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2010 Buick LaCrosse vs. 2009 Lexus ES 350 Comparison Test

If you do your part to forget about your (grand)father's Buick, we'll do ours to refrain from picking the low-hanging fruit when it comes to smart remarks in this comparison test of the 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS and the 2009 Lexus ES 350. There will be no references to forgotten left-turn signals or Murder She Wrote. Instead we'll ensure our focus remains on how well each car fulfills its promise of entry-level luxury.

Rather than our usual 20 percent emphasis on intended acceleration and other track performances, we'll count those only as 10 percent of the total score for this comparison. Instead, we'll reward these cars more heavily for their ability to coddle, pamper and supply the kind of features a modern luxury car should — increasing this component of the final tally to 25 percent from our normal 20 percent. And in light of this era of doomsday economics, we've made the price 25 percent of the final score, up from 20 percent.

The Luxury Landscape

What started in 1989 as a gussied-up Toyota Camry has matured over 20 years into one of the best-selling luxury sedans in the U.S. It might surprise you that the low-profile front-wheel-drive Lexus ES historically has been the sales leader for the high-profile Lexus brand, outselling its more expensive rear-wheel-drive Lexus siblings like the GS and IS, not to mention the range-topping LS. The expectation of super reliability, solicitous service writers, loaner cars and projected resale value had much to do with the success of the entry-level Lexus, which is perceived as a great value for the luxury received.

We also believe one of the reasons for the ES's popularity is the relatively thin field of competitors in the segment of entry-level luxury sedans. The Acura TL has gone all beak-nosed and high-tech, alienating those in search of simple luxury. The Cadillac CTS is conflicted and needs a singular concept ("Standard of the World" might be a good one to dust off). Infiniti is still trying to establish itself, though neither the G nor the M sedans seem to fit the luxury segment. Lincoln has failed so many times with rebadged Fords that nobody pays much attention anymore, and any differentiation among the cryptically described MKS, MKT, MKX and MKZ devolves into a case of brand glaucoma. As far as the German sedans go, choices for buyers not interested in Nürburgring lap times have been limited.

Meanwhile, Lexus has been quietly reaping the rewards by satisfying buyers looking for a comfortable, reasonably priced luxury sedan, and so the 2009 Lexus ES 350 is the latest in a long line of sedans that have trudged along essentially unchallenged in this market segment. But now GM — and more specifically, Buick — wants some of that action, and the 2010 Buick LaCrosse is its answer.

Is Buick the New Lexus?

So it was only a little surprising that when the all-new 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS (base price of $33,765) arrived at Edmunds HQ, it appeared more than prepared to take on the 2009 Lexus ES 350 at $35,345.

Anyone who doubts the LaCrosse's mission is to compete with the ES 350 need only scan the lengthy standard equipment list and drive one a couple hundred yards. As Dan Pund said in our Full Test of the LaCrosse CXS, "Really, people, you're going to have to get past your whole Buick thing. Wake up; times are changing."

And judging from your interest in our quick test of the 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXL with its 3.0-liter V6 and our full test of the LaCrosse CXS with its 3.6-liter V6, this all-new Buick has your attention, as well it should.

Lazy Boy

When we drove the LaCrosse and ES 350 side-by-side during our comparison testing, it was immediately evident that the standard, heated/ventilated, leather-upholstered front seats in the 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS were far more comfortable and supportive than the ES 350's optional seats. (Leather upholstery isn't even standard on the 2009 Lexus ES 350.) Extra point for Buick that these easy chairs also boast handsome and well-executed double stitching, a detail that's evident throughout the cabin.

According to the SAE's calibrated tape measure, the front accommodations of the two sedans are within fractions of an inch of one another, but the rear seats of the Buick not only measure larger but also are noticeably larger to the eye as well. Yes, we have noted that the Buick surrenders about 2 cubic feet of trunk volume (and a smaller aperture as well as limited rearward visibility) to enjoy this asset, but its cargo capacity of 12.8 cubic feet is still large by most standards.

The rear seats in the Lexus are fixed and the armrest contains a ski-size pass-through. The rear seats in the LaCrosse also hide a ski-size pass-through, but additionally accommodate a 60/40-split folding feature that expands the cargo capability. And though our Buick isn't so equipped, there is an available rear-seat DVD entertainment system — an option not currently available in the Lexus.

The rear passengers of the Lexus also will be underwhelmed with a couple of HVAC vents, while the Buick supplies vents, a simple power point and a genuine two-prong AC power outlet. Both these cars are equipped with powered rear sunshades and rear side-mounted airbags.

Fine Motor Skills

In terms of driving dynamics, the Lexus has one subtle but distinct advantage over the Buick, because you never notice the drivetrain at all. We've praised Toyota's powerful and efficient 3.5-liter 2GR V6 in everything from a Toyota RAV4 and Sienna minivan to the Lexus IS 350 and RX 350. In the ES 350, the ultra-smooth and remarkably quiet V6 develops 272 horsepower, yet requires high-octane fuel to do so. The EPA's combined fuel economy rating for the 2009 Lexus ES 350 is 22 mpg, and we confirmed it with an observed average of 21 mpg.

The direct-injection 3.6-liter V6 in the 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS makes more power than the Lexus V6 with 280 hp and it does so with regular-grade fuel. At the same time, it also has to stir more than 2 tons of luxury sedan, which translates into an average of 18.5 mpg in our testing, while the official EPA rating is 21 mpg. The Buick never ever feels overburdened, but it just doesn't accomplish overtaking maneuvers as effortlessly as the Lexus. The transmission programming in the Buick is also busier than that of the Lexus, prioritizing fuel savings instead of seamless, unobtrusive power.

It's not a huge surprise the lighter ES 350 (by a whopping 472 pounds) outpaced the slightly more powerful Buick at the test track by about a half-second across all the sampled speeds. Then again, if a half-second matters to you, then you might be shopping in the wrong showroom. (Sport sedans are on the other side, sir, next to the branded athletic apparel.)

Fancy Suspenders

From behind the Buick CXS's standard heated steering wheel, we found its ride far more controlled and yet soothing than that of the squishy Lexus. The LaCrosse CXS has standard two-mode self-adjusting shock absorbers that do an excellent job of damping out impacts with a single(!) rebound stroke. In comparison, the Lexus feels soggy with its soft springs, and the traditional dampers allow the body to oscillate through at least two suspension cycles after an impact. There was a time (1997-2001) when the Lexus ES 300 offered Adaptive Variable Suspension, including a sport/comfort selector, but cost-cutting seems to have taken a toll.

It might not matter to you that the Buick's $800 Touring package includes 19-inch wheels (the Lexus wears standard 17s) and ties together transmission, steering and damping rates for what is supposed to be a sportier driving experience. Somebody once said, "A difference, to be a difference, must make a difference," and, frankly, we could scarcely detect any variation in the way the LaCrosse CXS drove in Sport or normal modes. Actually, we feel the 19-inch wheels and Touring suspension settings transmit a slightly more brittle ride quality compared to the standard 18-inch wheels and standard suspension.

In fact, the LaCrosse CXL we tested with 18-inch wheels and without the Touring package matched this LaCrosse CXS's handling numbers, registered lower sound levels at 70 mph and enveloped road irregularities with the same imperviousness as Mr. Fancy Dampers.

The Clock Never Stops

An area where the 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS scores big points is in our scoring for 10 selected features, including must-have items like navigation with real-time traffic information, remote starting, perforated leather seating with heat and ventilation, and so on. Of course there are items both cars have in common, like intelligent keys, premium audio systems, articulating xenon headlamps, dual-zone climate controls and oversize moonroofs.

Have a look at the Top 10 Features list, but in summary, of the 10 we chose, there were six important attributes we found to be standard on the Buick and the remaining four were optional. In contrast, there were six features that were not even available for the ES 350. In terms of scoring, this means the Buick LaCrosse CXS earns 80 points, where the Lexus ES 350 only manages 26.7 points.

Short-Term Memory Loss

It's not completely smooth sailing for the Buick, however. We docked the LaCrosse several points for design errors, not just the blind spots caused by the C-pillars in this coupe-style design but also the thick A-pillars and bulky side mirrors. We're not exaggerating when we say that these enormous buttresses literally obscure pedestrians in crosswalks and entire vehicles at a four-way stop.

There were also weak door detents that could barely hold open a door on the slightest incline. Rather than a dedicated trunk release button within the cabin, you must use either the key fob or a touch pad on the trunk plinth itself. And finally, we're still nursing our bruised knees after having met the jutting portion of the wraparound dashboard when we entered the car. There's a programmable easy-entry feature that motors the driver seat aft to avoid this tight squeeze, but the car sometimes forgets to return the seat to the driving position.


To be fair, the Lexus had its share of design foibles as well. The 2009 Lexus ES 350 interior looks and feels like an antique compared to the contemporary LaCrosse CXS. The promotional material for the Lexus even specifically calls out the ES 350's 1970s-era "electronic digital quartz clock."

The mahogany-tinted high-gloss wood looks like it came from a downmarket furniture store, and what's with the old Mercedes-style shift gate for the shift lever? And we nearly called an anthropologist when we spied the ES 350's cassette tape player. Sure, Lexus drivers are known enthusiasts of books on tape, but does Mark Levinson know it's still there?

Retirement Age

The final demerit for the 2009 Lexus ES 350 regards its price. What starts out as a simple $1,580 price fissure that favors the better-equipped 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS grows to a $4,650 chasm at the bottom line once you compare feature content. If we were to subtract the ES 350's $4,250 navigation/Mark Levinson package from its bottom line, the car would still be $400 more expensive than the LaCrosse and even less competitive.

What at first appeared to be a put-up-or-shut-up proposition for Buick has resulted in a thorough embarrassment for Lexus. The two entry-level luxury sedans are effectively tied in our ratings of performance and fuel, but every place else — evaluation scores, feature content and price — the 2010 Buick LaCrosse walks away from the 2009 Lexus ES 350 with a decisive 17-point victory.

We're not saying the Lexus ES 350 is not a fine automobile; we're just saying its time has passed as a standard by which entry-level luxury sedans are to be measured. For that, you must consider the 2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS as the new leader in its class.

At first we questioned GM's strategy, not only with the LaCrosse itself but also with the notion of Buick as a genuine competitor for Lexus. But after this comparison, we have no doubt that the 2010 Buick LaCrosse is a game-changing, brand-defining automobile that will go far to both revitalize Buick and promote the new General Motors.

The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.

Original author Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor


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