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Buick Lucerne: Now or Never

Will the GM division that still seeks its definition find it with the ’06 Lucerne?

Relevance and recognition are two factors that will make or break any consumer product brand. If a brand does not positively resonate with consumers in some way, or if the product fails to project the desired image, it’s time to call the morgue. If there is one auto brand that has failed to find a single, consistent theme, it’s Buick. Over the past several years, as the brand has expanded to include the Rendezvous and Rainer SUVs, as well as the LaCrosse sedan and Terazza minivan, Buick has failed to gain a strong position in the market. First, it turned to golf star Tiger Woods as its key spokesperson, then came the long-dead (1969) designer Harley Earl. Most recently, the brand pulled the plug on its Aerosmith-inspired “dream up” campaign. So while still trying to find its voice, Buick finds itself at a critical crossroad as the brand introduces its new Lucerne sedan, which replaces both the LeSabre and Park Avenue (just as the LaCrosse replaced the Century and the Regal). In other words, it’s once again crunch time for Buick.

Buick General Manager Steve Shannon says the Lucerne will bring in customers from such high-caliber brands as Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. Asked what Buick stands for today, Shannon pauses for a few surprising seconds and then blurts out: “We’re an American alternative to overpriced import sedans.” Now onto the next question: How do you get a Lexus owner to consider walking into a Buick showroom, to say nothing of actually signing on the bottom line? Shannon admits most near-luxury car buyers do have some negative “baggage” about Buick. In a lot of upscale neighborhoods in the country, people might say, ‘Buick is a nice car, but it’s not for me.’” Odd, since Buick has consistently scored as one of the top five marques in the J.D. Power and Associates initial quality and vehicle dependability study. Shannon says product is a critical part of turning Buick’s image around and he points to Chrysler as a good example of product changing perception. “How many people a year-and-a-half ago would have said, ‘I would never buy a Chrysler and I would never be seen in a Chrysler showroom?’” he says. “Now, they say, ‘Ooh, the 300, I like that. I think I want one of these.’” But don’t think for a minute the Lucerne is a 300-fighter. While the Buick does come with an optional 4.6-liter Northstar V8, it lacks the 300’s rear-wheel drive configuration. But that doesn’t faze Shannon, either. “GM has been making big front-wheel drive cars for a while now, and we do a pretty good job at it,” he says. The Lucerne, incidentally, rides on the same platform as the Cadillac DTS, which isn’t a bad thing, unless you are Cadillac.

The foundation provided by the DTS is solid and Buick reaps compounding rewards from Cadillac’s efforts. While Buick likes to go on and on about the “QuietTuning” interior on the Lucerne, chief engineer Ed Zellner reveals that both the DTS and Lucerne share sound deadening systems. What’s exclusive for Buick? Well, the Lucerne does have unique bushings, engine mounts and suspension tuning. One area where the DTS and Lucerne are completely different is styling, both inside and out. The Lucerne is what Shannon calls “a hint” of the future design of Buick vehicles, with its large waterfall grille, jeweled headlamps and smooth flowing surfaces. From the front, the Lucerne is clearly trying to hit Lexus head-on; from the rear, the style takes on a more Germanic sense, ala Volkswagen Phaeton (not sure you’d want to model your styling after VW’s biggest failure). To build off of Buick’s heritage, stylists incorporate portholes on the front quarter panel, with three holes on each side designating V6 equipped cars and four holes signifying V8 powered models. It is, admittedly, a nice touch on a space that would normally be plain and bland. While the outside may be a departure from Buick tradition, Lucerne’s interior holds on to the brand’s geriatric roots, with its flat, slab design. While the inset three-gauge cluster design provides a minimal sporty appearance and the fit-and-finish is impeccable, a certain style on par with the likes of Lexus and Infiniti is lacking. The center stack is tastefully done, although the black plastic trim fails to provide a luxury feel or appearance.

The Lucerne benefits from its platform sharing with the Cadillac DTS, but there’s still that nagging problem of the brand and its plagued geriatric image. “There are people who at one point in time would never consider buying a product from brand X and then all of the sudden brand X has a product that overcomes that,” Shannon says, proclaiming the Lucerne will fill that mission for Buick. He better hope that vision pans out, because Buick needs to find its purpose quickly.