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REVIEW: 2010 Buick LaCrosse: Crossing into the realm of style, performance

When China wanted GM to export some models to the other side of the world, it was Buick that intrigued them most. Seems an emperor once rode in an old Buick. So I ask you, can 1.3 billion people be wrong? That's like 20 percent of the world's pop...

When China wanted GM to export some models to the other side of the world, it was Buick that intrigued them most. Seems an emperor once rode in an old Buick. So I ask you, can 1.3 billion people be wrong? That's like 20 percent of the world's population.

Truth is, Buick has always had its share of loyalists -- I know one who swears by them. And Jay Leno still drives his 1955 Buick Roadmaster to the studio.

Still, there was lots of mediocrity surrounding the nameplate when it came to styling and performance. But Buick has made great strides in recent years and its revamped 2010 LaCrosse is a prime example.

Introduced in 2005, the LaCrosse returns this year redesigned inside and out, with new exterior lines, a new family of economical engines and an interior that compares with higher-priced cars in the midsize-sedan segment.

Its freshened exterior makes it look more aggressive and elegant at the same time. Its lines are edgy, and the 18-inch wheels fill the wells for a look that says it's ready to rumble. Buick's signature portholes are carved into the front hood.

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While a high rear deck and thick roof pillars enhance the look, they get in the way of rear visibility.

Buick offers two direct-injection powerplants in the reinvented LaCrosse. Both have electronic throttle control and variable valve timing.

The higher-end 3.6-liter V-6 has good kick, developing 280 horses at 6400 rpm and torque that reaches 259 pound-feet at 5200 rpm. It's a plenty-frisky V-6. But even the 3.0 liter version puts out 255 hp and is quite sufficient for the daily drives.

LaCrosse can get around 25 mpg on the highway with the bigger engine. Regular gas works fine, too.

Regulating the speed is a six-speed automatic that shifts smoothly on the upswing, but tended to be hesitant on the downshifts. Paddles allow you to take control of the shifts but I can't figure why anyone would want to with this car.

The LaCrosse ride is quiet and smooth. Still, it offers enough road feel to have some fun. Road grip is good and it feels confident on corners. The top-line CXS has an active dampening suspension system that adjusts to road conditions.

Steering was a little vague but adequate. It has a variable assist feature that is more concise at higher speeds but eases up for slower maneuvers. Brakes are taut and effective.

All LaCrosses are front-wheel-drive animals, but all-wheel-drive is available on the CXS. Its sensors determine how much power to apply to each wheel based on the conditions.

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All in all, drivability and performance are better than they were in the old LaCrosse. Mission accomplished, engineers.

They also did a fine job with muffling the road and wind noise. Easy conversations on the cell phone (while I don't condone it, for the record) are possible. And a light-blue ambient lighting gives the interior a feel of elegance.

That is complemented by chrome accents, stitched-leather seats and leather trim and fake wood accents that look good. The five-passenger interior was designed at GM's plant in China.

Seats are on the firm side but comfortable, even more so than the old LaCrosse. Backseat legroom is ample, even for taller riders, and a fold-down armrest with cup holders adds to the comfort and convenience.There is a lot going on in the center stack but everything is easy to reach and easy to figure out.

With sleek styling sometimes comes a drawback: Trunk space at nearly 13 square feet may present a challenge. It's not so much a cubic-foot thing as it is a dimension thing. It's strangely shaped. Had trouble squeezing in a pressure cleaner from Home Depot because of the trunk's limited height and opening. But it will accommodate a set of golf clubs or a couple of suitcases, so not to worry.

LaCrosse gets front seat side air bags, full-length side-curtain air bags, stability and traction control.

But its safety bonus is in the higher-tech options. A head-up display projects information on the windshield while the drive has his eyes on the road. An optional rear-view camera is displayed on the navigation screen.

And Buick's Side Blind Zone alert system tips off the driver if a car is situated in a blind spot. An all-wheel-drive system with electronic limited slip differential, which splits torque to wheels that have the most traction, is available on higher-end models.

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Speaking of which, the CXL adds leather seats, fog lamps, 18-inch wheels instead of 17. The CXS has perforated leather seats and chrome-plated 18-inch wheels.

True, there is stiff competition in this segment. But the folks at Motor Trend magazine chose LaCrosse in a head-to-head with Lexus ES 350 (April, 2010), saying it redefines the Buick brand for the 21st century.

The new LaCrosse is vastly improved over the previous generation. Better looking, better handling, and now with all-wheel-drive option. Eat your heart out, Jay Leno.

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MSRP: $26,245

AS TESTED (CXS): $33,015

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