Marc K. Stengel, Sun, 24 Sep 2006 08:00:00 PDT
The names Buick, Cadillac and Jaguar once conjured a certain prestige within the automotive hierarchy, in roughly that order. Cars bearing these badges were desired for their luxury and engineering and, perhaps more importantly, for the dignity they conferred upon owners.
Today, these three flagship brands have leaky hulls, and their respective manufacturers are bailing water. In terms of year-to-year sales (as of July 2006), Jaguar is selling 30 percent fewer cars this year, Buick 20 percent fewer cars and Cadillac 14 percent fewer cars.
It's an inglorious slide to the bottom that can only partially be blamed on circumstances beyond the carmakers' control. After all, not only are certain Asian and European manufacturers positively thriving, many are doing so in precisely the same prestige categories where Buick, Cadillac and Jaguar formerly excelled.
The ideal time to caulk, of course, is before setting sail. But if you spring a leak en route, you'd better bung it up with the best plug you can devise.
Buick's Lucerne sedan, Cadillac's STS sedan and Jaguar's XK coupe and roadster are all being heralded as Renaissance flagships by their respective manufacturers. They may well be just that in glossy promotional literature; but only if they stanch the water leaking into their hulls will they truly succeed.
Buick carries the heaviest baggage into the 21st century. The marque is three or four generations removed from the heyday when Buick signified a prosperous respectability. Today's bemused bloggers, if they think of Buick at all, probably do so with a patronizing smile for the grandfathers puttering past in their Park Ave. and LeSabre sedans.
Buick's Lucerne puts an end to such condescension. "Off with their heads" was Lucerne's cry as the Park Ave. and LeSabre were unceremoniously dispatched. For 2006, Lucerne replaces both models with a four-door, five-passenger sedan notable for its quiet ride, adequate performance and-heavens to Betsy!-portholes in the fenders.
In top-of-the-line CXS trim, the Lucerne boasts a modern V8 that combines 275 horsepower with 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/highway fuel economy. The car is roomy front and back but also heavy, weighing more than two tons.
It makes room for a giant 17 cubic-foot trunk, but it can't seem to manage a fifth gear to smooth transmission shifts. What's more, that four-speed automatic mated to a front-wheel-drive transaxle generates a heavy dose of buzz-kill for anyone with even the least bit of status-conscious car-savvy.
Lucerne's ride is comfy without becoming "boaty," and it's quiet as the dickens, which is great for the audio system. But today, it's simply not enough to be competent at an as-tested price of $37,135.
Less expensive V6-powered Lucernes are available, but they employ dated overhead valve technology. Meantime, overall Lucerne sales are off almost seven percent compared with last year's combined LeSabre and Park Ave. sales. Does it have to get worse before it gets better for Buick?
Sayonara Seville, konnichi-wa STS. It may be that Cadillac's decision to dump the Seville monicker that has endured since the 1950s is strategically motivated by a desire to give Japanese executives at Lexus and Infiniti a born-gain American rival whose name they can finally pronounce-the better to fear it, perhaps.
Certainly, the STS' credentials are meant to inspire admiration among friends and respect, if not fear, among rivals. Its edgy styling is distinctive right off the bat; and its technology-both underhood and inside the cockpit-is impressive.
Available in rear-drive and all-wheel-drive configurations, with twin-cam V6 (255 hp), V8 (320 hp) and supercharged V8 (469 hp) powerplants, the STS line-up is poised to withstand the toughest salvos from either Japan and Germany.
Apparently, some folks haven't read that memo. Sales of the 2006 STS are down 31 percent. Is it price? Perhaps. As a base-model V6, the STS stickers-in at $41,020. When you add all-wheel-drive ($1,350) and a high-tech electronic goodies package ($8,285), before you know it you're totaling $51,375, as-tested.
That's a lot of dosh just for techie names like Bose, Bluetooth, XM Radio and OnStar. When it comes to distinguishing between Wants and Needs, buyers in this category tend to know the difference.
But those same prospective buyers may not yet know how far Cadillac has come in reinventing itself. The performance of even the STS V6 is bracing; its handling is balanced and Euro-flavored.
With leather and honey-colored woods, the interior is sumptuous. STS may not offer quite as much rear-seat passenger room as Buick's Lucerne, but the trade-off in terms of hip-ness is well worth it. Except that it's hard to be hip alone when the in-crowd is partying somewhere else.
Jaguar's new XK Coupe is "gorgeous" in spite of, not because of, the silly advertising campaign that's boasting as much in the glossy pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. Jaguar's pair of XKs-a coupe and a roadster-are the beautiful children of beautiful parents. Just look, if it's proof you need.
Others agree. Even at a base price for the coupe tested here of $74,835 and for the roadster at $80,835, the new XK is boosting sales by some 65 percent over the model it replaces. But for a car that will probably sell fewer than 5,000 models this year, that's hardly enough to lift Jaguar out of the deep fat fryer.
That's because the new 300-hp Jaguar XK is magnificent when it needs to be revolutionary. Yes, the interior represents that thoroughly English expression of the lap of luxury; but the rear seats are still no larger than handbags, and rear visibility is positively a threat to bodywork in the urban battlefield.
With Jaguar's very future on the line, the new XK is a croquet response to an iPod challenge; and it may just be too late to reboot.
5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 4.6-liter DOHC V8, 4-sp. auto; 275 hp/295 ft.-lbs.; 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; trunk: 17 cu. ft.; tow: 1,000 lbs.; base price: $34,265; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel ind. susp. & ABS disc brakes, 18-in. wheels, dual-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/CD, front/side/head airbags, OnStar: $37,135
5-pass., 4-door; AWD, 3.6-liter DOHC V6 w/ vvt, 5-sp. auto w/ Driver Shift-Control; 255 hp/252 ft.-lbs.; 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; trunk: 14 cu. ft.; tow: 1,000 lbs.; base price: $41,020; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel ind. susp. & ABS disc brakes, 17-in. wheels, leather, dual-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/CD/XM, front/side/head airbags, OnStar: $51,375
4-pass., 2-door; RWD, 4.2-liter V8 w/ vvt, 6-sp. auto; 300 hp/310 ft.-lbs.; 18 mpg/city, 27 mpg/hwy., w/ premium; trunk: 10.6 cu. ft.; base price: $74,835; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel ind. susp. & ABS disc brakes, 20-in. wheels, leather & burl, dual-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/6CD, front/side/head airbags, DVD navigation: $83,175