Grampy was fond of saying that the true judge of a person was the things he did when no one was looking. Grampy also happened to be a die-hard Buick guy, partial to Nimitz class Electra “Deuce-and-a-Quarters”.
What do these two arcane facts have to do with one another? More than you think.
Perhaps the truest measure of a company is the car they build when no one’s looking. “Halo” vehicles like Corvette, Mustang and 300C garner tremendous scrutiny from critics and enthusiasts. Our expectation of these iconic models is incredibly high, and penalties for failing to meet expected standards of performance, quality, engineering and value will be harsh indeed. The Mustang II, late Corvette C3 or Nissan 280Z provide ample proof of this hypothesis. All cherished marques – these cars lacked real performance, suffered from indifferent engineering and low quality that tarnished their hard-won reputations. 30 years later, these cars are still roundly (and rightly) ridiculed.
Manufacturers learned from this, and on their image and concept cars, they sweat every detail to ensure such cars meet with maximum market enthusiasm and buzz that carries over to the entire line. Corvette C5 and C6 are a perfect example of this corporate learning in action. But, Honda, Toyota (and to a surprising extent lately, Hyundai) applied these lessons early to even their lowest priced cars. These companies prospered by delivering far more features, quality and value than buyers had come to expect on cars of modest pretension.
It seems like the good General has taken lessons from Grampy and the Pacific Rim, because they are turning out some pretty terrific iron – and gaining credibility by lavishing considerable energies on models that are anything but halo-cars.
On a recent Miami trip, the National rental agency was out of mid-sized cars so I was upgraded to a premium car at no extra charge. I glanced around the lot and grimaced at the lame selection of Camrys, base Jeep Cherokees and PT Cruisers (these are premium cars?) until my eyes settled on a burgundy Buick Lucerne. Approaching the car, I immediately noticed the clean lines, lustrous metallic paint and tight, uniform panel gaps. Initially impressive yes, but my expectations were quite low.
You see, I’ve done this GM dance before with Beretta Z-26’s that turned out to be little more than tarted up Corsicas. I’d suffered the crushing disappointment of sweetly styled Camaros with wheezy “Iron Dukes” under the hood that ran like one-legged hamsters on a squeaky exercise wheel. Yes, the Lucerne sure looked swell - but I expected to find it little more than a snazzed up Impala.
The smooth action of the Buick’s chrome handle and door hinges was a surprise, as was the solidity of the door which closed with a decidedly Germanic “fwump”. The dash was super clean and smooth – with tight gaps, stylish analog gauges and matte finish materials. Switchgear that didn’t look like refugees from 1984 also caught my eye. Not bad.
Settling into the leather seat I set the mirrors and twisted the key - fully expecting the telltale exhaust note of GM’s 3.8 OHV six - which dates back to the early Cretaceous period. “Phwumm…burble…burble…burble.” A sharp few blips of the throttle “Phawumm..bubba..bubba…burble…burble” and the gyrations of the 6,500 RPM redline tachometer heightened my suspicion. Fumbling for the hood latch, I jumped out and flung open the hood.
The National rental agent approached looking concerned, as if I was planning to steal the battery. “Is everything alright sir?”
In the late afternoon light, a DOHC 32V Northstar V8 met my gaze. “Holy cow, it’s got a Caddy Northstar!”
“If you don’t like this car sir, we can get you something else – maybe a nice Avalon or a Camry"
“No, this is just fine miss” as I shut the hood. Deeply perplexed, she strolled off. “OK Sssiiirr” but her obvious sarcasm clearly meant “Whatevvvver”
I’m a big fan of the Cadillac Northstar. I like the modern, no compromise 32V DOHC architecture, and the ease by which it pulls big power all the way to the 7,000 RPM fuel cutoff. I like the locomotive like pull in the midrange when it comes on the cams. I like the burble of its dual exhaust, and the mellifluous note as the revs climb. I like that Cadillac once again claims title to GM’s most sophisticated engine. But I LOVE that Cadillac engineers cared enough about their creation to give it a really cool name. All great engines need a cool name. This was true in the days of the Boss 429, 428 Cobrajet, 396 Turbojet and 413 Max Wedge and its still true today.
In the fairly light Buick chassis, the Northstar is a stormer – with incredible mid-range. On the open highway, passing maneuvers are effortless. And that heavenly exhaust note will just bring out the hooligan in near everyone.
Critics continue to lambaste GM for their aging 4 speed transaxle, and while the stone reliable 4 speed does shift with characteristic GM smoothness, the critics are right. GM has the technology to provide a 5 or six speeder – so they ought to do the right thing and deploy it in everything. Why give the critics any more opportunity for gratuitous complaints?
The handling of the big Buick is decent, but less convincing than the drivetrain. Admittedly, aside from the 1984-87 Grand National and good-for-the-day 1970-72 GS455, Buicks have never really been known for their dance moves. And, it’s evident that Buick can’t quite make up its mind about which direction to turn with the Lucerne. Steering feel is good and straight ahead tracking exemplary. The body integrity is excellent, with absolutely no squeaks, rattles or wind noise despite the (unlikely gentle) 24,000 rental miles on the odometer.
Despite a big marketing push on their “quiet tuned” chassis – Buick slapped a massive set of 245-18 rollers on the car that clop loudly over pavement imperfections. The dampers are excessively soft on rebound and do little to control the unsprung weight of the big wheels and tires. The car will pull decent G’s once the chassis has taken a set, but the overall experience is a bit confused. Kind of like Kate Moss wearing an unlaced pair of Timberland boots.
The ergonomics are outstanding, as is the Harmon-Kardon sound system with XM radio. Cruising down Florida’s Turnpike I was pleased to tune into Rush’s “Working Man”, and think I’ve now got a new favorite road tune…Good road music has an uncanny way of encouraging fast driving, and suffice to say I’m lucky there were no tan and black Trooper cars out that afternoon!
Everywhere you look on this Buick, you see effort and attention to detail. From the Buick embossed aluminum door sills to the die cast portholes on the fender. In sharp contrast to the last generation Chevy Impala – that sported a most laughably wrong Belair/Biscayne 4 tail light rear panel - Buick gives the V8 cars an extra fender Porthole to distinguish it from the V6. Hey, if you’re going to play the icon card, you ought to at least know the rules – particularly if you invented the game. Chevy gets an “F” with the Impala tailights, while Buick scores an “A” with those groovy portholes.
Ford and MoPar loyalists have recently accused me of being a paid shill for GM. It isn’t so – and I’ll be the first to admit that many of GM’s products from 1974-1990 were barely worth their weight in dog-log. But, across the product line, GM is turning out some pretty nice cars and trucks, and currently has a leading product in many market segments. Yes, we expect cars like the Corvette, CTS, GMT900 SUVs and Camaro to be incredible. But like finding an original Renoir at a yard sale, it’s especially nice to find a generous serving of excellence where we did didn’t expect it.
In that sense, Grampy the devout Buick man seems to have taught GM a thing or two.
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