Fighter pilots call it "target fixation" when you become so focused on a single adversary that you lose situational awareness and fly into something large and obvious, like the ground. Buick's 2010 LaCrosse -- a near-luxury, mid-size-to-large sedan -- was built to put the cross-hairs on a single bogie, the Lexus ES350, and I'll tell you right now, it blows the Lexus out of the sky. Pow. Parachute. Smoking crater.
Oh, you can quibble over one detail or another. The LaCrosse's roof A-pillars are huge and make it hard to look through a corner on a tight, two-lane road (it's also possible to lose sight of pedestrians in crosswalks). There are moments that the cabin, with its Aqua Velva-blue ambient lighting, thick chrome instrument bezels, luminous LCD screens and spread of glowing buttons, looks like the flight deck of some drug-addled dirigible.
But no fair appraisal of this car can conclude anything but that the Buick is as good as or better than the Lexus in every way: It's as dead quiet, as thoughtfully designed, as this-minute in its technology. My top-of-the-line CXS had a 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6 under the scalloped hood, a six-speed Aisin automatic transmission, continuously variable suspension damping with Sport mode, Harman/Kardon sound system, touch-screen navigation and adaptive headlamps. Out the door at $39,195.
And yet with all of the semiconductor circuitry, servos, gadgets and displays, the LaCrosse feels deeply, foundationally sound. All is hushed and serene. Everything is damped. The whole car feels packed in ermine. It is an American Lexus.
But is that enough? In other words, has benchmarking the ES350 -- Lexus' bestselling sedan, by the way -- left the LaCrosse blind to challenges from other competitors in this segment? After all, the ES350 is a tarted-up Toyota Camry and enjoys its place in the market primarily because of the aspirational updraft of the Lexus brand. Personally, the ES350 bores me like nothing since "The Fountainhead."
How does the Buick stack up against, say, the Hyundai Genesis or the Infiniti G37 sedan, both finely tailored, tech-sodden sedans with rear-wheel drive? What about the brilliantly executed Acura TL, with its torque-vectoring all-wheel drive? The competition among near-luxury, mid-size sedans makes a Cuban cockfight look tame.
Born in a blizzard of pink slips and a tsunami of tears, the Buick LaCrosse -- the first new car launched by GM since it emerged from bankruptcy -- has to be more than on par with some middling Lexus. It has to be fantastic.
This is a brand in a hole the size of AIG's. Not only is Buick synonymous with "Matlock"-watching crapulence (the average age of a Buick buyer is 68); the parent company, GM, is feeling the unaccustomed disdain of Red State America on account of the Obama administration's $83.5-billion auto-industry bailout.
I have not got a single e-mail from anyone saying, "You know, I love and support my country, so I'm going to buy a GM car." But I've got maybe 100 e-mails that say, in effect, "I'll never buy a GM car until the government gets out of the car business."
Is the LaCrosse enough of a car for them to hold their noses past the stink of bankruptcy and the reek of government ownership? It's a pretty great car, but honestly, I think the LaCrosse would have to come equipped with naked wood nymphs to placate these dissidents.
Time for some shopkeeping: The base LaCrosse ($27,835, delivered) is powered by a 3.0-liter direct-injection V-6 good for 255 hp. The up-level trim package is the CXL ($30,395). Add all-wheel-drive (with brake-based limited-slip differential) and the price goes to $32,600. The top-shelf model is the CXS ($33,765), with a 3.6-liter V-6 putting out 280 hp. The Touring Package adds 19-inch wheels and variable-damping suspension and Sport mode, with electronics that put a sharper edge on the transmission, steering, throttle and suspension responses.
Daringly, Buick will offer a 2.4-liter four-cylinder (172 hp/182 pound-feet of torque) in the LaCrosse this fall. That will be just about when gas prices will spike again, I predict.
Some have wondered why GM kept the Buick division and shed Saturn, which has the freshest and most fuel-efficient product lineup. The answer: China. Buick is a prestigious luxury brand there and, in fact, the new LaCrosse was a joint effort between GM's American and Chinese design studios. The Chinese contingent was responsible for the LaCrosse's insanely fussed-over interior. Example: The dash material is synthetic leather but it's French stitched with real thread.
No corners are gracelessly cut here -- no ugly cover plates, no exposed fastener buttons and the barest minimum of seams. The whole transverse sweep of the cabin, the two-tone materials bisected by a lyric bow of ambient lighting and wood grain that plays into the doors, looks great, especially at night.
GM execs claim the cabin reflects feng shui design principles in its sculpted and harmonious form language, though I might have expected a red door somewhere. In any event, the interior is excellent. I parked the LaCrosse next to a new Lexus to compare and it wasn't even close.
Style aside, the biggest marker of Chinese influence is the car's enormous back seat. According to GM, about 25% of Chinese buyers -- entrepreneurs and corrupt bureaucrats -- will be chauffeured. If legroom is high on cross-shoppers' list, the LaCrosse will score a clean kill.
Complaints, I had a few. The exterior styling is really strong -- masculine, well planted, with a lovely roof arch -- in every direction but the front. I can't quite fathom the headlight design, which looks like Dame Edna's spectacles, and the odd chamfering of the hood, a design detail that doesn't seem to go anywhere.
And the car is about 250 pounds heavier than it ought to be, a fact that robs the LaCrosse of some much-needed verve and agility.
The CXS gets off the mark smoothly, and it hits 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds -- reasonably quick -- but the extra weight doesn't help it in corners and there is the inevitable tendency of a front-drive car to overwhelm the tires and understeer.
I look forward to trying the all-wheel-drive model. To say the LaCrosse handles better than the ES350 is the damnedest of faint praise.
The weight is telling because weight is the most expensive thing to get out of a car. I read the poundage as an artifact of the pre-bankruptcy GM -- indeed, a metaphor of the company before bankruptcy's radical dieting.
Still, the LaCrosse is the car that most thought couldn't be built by Buick. It's actually desirable. On the long road to recovery, it's a good start.
2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS
Base price: $33,765
Price, as tested: $39,195
Powertrain: 3.6-liter direct-injection DOHC V-6 with variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode; front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 280 hp at 6,300 rpm
Torque: 259 pound-feet at 4,300 rpm
Curb weight: 4,016 pounds
0-60 mph: 7.5 seconds (est.)
Wheelbase: 111.7 inches
Overall length: 196.9 inches
EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city; 27 mpg highway
Final thoughts: A few more like these and the taxpayers could get their money back.