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Nashville Scene En Garde

Buick goes to battle wielding all-new LeSabre

By Marc Stengel

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  What is the one best-loved American car that you know absolutely nothing about? Ask your parents: It's the Buick LeSabre, you whippersnapper. With its courtly defense of full-size, six-seater "near" luxury, this is the car that has quietly eluded fanfare while racking up class-leading sales for the last seven consecutive years. With an almost bashful chivalry, LeSabre has parried thrusts of Saracen invaders such as Toyota's Avalon while deflecting the couched lances of such roguish rivals as Grand Marquis from Mercury and Concorde from Chrysler.

For the '98 model year just concluded, LeSabre outsold the Avalon and Concorde by margins approaching 2-to-1, and it bested the Mercury and Ford's similar Crown Victoria by some 20 percent each. Nevertheless, as its own sales begin to fray (slipping just over 9 percent last year), its rivals' fortunes ascend and converge. Clearly, the time is now to act in defence of LeSabre's once and future fortunes. At a Santa Barbara, Calif., media introduction last week, Buick debuted the newest version of its "mid-lux" sedan as the industry's millennial model for the year 2000.

There are really two stories here: There is, of course, The Car, which has been redesigned in ways that are at once remarkable and subtle. There is also The Buyer, whose own changing tastes are destroying manufacturers' complacencies about both the design and the marketing of cars.

As for the new LeSabre, it is not too misleading to say that the car elicited near-gasps of surprise from the assembled journalists after a damp day's drive through California's Santa Ynez Valley wine region. Perhaps the chief instigator of our spontaneous inhalation was Buick's self-effacing redesign of the LeSabre's exterior. You could almost call it Jaguarification: The new car, as conceived by lead designer Bill Porter, is ever so softly caressed with shallow creases here, rounded and elongated corners there. Technical considerations requiring a wider and longer wheel stance translate into a subtle body language that communicates road-hugging stability with just a hint of "pert" in the dimpled rear deck and muscular rear fenders.

You will not approach the 2000 LeSabre, however, and suspect a radically new car. That revelation awaits the drive. With a cheeky coyness, our hosts at Buick installed us journalists in '99-model LeSabres alternately with the new double-ought model. After starting off in a '99 myself, I slid into a 2000 version and felt immediately as though I'd backed through Alice's looking glass. Buick's goofy power-seat adjusters in the door-mounted armrest were gone. Instead, the new car proffers right-brain-friendly "icon" buttons below the thigh for all tilt, lift, and slide functions.

A new dash embraces driver and up to two front passengers within a continuous arc of faux burl, instrumentation, gadgetry, and air bags. On the upscale Limited model, full-auto dual-zone HVAC, a ConcertSound II audio system from Monsoon, and a driver information center are a few of the standard amenities that sweep across the driver's field of view. A novel safety design for the front seats, dubbed "Catcher's Mitt," combines front- and side-mounted airbags, active headrests, and a means for "centering" the occupant in the seat during impact.

Among the short list of options, the automatic rain-sensing wipers are uncannily shrewd--as we learned upon encountering a nefariously well-timed coastal storm. "Astroroof," OnStar navigation system, heated seats, 12-CD changer, a three-channel remote garage door opener, and, best of all, a Grand Touring suspension/steering package complete the feather-bedding opportunities for a car determined to define the vague notion of near luxury.

It is the new LeSabre's deeds, however, and not its doodads, that win its acclaim. Engineers Doug Houlihan and Brian Nakkula did their best to elucidate the technical hows and whys, but the car's deafening silence on the road was more articulate yet; it is simply and singularly quiet on all manner of road surfaces. It behaves with a flat-cornering, quiet athleticism and virtually refuses to pitch backward on acceleration or dive under hard braking. Talk about "stiffness architecture," "lateral tiebars," and "one-piece body side rings" fades into just so much white noise when you're behind the wheel. But the techies didn't seem to mind. At a reception after our drive, there were many wry smiles on the faces of Buick eavesdroppers as jaded scribes competed to conceive the wittiest expression of surprise: "Not the LeSabre I expected," went the common refrain.

And surely the expectations of autowriters--and a nation's car buyers--are the other, unsuspected part of the story. Six-passenger sedans are under attack by a buying public that thinks it wants five- to seven-passenger sport/utility trucks. Buick wants to "reward" older, loyal repeat buyers while seducing whippersnappers whose only idea of road feel is the whine of off-road tires on dry pavement. LeSabre is aptly poised to cut both ways: as a large, roomy, versatile sedan (whose front-wheel-drive layout is more tolerant of slippery conditions than most drivers suspect); and as a spirited, surprisingly nimble prestige car that both flatters and spoils.

For an estimated range of prices that represents half of what many comparable sport/utes can cost, LeSabre is mounting a charge against the contemporary truckish delusion. It is also attempting to reclaim for Buick that grail-like quality that renders a car something to be aspired to rather than settled for. Would-be trend-setters may well snicker at a recommendation to test-drive the 2000-model LeSabre when it rolls into showrooms in March. But it's only from behind the wheel that prospective buyers will see in what new direction Buick intends to lead its rejuvenated reputation.



Future shock

As last week's news confirmed our own--and the auto industry's--suspicions about Ford/Volvo nuptials, Ford consummated yet another fascinating Scandinavian courtship that may promise even further-reaching implications. Ford's purchase of Norwegian electric-car maker Pivco will vastly improve prospects for the latter company's tiny plastic-clad commuter car, the Th!nk. Although the car currently delivers only 40-to-60 miles per charge of its NiCad power pack, its plastic structure and zero emissions point the way to a future of tiny Th!nk tanks rolling through North America within two years.

It may come as no shock, but it will certainly be a shame if Volvo's masterly C70 coupe gets the cut after the honeymoon with Ford is over. AutoWeek magazine has inferred an "uncertain future" for the coupe based on comments by Volvo president Hans-Olaf Olsson. His disposition about the sibling C70 ragtop is decidedly more sunny: "I think the potential definitely is in the convertible," he is reported to have said.


Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at (615) 385-2930.


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