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2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist: The Guide To Future Hybrids?

You don't expect a Buick to set technology trends, which is why we found the 2012 LaCrosse eAssist to be a surprise. The drivetrain could very well be a textbook example for mainstream vehicles.

Even though hybrids have been sold in the U.S. since 1999, and even though we are accustomed to the sight of Priuses on the roads, we have to admit that owning a hybrid vehicle is still somewhat special, requiring a certain conviction to actually buy such a car. You simply don't buy a hybrid by accident today. When GM gave me a 2012 LaCrosse eAssist for a week, I experienced that idea of a hybrid when I first sat down in the car's comfy cabin. A few seconds later, I wondered whether they had given me the right car. There are no hybrid badges inside and out, no obvious green tree symbols with the exception of the rather useless "eco" indicator in the speedometer. Wasn't it GM that added 20 or so hybrid badges on its Escalade and Tahoe hybrid vehicles? Shouldn’t there be any badges here if it is a hybrid?

I'll get back to that question along with an answer a bit later.

In the end, I discovered the engine power hybrid mode screenin the navigation screen and a smaller screen behind the steering wheel, as well as the substantial battery pack in the trunk of the car. So, it was, in fact, the right car and not a leftover 2011 LaCrosse.

Standardizing the Hybrid Vehicle

For the 2012 model year, Buick replaced the standard 182 hp, 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine with the same 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine that now comes standard with a 15 hp electric motor. The base price climbed by $2,830 and is now exactly on par with the 303 hp, 6-cylinder power plant. For $30,820 you can choose either the V6 power plant that you would normally expect in such a substantial sedan and deal with a fuel efficiency of 17/27 MPG, or choose a weaker option that delivers 25/36 MPG. I should mention that the eAssist version is also much more efficient than the previous version without electric assistance (19/30 MPG). Even if you pay more now than you did in 2011, the base LaCrosse now consumes, on paper, 25 percent less gasoline, which turns the almost $3,000 premium into a reasonable proposition. Initially, I found the LaCrosse eAssist to be a rather confusing vehicle due to the lack of hybrid "marketing" as well as the decision to add the electric motor to a wimpy engine that never fit the LaCrosse anyway. However, the longer you drive the car, the more it makes sense.

Drive

According to GM, the 15 hp, 79 lb-ft electric motor (powered by a 0.5 kWh battery) does not change the horsepower rating of the car of 182 hp and is only available in certain driving conditions. Other than a traditional hybrid, it is an unpredictable feature that you cannot provoke to kick in at any time you want. You can't sail and run on electric only. Instead, use the 15 hp when you need it. Hopefully, it will take the edge off when you are driving up a hill, for example. I found the feature to be available especially under extreme acceleration, which is a bit of an exaggeration for this vehicle. The LaCrosse is not built for sudden and fast acceleration. If you request it (0-60 mph: 8.9 seconds), the metallic sound of the engine and the quickly rising RPMs quickly convince you to hold back. Interestingly, the electric motor is only present under heavy acceleration, which is exactly what you want to avoid if you are watching your fuel consumption.

Otherwise, the 2012 LaCrosse has not changed much. For a bottom line of $36,685, my tester was fairly loaded with power everything, wood accents throughout the cabin, comfortable leather seats, an upgraded entertainment package with high-end speakers, a navigation system, blind spot warning and HID lights. There was even a head-up display, which you may not expect in a Buick. We found it to be more annoying than useful. The driving comfort is on the cushy side and does not provide much steering feedback. It's clearly built for cruising and excels as a comfortable highway vehicle that, by the way, featured outstanding build quality and materials that are easily in Lexus territory. You can argue against the shape of the car, especially when it is covered in the gold mist color of our model, but the cabin is among the best I have seen in this class of car, for a price of less than $40,000.

Compared to the 3.6 liter model, the eAssist version has a smaller fuel tank (15.7 gallons versus 18.4 gallons), which is due to the space the battery pack requires. However, the 15 or so gallons of gasoline are still good for a range of 400 miles. Our average fuel consumption during the week was a rather disappointing 24.7 MPG, below the EPA rating, but our driving was limited to a suburban cycle. We noticed that a steady cruise at 45 or 55 MPH can easily yield 35 MPG on average and approach 40 MPG with soft hypermiling efforts. Let's not forget that the predecessor only achieved 19 MPG on average, so the 24.7 MPG is a considerable improvement, no matter how you look at it. For an additional $3,000 (which also includes some lower tech aerodynamic changes, such as electric grille shutters in the front of the car), I ended up rather impressed by the LaCrosse eAssist.

The Choice

So, which engine do you pick? Personally, I am still not convinced that the average LaCrosse buyer will find the hybrid version to be a more appealing offer than the strong 6-cylinder model. Considering the typical buyer, the setup of the car, as well as its substantial length of 197 inches, the 303 hp V6 will make more sense to most buyers. It's the type of engine that helps the vehicle to move with the kind of grace for which it was built. The 182 hp-four still feels somewhat odd to me.

However, what makes this car interesting is that if there weren't energy monitors, and if there was no battery logo in the trunk, you would never suspect this car to be a hybrid. Suddenly, you wonder: Shouldn't every hybrid be like that? I would guess that this could be the very first hybrid some buyers could buy accidentally, without explicitly looking for a hybrid vehicle.

The eAssist, mild hybrid, or micro hybrid seems to be a reasonable and affordable way for manufacturers to boost fuel efficiency in their worst-performing models. For the LaCrosse, it may not make perfect sense yet, but the approach is something we could experience as the new normal in the not-too-distant future.