A story about a Buick is not exactly one that grips the imagination. Maybe not here. But allow me to explain.
Buick, founded in 1899, among the world’s oldest car companies, has a future in this here 21st century, this era of fractured attention spans, of hyperkinetic pace. It serves as the antithesis to the very concept of sport-luxury. This much I discovered after nearly a week in a Lacrosse Avenir: a car that quietly sings its competencies, trading on its subtleties for anything even remotely approaching Alcantara. There are no Sport Packages, no Sport modes as standard (though one is optional). I do not know its Nürburgring lap time. I can barely hear its exhaust. The Lacrosse’s ads may ask, “is that a Buick?” but it is, no matter what, and Buick repudiates nearly the entirety of automotive marketing and culture for the past 30 years—when the world at large became more manic, more aggressive, more willing to pronounce the word “Nürburgring.”
Ever since the Eighties, the sports sedan has been in vogue. One car to do everything: a prevailing attitude all too familiar today. Breaking free from the land yacht Seventies, yuppies went nuts for BMWs and the rest of the car world rushed to copy them. Luxury cars now included not just tufted leather, woodgrain, and power everything, but this nebulously-defined concept of sportiness, handling.
The result set marketing minds afire, exaggerating a vehicular characteristic that had once been a bullet point—every luxury car had to be sporty. And who did sporty? The Europeans. Ad agency Ammirati Puris AvRutick gave BMW “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” Mercedes-Benz bought AMG, Saab pushed turbos, Audis were so eager to participate that they sped off by themselves, and the template was set.
The Americans, around this time, got rather defensive. The Chevy Celebrity got a “Eurosport” trim. Oldsmobile Cutlasses got UN-style flags of the world glued to their fenders. We got The Caddy That Zigs. Look at what happened to Cadillac, once a builder of great luxury yachts in that great American mode, now forced to fight an underchampioned battle of Sporty Driving against the company that invented it.
Sporting driving—that’s fine, that’s good! Sporty driving is fun. It’s neat. I like it. Quite cool to blow the doors off damn near anything in, say, a 2018 BMW M5 with 600 horsepower that reaches 60 in less than three seconds while towing your inlaws and a floppy-eared beagle currently being sucked into the back seat, something a Buick will never do, or at least not for the foreseeable future, until it brings back a proper GNX, which enthusiasts want, at least theoretically, resulting in the Pontiac G8 all over again.
But I feel old now. My bones ring with an impenetrable tiredness. My days of time attacks and clipping double-yellows are long behind me. And more than anything I want to join the land of the boats, to wear leather Sperrys and shorts with little anchors on them, to stand self-satisfied on a dock gazing at my own Chris-Craft, or to know the satisfaction of say, owning property. The impossible dream! I want to cruise, on land and water alike. I want to be a Boat Dad.
I ventured to the shores of Walloon Lake, Michigan, an hour’s drive north of Traverse City, a sliver of a lake surrounded by trees and enclosed from the nearby Great Lakes. The water was piercing blue, cerulean, unlike any murky East Coast lake of my youth. Along these quiet shores of a Northern Michigan summer, warm but never humid, a young hell-raising Ernest Hemingway stomped around Walloon’s tranquil shores from his family’s lake house—and whose unremarkable early novella The Torrents of Spring (a bizarre parody of writer-romantics) is set in nearby Petoskey. Hemingway, who favored Roadmasters, was—according to Buick—“the original Buick influencer.”
Here, we rode across the lake in custom wooden powerboat, built by nearby Van Dam Boats in Charlevoix. Our captain performed lazy figure eights in the water, next to a few sailboats and jetskis. We docked and climbed some stairs toward the grand wraparound porch of the largest lake house I had ever seen, a veritable mansion, owned by a curly-haired and slightly smelly Chesapeake Bay retriever named Wally.
Buick is the most “nautically aligned” of GM’s brands, said Bob Boniface, director of Buick exterior design, from the porch. “You saw the Gage-Hacker behind the Enclave, and it just looked right.”
Boniface had been with GM for 14 years, and Buick for two. “There’s an assumption designers catalog everything they see: I saw this fish and I’m gonna make this car look like this fish,” he said. “Things just filter into your subconscious, and result in colors and proportions. We just keep our eyes open. We’re always looking at things... We never copy something we see in nature.”
The Lacrosse and Enclave were redesigned last year. Both feature a welcome complexity and improved proportions that hide their size well. They retain vestiges of Coke-bottle lines, much more subtly now, less slavish to history. And its top-of-the-line Avenir trim carries exclusive colors; a charcoal, diamond-studded grille; beautifully intricate Pearl Nickel wheels that do away with chrome, the former signifier of luxury from GM; caramel leather interiors complete with contrasting stitching “Avenir” embroidered on the headrests, and giant Avenir badges on the flanks in order to truly tell it like it is. And with an optional towing package the Enclave can tow up to 5,000 pounds, enough for any cabin cruiser, wooden boat or pair of jetskis.
After my time in the land of boats, I drove a Lacrosse Avenir four hours across Michigan’s mitten, bound for Detroit. I crossed lonely state highways, cutting arrow-straight across tan brush and cherry farms, rolling up languid hills, past tractor dealerships and off-season ski hills.
These roads were made for this car, and vice versa. On I-75 I turned off my collection of terrible podcasts only to realize that, yes, this was possibly the quietest car I had driven in a long time. Buick’s QuietTuning branding wasn’t messing around. It was frightening to be able to hear my own thoughts.
The Avenir trim brings together some plush-looking interior bits. There’s some dark-hued wood, a rich caramel color on the leather and dashboard. It’s a very swoopy-looking, squishy-feeling place to be. The seats may have been flat and featureless, but they proved their worth; after four hours, I felt fine. The in-car navigation lagged, an outdated system—a new one is coming with the next Regal, Buick impressed upon me, streamlined in design and performance—and the shifter was needlessly fussy. One of those oh-so-modern pull forward, self-returning, hockey-puck deals. The adaptive cruise control worked flawlessly. What little time I spent with Lane Keep Assist performed without drama before I inevitably got creeped out. Not Buick’s fault. And perhaps I didn’t need it. The Lacrosse’s steering, in that grand tradition of one-fingered luxury motoring, was overly light and boosted. Hey, we’re plying the Eisenhower Interstate System here. Like the navigation and shifter, you set it and forget it.
The Lacrosse shares a 3.6-liter V6 with the Enclave, both rated at 310 horsepower. It is torquey, quiet, and occasionally hangs onto one of the nine speeds for too long. But the drivetrain never acted like it had a lot of weight to lug around. Even pulling some decent acceleration for its size, the big Buick remains smooth and tranquil—encounter a lesser vehicle doing 5 under the limit, Michigan’s national pastime, and the Lacrosse will blow past it without acting like it’s done anything at all. Speed, without the illusion of speed. Without all that noise and the drama, there’s some novelty in that.
Buick has dedicated its entire time and energy turning things around, with thirty years of half-hearted attempts. “That’s a Buick?” is not a line that inspires confidence. If Kia can conjure up a performance bent out of thin air and Lincoln can confidently align itself with yachts and Swiss chalets, then Buick could have tried to become hip. The TourX was certainly an attempt in that direction.
But 30, 40-something young people, even the oldest of snake people, don’t matter to the brand. They have no money, after all, they’ve spent it all on avocado toast, or healthcare, or strange condiments. It’s all about Boat Dads. It’s always been about Boat Dads. The self-assured man who has conjured an entire lifestyle around that ultimate totem of American success: boat ownership.
He has few things but leisure on his mind. He tells himself that he made it by the pull of his own bootstraps. He doesn’t have to be a Dad, even, (or, to smash patriarchal constraints, even a male!) but any offspring would get their sea legs at a young age. I never did, sadly. (And it is almost always men, because women seem to have more sense than to spend so much money, so ludicrously, at once.) Hemingway was the ne plus ultra of Boat Dads, and he wrote some of the greatest tomes to Boat Dad Life, even when he wasn’t writing about the sea. He just had that attitude—displaced arrogance, a mask of joviality, and a predilection for shorts. It is not a sporting-tryhard Cadillac but an Enclave with a Gage-Hacker behind it that matches these environs.
Hail Traverse City, the Midwestern Riviera. Hail to the 1,600-horsepower, four-engined cabin cruiser our captain pointed out to us, with more power than a Bugatti Veyron. Hail to the lifestyle.