucerne

2006 Buick Lucerne

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Once upon a time, General Motors brands were laid out in a rigid hierarchy. At the bottom was Chevrolet, the car for the every day workingman. At the other extreme was Cadillac, the self-described “standard of excellence” that long dominated the global luxury market. A rung below, Buick was the brand aimed at lawyers, doctors, and other professionals.

It was a brilliant strategy that long dominated the American market — until the import explosion rocked GM’s well-ordered world. Just a few months ago, the automaker’s once-popular Oldsmobile brand rolled out its last car, fading into oblivion along with other ailed domestic brands, like Packard,Plymouth, and Oakland.

There’s no question that the brand named for automotive pioneer David Dunbar Buick has suffered in recent years. Sales have plunged to a fraction of their peak and, in recent years, there’s been plenty of speculation Buick might follow Olds down the road to ruin.

Not if GM’s “car czar” can help it. Since signing on as Vice Chairman more than three years ago, Bob Lutz has been methodically laying out plans to perk up each of the automaker’s brands. Chevrolet is gaining ground, Cadillac has polished its tarnished halo, and even the one-time wunder-marque, Saturn, could be in for a big turnaround, if a flood of new product connects with consumers.

Now it’s Buick’s turn. At the 2004 Chicago Auto Show, GM unveiled the LaCrosse, the first in a critical series of new products aimed at rebuilding the brand. For this year’s Windy City gathering, Buick has another big debut. Quite literally. This time, it’s the Lucerne, a large, front-wheel-drive sedan.

There’s no question Buick has a lot riding on this car. Along with LaCrosse and the Terraza, a sort of minivan/SUV crossover, Lucerne is expected to generate as much as 75 percent of the struggling division’s volume.

That’s no easy task in a market segment laden with tough competition from the likes of Lexus, Audi, and Mercedes, never mind Chrysler and Lincoln. So GM will be playing up the Lucerne’s roominess, power, upscale appointments, high-tech features and more modern design.

The cues are classic Buick, with a large, chrome-framed waterfall grille and wraparound headlights. The nearly full-sized body has an aggressive stance, with a beltline that rises towards the tail, making the car look like it’s caught in mid-crouch. But at a time when brands like Caddy and Chrysler are adopting sharp creases and bold edges, Lucerne retains the rounded, jellybean shape of Buicks past. It would be polite to say preliminary response to the sedan’s styling has been mixed.  

2006 Buick Lucerne

2006 Buick Lucerne

Enlarge Photo
The Lucerne is the first Buick passenger car in a decade to offer V-8 power, (following the Rainier SUV). There’s a 32-valve, DOHC, 4.6-liter powertrain under the hood making an estimated 275 horsepower. Alternately, buyers can pick a 195-hp version of GM’s time-tested 3800 Series III V-6, though considering the size of Lucerne, that’s a lot of metal for the smaller engine to pull around.

Over the years, Buicks like the old Regal took their hits for a lack of interior refinement and lackluster fit-and-finish. GM promises the new car will be significantly upgraded in both categories, and in a marked step for GM, Lucerne will come with six standard airbags, including frontal, side-impact and roof-rail supplemental restraints.

In a nod to Lexus, Buick officials are emphasizing their new “QuietTuning” system, a standard feature on both the Lucerne and LaCrosse. There’s no question low interior noise levels have been a big part of the Japanese automaker’s appeal, but whether that’s enough to put Buick on equal footing remains to be seen.

On the technology front, the new sedan will deliver features like Magnetic Ride Control, the StabiliTrak traction systems, remote start, heated washer fluid, heated/cooled seats, rain-sensing wipers, and DVD navigation. A nine-speaker, 245-watt Harman Kardon audio system will be available as well.

GM has set a high hurdle for the Lucerne to clear. But Buick can’t afford to muddle along anymore. It desperately needs to score big to justify the continued investment GM must make to get the brand back into position on the corporate ladder.

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