COAL: 2006 Buick Lacrosse CX – Chapter 29, No. Just No.

This is a story about a car that came into my family’s life through the push of a button.  It should have pushed all the right buttons for me.  But it didn’t.  Two prior COALs in this series have involved me buying cars from my mother.  This one was the third (and last).

Isn’t there that one person in the life of every “car person”?  That would be the owner who takes such great care of a car that when he or she is ready to replace it, there should be a fight over who gets to adopt the cream puff.  My mother was always that car owner in my life.  Once we kids were out of the house, Mom bought three new cars – two Crown Victorias (a navy blue 1985 and a dark cranberry 1993) and this one.  Each of them, though several years old by the time I got them, had low miles, had always been garaged and well maintained, and was in gorgeous condition.

How she got the Buick is one of my favorite stories.  By 2005, her 1993 Crown Victoria was twelve years old.  That may have been the oldest car my mother ever owned, and she was from that generation that once a car got past a decade old, it was only a matter of time before it dissolves into a pile of rusty, greasy, broken parts on your (previously) clean garage floor.  She looked at new Crown Victorias a time or two (I remember her telling me how much she liked one painted “Arizona Tan”, but she was reluctant to spend that much money, being retired and all.

My mother went from being a Ford girl to a Buick girl with the push of a button.  My mother loved contests, and entered them whenever she could.  In the summer of 2005, GM was running the second generation of its “Hot Button Contest”.  Mom had seen the ads on TV and decided that she needed to enter.  She waltzed into her local Buick dealer (because it was the GM dealer nearest to her home).  She was taken to a car on the showroom floor and instructed to have a seat, then press the On-Star button.  She did, then waited while the person on the other end of the link did whatever was necessary, and then Mom heard an excited voice through the radio speakers saying “Mrs. Cavanaugh, you have won a car!”

My mother’s choice of locations to enter the contest was fortuitous.  The rules said that a winner would receive the lowest priced model of the brand used to enter the contest.  Had she gone to a Chevrolet or Pontiac dealer, she would have won an Aveo or a Wave.  These would not have been her kind of car at all, and would surely have been traded on something more to her tastes.  But the smallest, least expensive Buick in 2005-06 was the Lacrosse.

The car would be a special order 2006, and she could choose to add any options (at her own cost) that she might want. She picked up a brochure, then she and I went through it to see what she might want to add.  She picked the Cardinal Red paint, mainly because none of the other colors really stood out.  She wanted the leather covered steering wheel (which required a package with some other things) and I advised her to choose the alloy wheels to avoid the plastic wheel covers.  Those choices made, she ordered the car and waited.

It arrived in October of 2006, and I, Marianne and my sister met Mom and drove to the dealership.  She was all dressed up because the GM representative had suggested that there might be a news crew there.  We got there and other than getting to drive out in a nearly-free new car, the experience was a bit of a disappointment.  There was nobody there from the news in her small city, and the owner of the dealership never even came out of his office to shake her hand.  A salesman met her, spent a few minutes with the paperwork, showed her some features on the car, and that was that.  Going to the Olive Garden for lunch was the most memorable part of the experience.  In hindsight, perhaps I can understand the dealer’s lack of enthusiasm.  “Hoo-boy, our winner is a 72-year-old retired lady, just like 96% of our other customers.”  No demographic stretch for Buick occurred from this prize.

I remember being impressed with the car on that short drive to lunch and then back to her house.  The 3.8L V6 and 4-speed automatic were decidedly old-school by 2006, but they were durable and pleasant in their operation.  I was lukewarm on the styling, but I found the interior miles ahead of the GM W body cars from a few years previously – mainly because it did not look like it was designed in 1981.  Mom liked the car a lot during the next nine years and 24,000 miles.  She never loved it as much as she loved her Crown Victorias, but she also said more than once that she had reached the age where she liked the smaller size.

Last week’s COAL related the story of my Miata that began at the CC Auburn meetup in October of 2014.  I remember that meetup  so well because it was on our way to lunch on Saturday that I got a call from my sister telling me that our mother had landed in the hospital and likely needed some surgery for an intestinal issue.  Mom had that surgery a few days later, but the procedure was long and difficult, with a recovery was touch and go for awhile.  The short version is that Mom never fully recovered from the ordeal, with some early-stage dementia being pushed forward by quite a bit.  She never drove the Buick again.

It was quite clear that she was not safe to drive and the red Lacrosse sat in her garage while she spent time in the hospital and a short-term transitional nursing/rehab facility (from which she continually pestered us about “going home”.  My sister and I were petrified that she would want to drive again, and the solution was found in an ignition key recall that was being conducted (with some significant publicity) at the time.  Edith was never one to put off necessary car service and was fine with me driving the Buick to Indianapolis to have the recall done.  Then she was fine with us keeping the car for awhile because “it’s not good to let a car sit.”  I did not ask her how sitting now was different from all the sitting it had done during the years when it had racked up under 2,700 miles a year.  Mom did get home, but was only there for a couple of months before even she realized that she could not manage living on her own any longer and moved to an assisted living facility.

It became clear that our mother being car-less was going to be a long-term thing, and so the Lacrosse became available.  In theory, this should have been a perfect fit in the JPC fleet.  During the many chapters of this COAL series, have we all lost count of the number of times I found a lightly used, really well-kept older car and put it into daily service with mostly-great results?  I know I have.  Cars with little discreet AAA Plus or State Farm bumper stickers have always made great older daily drivers, so long as you are willing to put up with the kinds of cars that were popular with AARP members when they were new.  (The cars, not the AARP members).  But for reasons that are hard for me to explain, I came to detest this car.

What was so irritating about this poor innocent little Buick?  I wrote about the experience after I spent a couple of months with it in 2015, and I will let those rants remain, as they were fresher then.  The distilled version is that it was a PITA to get into and out of owing to the low roof and a B pillar that I bumped into every single time.  The car also exhibited the longest accelerator pedal travel I have ever experienced.  Where the 93 Crown Vic had a short throttle arc and an aggressive tip-in, the Buick was the opposite with a gas pedal that seemed to do very little without a conscious effort to push it harder.  Within about a month I lost track of the times I looked at the speedometer and was going slower than I wanted to go, because I had not jammed the gas pedal down hard enough and kept it there.  All those old folks who used to go too slow in their Buicks?  Maybe it wasn’t just the drivers.

Finally, the slow steering and imprecise handling mated to a ride that was no quieter or smoother than average pushed me into a dark place.  It was like GM found a way to incorporate all of the disadvantages of a 5,000 pound car but eliminate all of the advantages.  Life, I decided, was just too short to drive a car that irritated me every time I drove it.  The only thing I liked about it was that it reminded me of my mother, but that wasn’t enough for me to endure the other things.

There were so many things about this Buick that should have made it one of my favorites.  First, you all know that I love good old fashioned ‘Murcan torque.  I also love a really durable drivetrain.  This Buick had both of those things.  There are few cars from its era that can match the classic Buick 3.8 V6 and GM’s old 4-speed automatic transaxle in those categories.  I also love older cars in really great condition, and this Buick was the next thing to a new car for the price of one that was approaching a decade old.  I remembered not being in love with the big GM sleds I had driven several years earlier, but I had acknowledged that those were the cars that General Motors had been uniquely good at building, so I could appreciate their many areas of competence.  But those cars had been designed in the 1970’s.  A lot happened to GM after the late 1970’s, and not much of it was good.

The car got a reprieve, however, when my son John got an internship with a small advertising agency while he was in college.  This required the lad to drive a 150-mile round trip about three days a week, and I became concerned that the old Crown Victoria might not be the best choice for that duty.  Grandma’s Buick, however, was just the ticket.  John adopted the Lacrosse, and as of early 2023 (and nearly seven years of living as a “real adult”) John is still rocking the Buick, with somewhere around 75k on the odo even  now.

Some people name their cars, but this one has always been “The Buick”.  There is no confusing it with all of the other Buicks owned by his family and friends – because there aren’t any other ones.  But John has never been afraid to go his own way and an aging red Buick sort of fits his brand.  It is unusual, but has some really good attributes for one willing to look past the surface.  It also accommodates his 6’6″ frame very well.  I have not asked his new bride about her opinion of the Buick.  Maybe I should.  The answer could be fun.

The Buick has been a good car.  For John.  As it has aged it has had some niggling issues with taillight sockets that are finicky about making a good connection and a plastic door handle that broke when he tried to open a frozen door.  We pulled the door apart and replaced the broken handle with one bought online (and strengthened with JB Weld in the area prone to cracking).  What is it about modern cars and breakable plastic door handles?  Lately the aircon has started to mimic that of my 89 Cadillac, where it cools fine on the highway but not so well in the city.  And whose idea was it to make the battery so inaccessible?  But on the plus side, the car has lived outside for the better part of a decade now and the paint still looks great.  There is no need to ask about the engine (with a basic design that dates to 1962) or the transmission (that goes back to 1982).  Those things are barely broken in.

How long I owned this car is kind of a puzzler.  At first I thought that I had only owned it for maybe 6 months.  Or until John finished paying for it a couple of years later.  But it turns out that I have owned this car for almost 8 years now.  John and I keep having the conversation about his need to take the signed title to the BMV and get it formally put into his name, but who likes going to the BMV?  It is one of those little things that keeps getting put off.  License plates are coming due again, so maybe this will be the year I finally get rid of the Buick.