Electra Waggoner Biggs was born a Texas cattle and oil man’s daughter, but left the Lone Star State for Bryn Mawr, Columbia and the Sorbonne. Upon her return she became a revered sculptress, best known for her work “Into the Sunset,” memorializing cowboy actor Will Rogers. In 1959, the President of Buick (and Electra’s husband’s brother-in-law) named a flagship sedan after the middle aged Texan. Today's Buick Lucerne is named after a quaint Swiss tourist trap, with only a failed peasant’s revolt to its name. And there you have it: Buick has tossed away decades of brash Americana for subdued Euro-style. That's beyond stupid.
Of course, Lucerne is a beautiful town, and the Lucerne CXS is a beautiful car. Truth be told, the comely Lucerne is a pastiche of the Audi group’s best sedans– a bit of Audi A8 here (rear three quarter) and a bit of Phaeton there (pillars, rear)– with a healthy dose of Buick’s polarizing Velite concept roadster (front). Fortunately, it works. There’s no question the Lucerne is its own machine; the Buick’s portholes are as authoritative a brand statement as Mister T's mohawk.
It’s all very dignified and elegant in a vaguely European way– until you open the door. Then you discover that the Lucerne is cursed with GM's latest interior initiative: strategically placed quality. For example, the Lucerne’s dash is fashioned from a polymer that’s less forgiving than a Taliban elder. And yet, only millimeters away, you encounter GM's finest door panels to date. They’re superb examples of industrial art: a Lexus-like mix of triple-stitched vinyl, padded plastic and convincing wood grain. But aside from the swank door trimmings, richly textured headliner and hip cobalt blue gauge faces, the Lucerne's interior is the Buick brand’s Bay of Pigs.
The optional Harman-Kardon boombox is the cabin’s saving grace. Play that funky music [white boy] and you unleash both top-notch imaging and skin-tight bass response. The noise is most welcome; the Roadmaster-esque seating rivals memory foam mattresses for sybaritic somnambulism. Mobsters looking for a place to stash rivals heading for the big sleep take note: the Lucerne’s trunk is a thing of beauty. It’s large and accommodating, replete with plastic modesty panels hiding the decklid's dogleg hinges.
Fire up the Lucerne CXS’ Northstar 4.6-liter V8 and the mixed messages continue. Dial-up a few revs and the hunky Lucerne rumbles like an old muscle-bound big-block Buick GSX. (Buick’s “Quiet Tuning” obviously doesn’t apply to Cadillac-sourced powertrains.) Drop the hammer and the de-clawed 275hp Northstar helps the Lucerne slide to sixty in a tick under seven seconds. Yes, but how many front-wheel drive V8-powered luxury cars can you name? And how many have you bought? There’s a reason for that…
At sensible speeds, the Lucerne hides its wrong-wheel drive roots commendably. Eight mild-mannered cylinders render torque steer a minor issue. But awaken the beast at the wrong time and the Lucerne counters with smoking rubber and a completely wayward helm. Fortunately, the iron filings floating in the Lucerne’s shocks deliver a reasonable imitation of dynamic fluidity; Magnetic Ride Control suspension keeps the two-ton luxobarge flat during cornering. Yes, really.
But to what end? The big Buick fails to impress one's "land yacht" Ying or "grand touring" Yang. For Type-A personalities, the Northstar's "take-a-number" throttle response, uncommunicative and overboosted steering and lazy four-cog slushbox infuriates. Even with Magna-charged dampers in full suppress mode, mundane Continental rubber, cushy springs and planar seats deny sporting satisfaction. Grab a lower gear for upcoming corners and the flimsy floor-shift quivers in anticipation.
For the Type-B folks, the Lucerne rides comfortably enough on most surfaces, but nails surface imperfections like an economy car chassis, lacking the brick-house swagger of Mercury’s mighty-mighty Marquis. No matter what your tastes, the Lucerne's coarse underpinnings prove GM half baked this auto-culinary treat.
The Lucerne certainly outclasses its clueless Park Avenue predecessor, but what does this sub-$40k whip do that a fresher-looking Camry can’t? De-ice its windscreen with heated washer fluid? Seriously, when a carmaker promotes its flagship model with a relatively minor gadget, you know it’s a “pay no attention to the car behind that curtain” affair. The fact that the portly Lucerne’s standard mill is a positively ancient pushrod V6 shows that even GM knows they’ve over-priced and under-delivered. While entry-level Lucernes face the prospect of rental car Hell, the CSX goes nowhere fast.
More than that, the Lucerne’s lack of soul proves that Buick is a dead marque dying. One could argue that Electra Waggoner Biggs’ sculpture and the car named after her were tacky– nothing more than American populism with a continental twist. But their unabashed spirit demanded your attention. If the Lucerne is as good as a Buick gets, it’s only a matter of time before the entire brand follows its Swiss namesake into historical irrelevance.