COAL: 2011 Buick Lacrosse – The Punching Bag

 

August 17, 2010: US Auto Parts purchases Whitney Automotive Group. I am officially working on borrowed time. Almost immediately, my sole job is to lead the transition and migration of all the WAG systems to US Auto Parts, and literally undo all my hard work from the previous decade.

While I didn’t know exactly when my last day will be, it most assuredly is coming. I immediately go into job search mode, along with all my peers.

I and all my WAG peers were permitted to take as much time off during the day as we needed for job interviews. The scene at the office quickly became surreal: People would come into the office wearing suits, making no secrets as to where they were going later that day. People would openly take phone interviews from their desk, within earshot of everyone around them.

I sent out hundreds of resumes, and went on dozens of interviews. As 2010 rolled into 2011, I had lots of nibbles, but nothing firm.


March 5, 2011: My annus horribilis went from bad to worse. Dan Halter, My father, mentor, and role model, passed away after a decade long struggle against a degenerative neurological disorder. I’ve already written at considerable length about how my father helped shape my interest in cars, my career, and my work ethic in my first four COALs.

 

Dan worked as a consulting civil engineer for decades, occasionally working on high-profile cases, such as the Cleveland school system. Specifically, he was retained as a consultant for the system in their case against numerous builders and architects over shoddy construction practices on various school buildings. In one particular case in 1986, he inspected the gymnasium of East High School in Cleveland, and pronounced it structurally unsound and unsafe. Despite various settlements and efforts to fix it, the roof collapsed on October 6, 2000, as he had predicted that it eventually would. Fortunately, the gym was empty at the time, and no one was injured.

His report made the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Metro section shortly after the collapse occurred (pictured above). What particularly amuses me are the excerpts of his report, printed on an 80’s vintage dot matrix printer that was only capable of printing uppercase characters.

Dan continued to make frequent work trips to Cleveland well into the 2000’s, until health conditions forced him into early retirement.

 


May 3, 2011: My last day at US Auto Parts, which came and went without having another position lined up. For the first time in my adult life, I was unemployed. Fortunately, I still had an income in the form of a generous severance package from US Auto Parts. I settled into an odd life, doing a lot of things I hadn’t had a chance to do for a long time: Seeing the kids off the school in the morning, greeting them when they got home, eating lunch with my wife, and mowing the grass during the day. But mostly, I spent 2-4 hours a day on my job search, calling recruiters, filling out countless applications, and constantly editing my resume. Looking for a job really is a full-time job.

I wasn’t too terribly worried, although looking back I’m not sure how I managed to stay so calm. I was never worried about getting a job: My experience and skills were highly marketable, and if nothing else panned out, I could always go back into consulting. I had numerous connections in the industry, and felt pretty confident that I would walk into their office on a Monday and out into a client site on Tuesday. I basically set myself a deadline: If I couldn’t land a permanent position by June, I would take a contract gig of some sort.

No, I wasn’t worried about getting a job. I was worried about getting the job. Consulting is interesting, but it doesn’t always pay all that well. It can involve travel, and often the benefits aren’t that great. But most of all, it isn’t very stable, as your employment with the consulting firm is only for as long as your value to their clients.

I had been working a really solid lead at a company called Edgepark Medical Supplies, who was recently purchased by a private equity firm, and was looking to boost their online presence. They has just hired someone for their newly minted VP of Ecommerce position, and were looking for a director to lead their web development team. Interestingly enough, despite being a local company, I had never heard of them, and had no awareness of the position. I found out about it through a Colorado-based recruiter, who reached out to me via LinkedIn.

It was a perfect position for me. I felt that I had killed it in my first three interviews, and was getting positive vibes from them as well. I had actually started speaking to them well before my last day as USAP, but as April rolled into May, we were still talking, and not doing much else. With my self-imposed deadline fast approaching, I decided to get more aggressive with Edgepark, and inform them of my situation. They told me that they would get back to me at the end of the week. Next week turned into two, but after several months and five interviews, I finally got the offer on May 31, 2011, literally a day before my self-imposed deadline.


June 6, 2011: My first day at Edgepark. I was still driving the Lexus IS 250 when I started. The car had a lot of bad associations with JC Whitney, so I was eager to get rid of it. For some reason, I was on a domestic kick, so my short list at the time included the Lincoln MKZ and Cadillac CTS. The Buick LaCrosse was barely on my radar.

I went to the local Cadillac dealership, and test drove the CTS, with every intention of getting one. While I can’t remember for sure, the model I drove was a top of the line model, because what else would I get? I was exceptionally disappointed with my drive. The seats were firm to the point of being uncomfortable. The short wheelbase, coupled with the large 19″ wheels, made for a very punishing ride: I could feel every expansion joint on the freeway. And I hated the goofy popup navigation screen. The dashboard looked nice and clean when the screen was down, but then you couldn’t use it. When it was raised, it stuck out like a cheap aftermarket GPS.

The Cadillac dealership also happened to sell Buicks, and the salesperson suggested that I try driving LaCrosse instead. He put me in a fully loaded Touring model, which pretty much had all the bells and whistles I was looking for, plus a few that I wasn’t, like a heads-up display and panoramic sunroof. While I can’t say I loved the car, I didn’t hate it either. For whatever reason, I wasn’t interested in making a protracted vehicle search, and I really wanted to get out of the Lexus, so I got the Buick.

 

Yes, a Buick, the favored brand of septuagenarians and octogenarians everywhere. Granted, the LaCrosse was far removed from the Lucernes and LaSabres that preceded it, but it still carried the stigma of the tri-shield logo. As was the case with my Mazda 3, I figured it would look sportier if I got it in red. This, combined with the 19″ wheels and low profile tires, gave it a slightly more aggressive look, if not the outright sportiness I was looking for.

 

 

It was smooth and quiet, and frankly felt a bit more luxurious than the CTS. While the ride was trademark Buick soft, with the Touring package’s 19″ wheels and tires, hiper strut front suspension, and computer controlled dampers set to their firmest setting, there was actually a modicum of handling available as well. When the suspension was not in sport mode, the car bobbed and rolled every bit as much as you might expect from a Buick, and the steering was one finger light as well. So I pretty much always drove it in “Sport” mode, with the move of pulling the shifter down and to the left to engage it committed to muscle memory.

 

 

Not long after I got the Lacrosse, a wheelbarrow fell off the wall of the garage and on to the front of the car, leaving a long scratch on the hood and a deep gouge on the bumper cover. In years past, I would have immediately run to the body shop to get it fixed. This time, I was OK to let it go. Like I said, I didn’t love this car.

 

 

So what exactly was going on here? Did years of living as a responsible adult, husband, and parent finally kill my car lust? Did the last vestiges of my own youth die with my Dad earlier that year?

Could it be that I had just become a car consumer, owning a car that I genuinely didn’t care about? I must confess, not having a car that I was constantly fawning over was somewhat liberating. No more spending hours on the weekend detailing the car. No more parking in the far reaches of the parking lot in an effort to avoid door dings. I actually pulled into spots next to other cars, like a normal person.

 

Damage from rear end collision

 

During its time with me, the LaCrosse served as a punching bag of sorts. Driving in to work one day, I got rear ended at a stop light by a person who didn’t see my car because of the sun glare. By the time jammed his breaks, it ended up being more of a firm love tap than a collision (pictured above).

 

Damage from “off roading”

 

Shortly before I was due to turn the car in at the end of its lease, I drove over some landscaping boulders pulling out of a parking spot at work. This did sufficient damage to the car that I had to get this (along with all the other aforementioned damage) repaired.

The LaCrosse was a supremely competent freeway cruiser, and the Harmon Kardon sound system was among the best factory sound systems I’d ever heard. The hard drive-based navigation system was far more responsive than the DVD-based system in my previous rides, and it even had an interesting radio DVR feature that you could use to pause, rewind, and fast-forward through radio broadcasts. To GM’s credit, the car was solid and reliable.

If my list of compliments for this car were long, so too was my list of grievances. Chief among them was that the Touring package was unavailable with all wheel drive. In an example of the kind of poor product planning that the old GM was famous for, Buick decided that AWD would only be available on the mid-level LaCrosse, and not the top-end model (I believe they corrected this a model year or two later). This unfortunately meant a return to snow tires, and the twice-yearly ritual of switching out the wheels and tires.

While the fake stitching on the padded dash looked convincing enough, the fake wood on the doors and dashboard unfortunately did not. For some reason, fake wood always looks a little too orangey. Worse, the glossy finish on the plastiwood was easily scratched, and after a few years it looked far older than it should have.

Ultimately, the LaCrosse worked out for me about as well as it did for Buick. It may have been a failure, but it was a brilliant failure.