Boomers or Bust
A new Buick for the, ahem, mature market. Plus, Toyota's revamped Camry.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – It takes me only a few minutes to figure out whether I'm comfortable in a new car. Sure, familiarity helps, but so do good ergonomics, intuitive controls, fine materials, and accommodating seats. The 2006 Buick Lucerne felt as comfortable as an old sweater from the moment I climbed into it, and my appreciation only grew after logging close to 300 miles on the odometer over the span of 36 hours. This is one well-thought-out machine.
Does liking a Buick make me an old fogey? I hope not--both for my sake and for General Motors'. Buick has been taking a beating lately because of fears that it is dying along with its customers. There's some truth to that: Buick buyers are among the grayest for any brand, with a median age of 65, and as they move to that great parking lot in the sky, their children and grandchildren are moving on to other nameplates. Short of cash, GM has accelerated Buick's decline by diverting scarce resources elsewhere, leaving the division with a hodgepodge of vehicles that are long in the tooth, badly cribbed from other models, or both.
With the 2005 LaCrosse, its first shot at reviving Buick, GM failed to add enough spice, but it has cooked up a winner with the Lucerne. The recipe is the same: Take an existing platform (in this case the Cadillac DTS) and give it a new look. The difference is the attitude.
The Lucerne has a rakish stance--new for Buick--and seems to be leaning slightly forward on its tires. Its metal skin is wrapped tightly around the frame, especially in the rear fenders, and it's devoid of ornamentation. The front end is forgettable--the gaping Buick grille evokes no emotion of any kind, and the headlamps are nondescript--but the rest of the car looks stylish and contemporary. Fake portholes, an amusing retro touch, identify it at once as a Buick.
Sliding behind the wheel, I immediately noticed that Buick has channeled Toyota's knack for making intuitive switches and controls. A special award goes to the audio system, which allows you to toggle effortlessly between AM, FM, and XM Satellite. It became quickly indispensible during my drive in a part of upstate New York that is starved of radio signals. One complaint: The headlamp/wiper stalk, which seemingly populates everything in the GM lineup, is a bit too familiar.
The Lucerne comes with a V-6 standard, but the V-8, Buick's first in a decade, is the way to go here. It's GM's proven Northstar engine, and it puts out 275 horsepower, enough to push the Lucerne to 60 miles an hour in 7.6 seconds. For a front-wheel-drive car, the Lucerne tracks through corners with a minimum of fuss and never feels unstable. This is a big sedan, yet it's responsive enough to be fun to drive. The base sticker price for the V-8 version: $35,256. The CXS test model I drove, with iridescent sharkskin paint, temperature-controlled seats, and other goodies, came to $38,480.
In its struggles for survival, GM has introduced several new models that were supposed to save the company but failed to live up to their billing. Almost no hype surrounded the industry launch of the Lucerne at the end of 2005--the car appears in dealerships this month--but it delivers a near-perfect blend of brand, concept, and execution and offers a bit of hope for GM's future.
2007 Toyota Camry
I quickly felt at home in the new Camry too, although the faintheartedness of that sentiment may induce apoplexy in those perfectionists at Toyota. Every time they roll out a new Camry, they announce that they have made it more sporty and stylish than the previous generation. But the Camry is more appliance than automobile, and customers who like it that way have made it the bestselling car in the U.S. for seven of the past eight years. Making a stylish Camry is like putting gold plating on a microwave. When I saw the 2007 Camry for the first time, I said to myself, "Okay, the Camry looks better. Now let's move on to the important stuff: the practical reasons that cause people to buy Camrys in the first place."
Over the course of a Toyota-sponsored three-day ride and drive in the hills northwest of Los Angeles, I realized that the 2007 Camry is better in dozens of ways than the popular 2006 model it replaces. Some prime examples: The new V-6 engine produces 50% more horsepower while using the same amount of gas; the car is much roomier inside without crowding a parking space; and the interior craftsmanship and materials would look at home on a Lexus. All this at an improved price: The base four-door manual model goes for $18,270, a few hundred bucks less than the 2006 model, while the LE V-6 costs $23,040.
Why don't looks and agility matter to a Camry owner? It's simple: For most buyers over age 40, quality trumps style as the main reason to buy a car, and the median age of a Camry buyer is 55. That's not to say buyers of any age won't appreciate the design of the new model. It borrows the high-waisted, scrunched-window look of the larger Toyota Avalon and adds a droopy headlamp touch all its own. Despite the addition of a raised, squared-off trunk lid, the DNA of previous Camrys is clearly visible.
On the road, the Camry performs even better than fans have come to expect--the car is quick, quiet, and smooth. Engine choices range from the four-cylinder, 158-horsepower unit in the base CE model up to the 268-horsepower V-6 in the higher-end SE and XLE versions, which come with an all-new six-speed transmission. Arriving this fall is something special: the first Camry hybrid. It will produce 192 horsepower, zip the car to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds, and squeeze more than 36 miles from a gallon of gas (vs. 22 city and 31 highway for the conventional V-6).
Barring some inexplicable disaster, expect another 425,000 Camrys to find their way into American garages in 2006. Their owners won't find their neighborhood profiles any higher, but they can sleep soundly knowing they've made a smart choice.
The Camry is more appliance than automobile, and customers like it that way: It's the bestselling car in the U.S.
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