Driven: 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist

With all the emphasis on hybrids these days, many major innovations are overlooked. But rather than try to out-Prius the Prius, GM is going after the low-hanging fruit of better fuel economy with the Buick Lacrosse with E-Assist.

I’ve talked about the Buick LaCrosse with E-Assist before, and now for 2012 the eAssist system comes standard on the base-model Lacrosse. That may not sound like a big deal, and that is in large part because GM isn’t touting the LaCrosse as a competitor to the hybrid heavy hitter, the Prius. Rather, the 2012 Buick Lacrosse is a hybrid for non-hybrid buyers, people who may not even know that they are buying a hybrid.

Seen here is the heart of the eAssist system, the 115-volt electric Generator/Motor Unit, and the 0.5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack.

To understand what I mean, you must understand what GM’s eAssist system is. The LaCrosse utilizes a “mild hybrid” system that assists in propelling the Lacrosse. At no point is the 15 horsepower and 79 ft-lb of torque electric motor solely responsible for driving the car, and the Generator/Motor Unit (called the GMU) replaces the alternator on the engine’s belt drive system. The electric motor provides extra passing power on highways and helps get the LaCrosse going from a stop that, and along with a series of other fuel economy enhancements, provides an impressive 25% boost in fuel economy.

Among the other tricks up GM’s sleeve are the lower air dam shutters found on the Chevy Cruze Eco, underbody aerodynamic panels borrowed from its sportier European cousin the Opel Insignia OPC (which used them to increase top speed) and decreasing the six-speed automatic transmission’s final gear ratio from 3.23 to 2.60. Other fuel saving features are a fuel cutoff Auto Stop system and special low-rolling resistance tires developed with Michelin that provide better fuel economy with less of a performance sacrifice.

These underbody panels were originally designed to help the Opel Insignia OPC go faster; now they improve the fuel economy of the 2012 Buick LaCrosse

And yet in spite of all of these fuel economy enhancements, 0-60 mph time was actually 0.2 seconds faster…in a large mid-size sedan. Together, all of these enhancements bring the 2012 Buick LaCrosse’s fuel economy up to 25 city/36 highway, compared to the 19/25 rating from the non-eAssist 2011 model. Cargo room does take a hit though, going from 13.3 cubic feet to just 10.9 cubic feet to accommodate the batter pack, but GM used aluminum to replace steel in several key areas to reduce the LaCrosse’s weight and keep it in par with the V6 model.

GM was kind enough to fly me to Palo Alto, California for the Buick LaCrosse eAssist event, and put me up in a hotel while giving me access to a new Lacrosse to drive. Over two days and about 200 miles of driving, I averaged 28 mpg on some very hilly back roads between Palo Alto and Half Moon Bay, with the air conditioning going full blast.

Had I paid more attention to the small eco gauge, which twitches to the right when you accelerate too hard, and to the left when you brake too hard (wasting regenerative braking energy on a quick hard stop) I’m confident I could have averaged over 30 mpg. As it was I really took the oppertunity to vet the car, driving slow, driving fast, passing and merging trying to really “feel” the car. The most positive impression I had on this drive, however, was how smooth the Buick LaCrosse drove. There was no jerking, no odd sounds, or odd feelings, even with the Auto Stop system essentially shutting down the engine every time I came to a stop. Driving away from the light was as smooth as one would expect from a brand new car, and passing power was adequate, if not exactly exhilarating.

So how was the interior? Glad you asked. It was spacious and comfortable, especially the backseat which quite easily fit my impressive frame. The center stack was easy to use, and by the end of the drive I was quite comfortable with the whole steering wheel setup. Fit and finish on the interior was top notch as well, and there wasn’t anything about this Buick that felt “cheap” even though the starting price…with the eAssist technology…is only $30,810 (including destination fees.)

For the same price, GM will also offer a 303 horsepower E85-capable V6 version of the LaCrosse for those looking for more power than the four-banger currently offers. Whichever version you opt for is thousands of dollars less than the Lincoln and Lexus competition, however, making the LaCrosse appealing for bargain hunters looking for a little luxury and some good (if not record breaking) fuel economy numbers.

However…

 

The fake hood vents have got to go if GM wants this premium sedan to feel more premium

I have one major hangup with the 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist, and it takes the form of the plastic faux-vents glued to the hood of this car. I don’t think pictures do this car justice, and to me at least the Lacrosse looks much better in person… at least until you notice the hood vents. They look cheap, and belong on a lesser car. It’s something you would order out of JC Whitney and tape to the hood of your Honda Civic, not a brand new Buick. It was really distracting from me, and while I understand it is part of the “Buick heritage” there isn’t a whole lot to celebrate in the last two decades of Buicks. Some things are better left in the past. Ditch the hood vents GM, please.

Other than that though, I found that driving the Buick LaCrosse was overwhelmingly a positive experience. The refined drivetrain exceeded my expectations, offering more power and better fuel economy, without screaming to the world “I’m a hybrid!” It’s a hybrid for a different sort of eco-concious driver; the kind of person who appreciates the finer things in life, but also wants to save money and the environment without the whole world knowing. Even more exciting is the notion that the eAssist technology is modular in design, meaning it can be equipped to a plethora of engines in GM’s lineup, from turbocharged four-bangers to big-displacement V8’.

So this is really about more than just the LaCrosse. It is about a new technology that perhaps isn’t getting the hype it deserves. Which it seems is just what GM wants. Expect to see a lot more eAssist vehicles in the next few years. You can bet on that.

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs. You can read about his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout or follow his non-nonsensical ramblings on Twitter @harshcougar.

 

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.