(first posted 6/26/2015) Not too long ago, our J.P. Cavanaugh expressed his dissatisfaction with the first-generation Buick LaCrosse. Many of you agreed the LaCrosse was a somewhat half-baked effort, considering the era in which it was introduced. Its debut year, 2005, had also marked the launch of the similarly-priced Chrysler 300 whose bold styling and rear-wheel-drive dynamics received tremendous critical acclaim and sales numbers. Next to that, the bulbous LaCrosse – still riding on the aging W-Body platform – seemed decidedly unexciting. Buick once enjoyed an upper-middle class positioning, but there was little reason to buy the purportedly more prestigious LaCrosse over, say, an Accord. But would a 300-horsepower, 5.3 V8 make the LaCrosse more palatable?
Most of the LaCrosse’s flaws of course remained, but the results of wedging a honkin’ V8 in a milquetoast, mid-size car with front-wheel-drive weren’t too shabby. Of course, that pesky Chrysler 300 was already offering big V8 performance in a more attractive package, so the short-lived, scarcely-marketed LaCrosse Super never tore up the sales charts.
In order to inject some excitement into Buick’s sedan lineup, and to help keep the brand’s momentum going after the launch of the extremely successful Enclave crossover, Buick had dusted off the Super nameplate for 2008. First introduced in 1940, the Super had slotted above the entry-level Special but below the Century and Roadmaster. The name would be a victim of Buick’s lineup renaming of 1958. The name would return 50 years later as a performance sub-brand, comprising LaCrosse and Lucerne sedans engineered by GM’s Performance Division. Rather than focus on simply increasing power, the new sub-brand was said to emphasize both greater dynamics and refinement.
While the Lucerne Super featured GM’s venerable Northstar V8, the LaCrosse Super would come with the LS4 V8. GM had introduced this engine in the W-Body platform in 2005 with the Pontiac Grand Prix GXP, followed by the Chevrolet Impala SS and Monte Carlo SS in 2006. While the Grand Prix GXP famously used bigger front tires and had various other performance modifications including a TapShift automatic transmission and Bilstein shocks, the LS4 Chevys’ performance improvements were scarce. The GXP thus received modest critical praise for its effortless power and surprisingly competent dynamics, while the SS twins received scorn for their flaccid, thoroughly unsporting handling.
Although the LS4 had the same displacement as the Vortec 5300 used in GM’s trucks, it featured cylinder heads from the LS6 V8 and an aluminum block. To make it fit in the W-Body engine bay, the crankshaft was shortened and the water pump mounted remotely. Thanks to the use of aluminum, the LS4 was actually less heavy than the 3800 used in the Grand Prix. All LS4s featured Active Fuel Management (also known as Displacement on Demand) which shut off cylinders under light-load conditions to aid fuel economy. Thanks to this technology, the LaCrosse Super achieved 16/24mpg but required premium gas.
The LaCrosse Super split the difference between its W-Body counterparts in athleticism, receiving more modifications than the Chevy but fewer than the Pontiac. The LaCrosse Super still received Bilstein monotube shocks as well as larger brake rotors and a steering rack with closer fitting gear teeth and tighter bushings. The ride was more compliant than the firm GXP, but the handling was more buttoned-down than the SS. Torque steer had been significantly quelled and the modifications to the steering rack improved feel slightly. Throttle mapping was less aggressive, and the LS4 lost three horsepower in its tri-shield application due to a retuned (and quieter) exhaust but still had a hefty 300 hp and 323 pound-feet of torque.
Those figures actually bested the more expensive Lucerne Super, which made do with only 292 hp and 288 lb-ft. While the Lucerne accomplished 0-60 in around 7 seconds, the LaCrosse Super was capable of the dash in just 5.7 seconds. However, it made do without the Lucerne’s Magnetic Ride Control, although the Lucerne in turn lacked the Active Fuel Management technology and was less fuel-efficient.
The LaCrosse Super was easily the most exciting, performance-oriented Buick since the 1980s, although it was a second slower from 0-60 than the legendary GNX. Buick didn’t label the Super as a muscle car, instead billing it as a “luxury touring sedan”. It benefited from the same Quiet Tuning improvements, like laminated glass, as other Buicks. These helped render the car’s cabin serene but for the muted growl of the LS4. Body roll was more pronounced than in the GXP, and yet Car & Driver found the Super stopped shorter, held onto the skidpad longer and felt more stable at high speeds than its ostensibly sportier cousin.
While the GXP received flashy wheels and exposed, red brake rotors and the SS had large badging and unique wheels, the Super’s exterior treatment was much more subtle. All LaCrosses received a larger, bolder grille for 2008, inspired by the beautiful Velite concept car. Supers were differentiated with quad Ventiports, 18-inch alloy wheels, a neat decklid spoiler, dual chrome exhaust tips and extended rocker panels. The look was subtle, almost to the point of being unnoticeable: the perfect sleeper. Colors were limited to black, silver, red and brown.
But as J.P. Cavanaugh pointed out, the LaCrosse did share an uncomfortably close resemblance with the 1996-99 Ford Taurus. There were some pleasant, curvaceous details in the LaCrosse’s sheetmetal, but its front-wheel-drive layout hindered their application. The LaCrosse suffered from an excessive front overhang, which throws off the proportions, but the Super’s exterior enhancements did help elevate it above lesser LaCrosses.
In Super trim, the LaCrosse received some minor interior tweaks. Silver accents were employed on the dash, doors and sill plates and the gauge cluster was blue, as in the Lucerne Super. Seats featured woven “Dreamweave” inserts, although they were still fairly flat and lacked much in the way of bolstering. Supers were relatively well-equipped, with heated leather seats and rear park assist. But the LaCrosse’s interior flaws – dated, fiddly switchgear and various low-rent plastic trim pieces – remained in evidence, and the interior was not as elegant as the Lucerne Super with its stitched leather dash top and suede trim. There was still no AUX jack or navigation screen, although the interior was available in a cocoa color which could be paired with the Super signature exterior color, Dark Mocha Metallic, for an intensely brown affair. Overall, the interior was neither sporty nor as modern and elegant as that in the similarly new-for-2008 Cadillac CTS.
That CTS was another convincing alternative to Buick’s sporty new sedan. After all, an extra $4k netted you the Caddy with its exquisitely styled interior and exterior and much newer platform with better handling. Basically, the CTS was an objectively better car in every way.
An issue with the Super that wouldn’t rear its head until later was the reliability of its 4T65E-HD automatic transmission, originally designed for much less powerful applications. W-Body enthusiasts, especially those on sites like GM LS4 and LS1Tech, have denounced these transmissions for their unreliability.
GM’s Performance Division had managed to make a reasonably competent “luxury touring sedan” out of the LaCrosse, but where was the market? The W-Body was a lameduck platform at this point, with a new Epsilon-based LaCrosse on the horizon and the Grand Prix dead after 2008. Buick anticipated the Super would account for around 10% of LaCrosse sales.
Buick had been optimistic. Maybe it was the lack of promotion or the abundance of compelling competitors, but the LaCrosse Super clocked a meager 2,277 sales in 2008. The following year, only 139 were sold. The GXP and SS were cheaper but still outsold the Super by at least 2-to-1; even the moribund Monte Carlo SS V8 had massively outsold the Super in its truncated run a few years earlier. Well over 90% of LaCrosse sales during 2008-09 were humdrum CX and CXL models with the Iron Age 3800 up front.
It’s hard to figure out who the target market was for the LaCrosse Super. It was probably too subtle to appeal to those who eventually bought 300s and Chargers. Although it handled competently, it was no sports sedan either: consumers desiring such a car would be better served by the Pontiac G8. Those seeking a powerful sedan in winter climates could option the 300 and Charger V8s with all-wheel-drive. The Super lacked the high-quality interior of the Lexus ES350, which Buick would more convincingly tackle with the 2010 Epsilon-based LaCrosse. All that seems to leave is dyed-in-the-wool Buick fans and perhaps the odd Avalon cross-shopper who found themselves tantalized by the extra power.
As of yet, there has been no reintroduction of the Super nameplate to the LaCrosse line. Buick’s short-lived attempt at a performance sub-brand would die in 2011 with the Lucerne Super, but performance would live on. The Regal GS – another old name dusted off – boasts turbocharged performance and an aggressive exterior, as does the more sedately-styled Verano Turbo. Both are much more well-rounded and convincing cars with higher-quality interiors, more features and modern styling. There is no longer a Buick available with a V8. But did such an engine really help the LaCrosse?