Two venerable names in the auto industry: Volvo and Buick.
Two names that have endured hard times. Volvo was bought by Ford before the financial crisis, after establishing itself in the US as no-nonsense purveyor of stolid, self-consciously unstylish (some would say boxy) yet very safe family sedans and station wagons. But Ford shed the brand, and it was up to Chinese carmaker Geely to sweep in and save the Swedish day.
Buick was the original General Motors brand and has been around for over a century. But it, too, went through a rough patch during the financial crisis and was nearly killed off by GM, joining Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Saturn. Buick was deemed too important for GM’s China ambitions – in the Middle Kingdom, Buick is considered a luxury brand, not a mid-luxury marque as it is in the US, one notch below Cadillac in the GM hierarchy.
Buick survived and has thrived, riding a wave of surging crossover SUV sales.
Volvo is also back, with an impressive lineup of vehicles, including Business Insider’s Car of the Year for 2015, the XC90 SUV.
As 2016 drew to a close, we tested out Volvo’s new mid-size sedan, the S90 (we had earlier enjoyed the S60), and we also got a crack at the latest version of the Buick LaCrosse, also a mid-size four-door.
Here’s the thing: on paper, the S90 is a luxury sedan that should run with Audi, Mercedes, and BMW, while the LaCrosse is a mid-market car that shouldn’t. But also on paper, the two vehicles match up closely with each other, although the S90 takes advantage of luxury pricing.
So we decided to compare the two, with the idea that Volvo has always been the Buick of luxury brands, while Buick has always been a level below the Big Boys, even if it offered a near-luxury experience.
How did it go? Read on:
Up first, the 2017 Buick LaCrosse. As tested, at just over $48,000 in Premium trim, it tipped the sticker scales at over $16,000 less than the S90. But it didn’t have all-wheel-drive.
LaCrosse has been in the Buick lineup for about decade, and it’s now the brand’s flagship sedan. The 2017 model is a bigger vehicle than LaCrosses’ past, providing what a lot of Buick owners crave: plenty of legroom and comfort.
The exterior design is stately, with just enough gentle curves thrown in to keep it from being cookie-cutter or uninspiring. The trio of chrome ventiports on each fender is a classic Buick touch, and the car looked just great in the “Quicksilver Metallic” paint job we sampled. In a nice change, Buick has gotten rid of the abstract, all-chrome Tri-Shield badge on the grille and brought back a version of its old-school, red-silver-and-blue cloisonne-style emblem. (Sadly, the old badge still lives at the center of the steering wheel.)
An all-wheel-drive version is available. The engine is a 3.6-liter V6 making a respectable 305 horsepower, absent any turbocharging or supercharging. Fuel-economy is 25 mpg combined city/highway, which is pretty good for a car this size.
The bottom line is that there isn’t much to go wrong with the LaCrosse – only a new eight-speed automatic transmission could be an issue, and during the week I drove the car, it wasn’t. Multi-speed autos have been cited by Consumer Reports as a source of reliability problems for cars and trucks, but Buick ranked high on the publication’s lastest reliability survey. I didn’t care for the shifter, a confusing departure from the traditional PNRD, but that’s a minor complaint.
You might say that the total LaCrosse package sounds pretty boring, but it’s the opposite: it’s exciting to experience a car that is reassuringly unlikely to let you down, all while delivering a level of comfort, technology, and refinement that’s about as close to a proper luxury vehicle as you can get for under $50,000.
How about the interior?
The near-luxury “content” that your fifty thousand bones buy you isn’t on the same stratum of plushess that a lot of BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus owners will be accustomed to. The luxury is low-key, un-blingy, but most of the boxes are checked off.
There are eight-way power seats, heated and cooled, and with a massage function for the driver and a lumbar support.
The leather upholstery (“Ebony” in our tester) strikes a nice balance between firm and cushy. The steering wheel is heated, a feature I think is now expected rather than desired among well-heeled buyers. The familiar blue-green Buick lighting gives the straightforward instrument panel a nice dose of throwback Buick-ness. The heads-up display is futuristic and useful. And the back seat is commodious, with ample space for adults.
And the overall fit and finish is excellent – superior in many ways to a BMW 3-Series that I recently checked out (in fairness, the 3-Series isn’t in the same segment). This is exactly what you’d expect from a Buick, plus a little more, but not so much that you’re starting to feel that the brand overdid it.
The overwhelming impression is tasteful, and an improvement on the mechanically similar and also superb Chevy Impala. Fire up the 11-speaker Bose audio system, find a nice stretch of open highway to cruise on, point the LaCrosse down the asphalt, and you’ll be in 21st-century American-car heaven.
And what about the technology — not to mention the driving experience?
The technology package is impeccable. In my book, GM currently has the best overall infotainment offering in the auto industry (called “IntelliLink” in Buicks), combining an intuitive touchscreen interface with 4G LTE wifi connectivity, seamless Bluetooth integration, and OnStar, which among other things forever eliminates the requirement to fiddle with the GPS navigation system or wrestle with a voice commands. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto availability tops everything off.
Driving a Buick sedan is nothing like driving a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes four-door, or even an Acura or Infiniti saloon, but that’s the way it should be. For over a decade, Buick has been steadily tightening up the suspension with making its cars too taut, so in sportier driving modes you can get a dose of peppier performance. Our test car features paddle-shifters to allow to semi-manual piloting, but in practice, I didn’t use them much. There’s no slosh in the LaCrosse, and the big sedan can handle corners capably, even though you aren’t going to want to push your luck in any way.
Not that you would be induced to. With advanced “QuietTuning” soundproofing, the LaCrosse cabin is a peaceful place to spend time, even as the car propels itself to 60 mph from a standing start in about six seconds (another complaint: a engine auto-stop-start feature helps with fuel economy, but unlike on many other vehicles with the tech, you can’t turn it off with the LaCrosse). At cruising velocities, the LaCrosse is brilliantly placid without without ever feeling like a large rolling couch. A set of advanced cruise-control and driver-assist features makes extended freeway journeys a joy.
On to the 2017 Volvo S90. Our tester was the T6 AWD Inscription, a top trim level, priced at over $66,000 with plenty of options.
Our tester came with a “Mussel Blue Metallic” paint job, an extremely attractive choice for this very well-designed four-door.
Volvo has kept the exterior design very simple and dignified. It’s not the boxy Volvo 240 of old, but it is the contemporary version that idea: draw attention to yourself by not drawing attention to yourself. Front to back, the S90 cuts a smoothly confident figure. For my money, this sedan looks better than anything Mercedes currently has on the road and is closing in on Audi territory.
The engine is way more complicated that the LaCrosse’s. It’s a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, with a turbocharger and and supercharger bolted on, making 316 horsepower. On the spec sheet, it doesn’t look that different from the LaCrosse, and mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, the fuel economy is about the same, 25 combined city/highway.
Of course, the combination of boost and blower means that S90 has some serious pop off the line when you put it in its sportier mode and can keep pouring on the power as you move north with the MPH. Too much pop and power-pouring, really, for my taste. One minute you’ve got a calm cruiser in your hands, the next you’ve got a wild thing. But fans of European sport sedans are going to want that.
The S90 actually compares favorably with the Audi sedans in this respect, although it doesn’t quite edge into BMW territory. The Buick doesn’t do the sport sedan thing – for that, you will want to investigate the LaCrosse’s little brother, the Regal GS.
Overall, the S90 is a meaningful departure from the good-old Volvo’s of yesteryear and an solid update of the brand’s cars from the 2000s and 2010s. But is also has an abundance of Nordic reserve.
Let’s slip inside.
The interior is, in a word, gorgeous.
The “linear walnut wood” inlays should put you in the mind of Scandinavian mid-century furniture and also the decks of classic old motorboats. The leather is supple, and the seats are comfortable while also being supportive.
They seemed a bit stiffer to me than the LaCrosse’s, but I’m not sure that was the seats as much as it was the way the suspension was tuned. The seats up front are 10-way adjustable and they’re heated. The audio system is by Bowers & Wilkins, which won Business Insider’s Audio System of the Year for 2016 – it’s marvelous, a step up from the Bose system in the Buick, which is no slouch.
The interior has been called “minimalist,” and I’d agree with that assessment. But there are some mildly blingy touches here and there, such as the silvery starter knob, placed between the front seats. Former and current Saab owners will recognize the positioning. But for Volvo, I guess it’s a Swedish reference of some sort.
Volvo’s vaunted safety features are also in place, but updated for contemporary driving. There are mulitstage airbags; a low-speed collision assist system for city driving; pedestrian, cyclist, and large-animal detection; a “pilot-assist: semi-autonomous driving system; and lane-departure warning.
All in all, an impressive package.
How did the tech match up with the Buick — and how was it to drive?
Volvo has taken all the infotainment and much of the vehicle’s functions and invested their control in the large center touchscreen, which has swipe-able and pull-down menus. It’s not that hard to figure out the Sensus system, but its take some time.
You get everything you could possibly want, however. Satellite radio, Bluetoon integration, USB/AUX ports to hook up devices, navigation, and a wifi hotspot capability.
On balance, the IntelliLink system in the Buick gets the edge for ease of use, for the 4G LTE wifi connection, and for OnStar, which is still be best way to get directions downloaded to a nav setup.
As far as the driving goes, apart from the aforementioned wildness when the sportier mode is engaged, the S90 is fantastic. Volvos have always been great at splitting the difference between the German performance approach and the American point-the-car-straight-ahead-and-watch-the world-go-by cruising notion.
You get a bit of both: pep and pliability.
I preferred the pliable mode, and for the purposes of this comparison, I though it matched up well against the LaCrosse. It was easygoing with an edge.
THE VERDICT! You gotta go Buick.
The S90 is an amazing sedan and a worthy competitor for Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus, not to mention Acura and Infiniti. Maybe Jaguar, to boot.
But it’s priced to play in that segment of the market, even though there won’t be that many luxury buyers who will ultimately decide to purchase or lease it over a German car. So it’s going to be niche. Nicely so, but still niche.
The LaCrosse, on the other hand, is almost as luxurious as its putative automotive superiors, with a bulletproof engine and an appetite for stylish motoring. If you figure that would could have our test car for 16 grand less than the Volvo, well … it’s a no-brainer.
Volvo is back at the top of its game. But Buick has raised its game so far that the American brand wins this one.
But the Volvo is still an excellent choice.
You are getting a better car in many ways. I’m just not sure it’s $16,000 better. In the end, of course, it’s your choice.