(first posted 12/3/2014) The Cadillac STS and Buick Lucerne were both introduced in the mid-2000s to serve as flagship, full-size luxury sedans for their respective brands. Both sedans were caught up in the drama of GM’s bankruptcy and reorganisation, and would prove to be developmental dead ends. Neither would be directly replaced when they both shuffled off the automotive market in 2011. Both featured a more European style than their predecessors, and they were both available with Magnetic Ride Control and the smooth Northstar V8. However, that’s where the similarities end as these two GM sedans ultimately represented quite different takes on the concept of luxury. This week, let’s look at the Lucerne.
The Lucerne was introduced in 2006 as a replacement for the aging Buick LeSabre and Park Avenue. The former was reliable and dependable, but saddled with a low-rent interior and old-fashioned styling; the latter had been on the market for almost a decade. The average age of Buick buyers had become unsustainable and the brand’s image was firmly in “joke” territory. Buick was making an effort to skew younger, and was starting to succeed with products like the Rendezvous and, later, the Enclave crossover.
The Lucerne had to retain both the traditional, bargain-oriented, full-size sedan buyers as well as those hankering for a traditional domestic luxury sedan. In addition, the Lucerne had to appeal to new, younger buyers, particularly those who would usually buy imports.
The Lucerne, on an aesthetic level, succeeded at its mission statement. It managed to add some vaguely European styling cues without looking too foreign and risk alienating traditional shoppers. For those after some heritage Buick cues, Ventiports reappeared (three on each side for the V6, four for the V8). Styling was smoother and more modern than its fellow Hamtramck-built G platform-mate, the Cadillac DTS, which attempted to apply Art & Science styling cues to the aging DeVille body. The Lucerne looked fresher and trimmer; it was 4.4 inches shorter than the DTS, but still a big ‘un with 6.6 inches on the Chrysler 300. The range-topping CXS featured tasteful chrome accented fog lights and 10-spoke aluminum wheels, giving it a more premium look.
The interior was a huge improvement, with better-quality materials and a clean, simple design. There was an optional infotainment screen with satellite navigation, and other available features included heated and ventilated front seats, remote start, 9-speaker Harmon Kardon stereo, lane departure warning, AUX input and curtain airbags. A bench seat was available on lesser models.
Where the Lucerne didn’t advance, though, was in its powertrains. The Lucerne didn’t pick up the extinct Aurora’s Shortstar V6, a smoother and more modern unit, nor the increasingly used 3.5/3.9 “High Value” V6 and up-to-date 3.6 “High Feature” V6. Instead, the venerable 3.8 V6 made a repeat appearance in CX and CXL trims. Although reliable, the 3.8 was outperformed by almost every rival V6, with only 197hp and 233 ft-lbs; 0-60 was approximately 8.8 seconds.
The supercharged 3.8 was no more, replaced by the 4.6 Northstar V8 now available outside of the Cadillac stable. Available in CXL and CXS trims, this was the first V8 Buick sedan since the Roadmaster was axed in 1996. Refined over the years, the Northstar had become a more solidly reliable powertrain but no more powerful; in the Lucerne, it had the Cadillac Seville SLS’ 275hp and 295 ft-lbs tune and a 0-60 of around 7 seconds. In CXS trim, it featured Magnetic Ride Control, previously introduced in the Seville STS. Using dampers filled with magnetorheological fluid, MRC served to eliminate the float and body roll prominent in lesser Lucernes and provide flatter cornering and sharper handling. All Lucernes also featured front and rear stabilizer bars and an all-independent suspension, but it was only the CXS that had any dynamism. GM showed that MRC could significantly improve the handling of a 4000lb, nose-heavy, FWD sedan without sacrificing the ride quality that traditional Buick consumers craved.
Both the V6 and V8 were mated to smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmissions, while most rivals were up to five or six speeds with available manual shift control; many rivals also boasted standard V6 engines that bested the V6 and even the V8. All Lucernes, however, featured Buick’s much-touted Quiet Tuning, providing occupants with a tomb-like silence. The stiff G-Body may have dated back to the 1990s, but it still had some life in it. A shame, then, that Old GM nickel-and-dimed the Lucerne by offering 4-speed autos and the 3.8 V6.
Despite the onslaught of bankruptcy proceedings and the lack of critical buzz, the Lucerne did receive some worthwhile upgrades. In 2009, the moribund 3.8 was ditched in favour of the newer, more powerful (227hp, 237 ft-lbs) 3.9 High Value V6, with available Flex-Fuel capability. Despite being more powerful, the 3.9 had the same EPA ratings (17/25mpg).
The CXL V8 and CXS were dropped after 2008, replaced by a new flagship Super trim. The Super featured a bold, new, waterfall grille, a French seam leather dash, heated steering wheel and suede trim on the seats and doors. In addition, the Super now featured the performance-tuned version of the Northstar shared with the DTS Performance. Power was up to 292hp, but torque was down slightly to 288 ft-lbs; due to the more aggressive tune, though, gas mileage was also down to 15/22 mpg. The chassis was fettled for more responsive handling, and the new flagship retained the CXS’ Magnetic Ride Control. Ultimately though, a MSRP of around $40k (when the base CX 3.9 retailed for $27k) and a lack of marketing meant the Super was bound to be rare.
The Lucerne was always a quietly unassuming player, with little in the way of critical buzz and only modest commercial success. Even GM didn’t push the flagship Buick much, with a limited airing of commercials touting its Quiet Tuning, build quality and… its heated washer fluid (“cool story, bro”). No real mention was made of the V8 models or Magnetic Ride Control. Perhaps this was wise, as such performance features weren’t high on the list of priorities for Lucerne buyers, but at the same time it left buyers unaware of the sonorous V8 and the surprising dynamism of the CXS/Super’s handling, the latter of which earned the respect of critics despite their criticism of the aged transmission and over-boosted steering.
All Lucernes received the Super’s rocker panels, grille and fog lights for 2010; this would be the last update before Buick’s flagship and its DTS sibling were axed for 2011. The full-size sedan segment had been steadily shrinking, however. Sales for the debut year were strong (96k units), but were lower than the LeSabre’s sales just a couple of years prior. Sales would continue to steadily drop, reaching a low of 20k units in 2011.
The introduction of a new LaCrosse in 2010 – featuring a sharp, fastback profile, heritage sweepspear and a gorgeous new interior, not to mention an available 3.6 V6 that outperformed the Lucerne’s engines – also served to undermine the Lucerne. This classy new LaCrosse would become Buick’s flagship sedan.
The Lucerne actually received meaningful updates – more so than its stablemates – and represented a big improvement over its predecessors. In fact, it may be the best Seville that Cadillac never made, at least in CXS and Super trims. However, it wasn’t at the top of its class and the near-luxury/full-size sedan segment didn’t sit still.
Curbsiders: has anyone ever owned or driven a Lucerne? Ever entertained the possibility of buying one? Discuss below, and tune in for the next instalment where we look at Cadillac’s mid-2000s attempt at a flagship sedan.