Badge engineering is alive and well. It was just a few years ago that the automakers, especially General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, all were talking about really doing away with the practice, which basically amounts to slapping a different badge and grille on a vehicle already sold by one of the company’s divisions. Mercury was supposed to get unique cars. Chrysler euthanized Plymouth in part because it had no unique vehicles to sell. And GM whacked Oldsmobile so it could focus its product development resources on giving every division unique vehicles. Great plan, eh?
Forget it. Enter the Buick Rainier. This sport-ute isn’t too much more than a Chevy TrailBlazer or GMC Envoy with Buick’s signature falling-water grille. I’m sure that Buick styling is indispensable for the division’s die-hards, however many there are. But in reality, the Rainier exists because, with the death of Oldsmobile and its Bravada SUV, GM needed to maximize production at its mid-size SUV plants and do so without forcing more inventory on Chevy and GMC dealers. GM workers are now turning out Rainiers instead of Bravadas. Also, Buick dealers need something more to sell.
GM is reviving its moribund brands in sequence. Cadillac was first, now Pontiac is up. Buick is next and, if it survives, Saturn will get new product later in the decade. So consider the Rainier one of the stop-gap measures to help Buick dealers prop up sales until GM can give the division some real funding.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any reason to buy the Rainier. GM did its best to differentiate the vehicle from its existing mid-size SUVs. There’s an optional V-8, instead of the standard in-line six-cylinder engine that powers the Envoy and TrailBlazer. The interior has been spruced up. And on the outside, there are some subtle styling changes, besides that grille, that make it a bit different. And some added sound deadening makes the Rainier the quiet, big boulevard cruiser one would expect from Buick.
2004 Buick Rainier
One big reason to buy the Rainier is to get the optional V-8 engine. GM’s in-line six is a marvelous engine. Its 270 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque beat the Ford Explorer’s V-8, which kicks 240 hp, and the GM motor gets better fuel economy. But the 5.3-liter Vortec in my test model gets 290 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. That’s better for towing and low-end acceleration. The Rainier can tow up to 6700 pounds with the V-8, and 6100 pounds with the in-line six.
Give GM its due when it comes to powertrain, though. The company’s engineers know how to deliver smooth acceleration. The Vortec V-8 is married up to a Hydra-Matic 4L60-E four-speed transmission. It shifts smoothly and seamlessly between gears. You can get the Rainier with either full-time all-wheel drive or standard two-wheel drive.
The Rainier’s undercarriage has some hardware to make the ride pretty smooth, too. But it doesn’t have anything the lower-priced Envoy doesn’t offer. Both SUVs have an independent front suspension and a five-link air suspension in the rear. It’s not quite as smooth-riding as an independent rear suspension, but GM’s mid-size utes pretty comfy rough roads even without it. I drove the Rainier on some of Detroit’s pockmarked highways, which is most of them, and it floated over the potholes, seams, and bumps like a big ole Buick should.
Inside, the Rainier is a baby step in GM’s efforts to spruce up its cabins. The dashboard is certainly an upgrade from the TrailBlazer, but the switches, knobs, and buttons are very familiar. The gauges are better. GM put in silver gauges with green needles that look pretty nice. It’s not quite a Lexus, but it’s clearly the most luxurious of GM’s mid-size utilities. The addition of dark, burled walnut woodgrain gives the Rainier at least a faux luxury look. But you can’t get a longer Rainier with the optional third row of seats like you can with the TrailBlazer. You need to buy the minivan-based Rendezvous to get a seven-passenger Buick SUV.
One bonus: GM put additional sound deadening in the Rainier. There is additional sealing for sound in the engine compartment, all four doors, the windshield, front window glass and near the rear windows. It all adds up to a pretty quiet ride. GM boasts sound levels that are 25 percent lower than the average competing SUV. I found wind and engine noise to be minimal.
Is this a nice SUV? Sure. But it’s not all that much better than a TrailBlazer or Envoy. Buick wants $35,945 for the two-wheel-drive in-line six model and $39,395 for the V-8 base model. A well-equipped two-wheel drive TrailBlazer with the six starts at $33,245. If you must have the V-8, or just like the quieter ride, the Rainier is fine. Otherwise, a nicely equipped TrailBlazer will give you just as much SUV, but for a few thousand bucks less.
2004 Buick Rainier
Base price: $35,945 (in-line six); $39,395 (V-8)
Engine: 4.2-liter in-line six, 270 hp; 5.3-liter V-8, 290 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, rear- or all-wheel-drive
Length x width x height: 193.4 x 75.4 x 71.9 in
Wheelbase: 113 in
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 16/21 (2WD six), 15/21 (AWD six); 15/19 (2WD V-8), 14/18 (AWD V-8)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, available side airbags for front seat, auto-dim rear mirror, anti-lock brakes, optional all-wheel drive
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles