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Buick’s magical eAssist

For traditional Buick lovers, their world must seem a truly bewildering place.

Buyers of the brand’s big floaty sedans used to shop for Park Avenues, LeSabres and, until recently, Lucernes. But that large barge has now sailed, taking with it the last vestiges of what once made Buick the final word in upper-midrange opulence.

General Motors has retooled its formerly moribund Buick brand and infused it with some particularly tasty small-scale products that offer style and fuel economy, while placing trailer-towing capacity in the forgetaboutit bucket. Other than the popular Enclave wagon, the largest vehicle in the fleet is now the LaCrosse, a model that received a complete makeover for the 2010 model year and is currently one of the classiest looking four-doors around.

But following two years in service, there are major changes in store for this model, as well as its Regal relation, that promise to make both models significantly more fuel efficient.

The upgrade is called eAssist, a name that describes what GM calls its “light electrification” technology, but in other circles is best described as a mild hybrid.

Unlike full-hybrid systems that can operate in electric mode only or in tandem with a gasoline engine counterpart, the eAssist’s electric motor/generator, which takes the place of a traditional belt-driven alternator, kicks in when extra thrust is needed. The only time the duo isn’t in operation occurs when coasting downhill, while stopped at a light or in the throes of full-on traffic gridlock. Then, the gasoline engine shuts down to conserve fuel, leaving the electric side to run all the necessary accessories, such as the air conditioning. When the light turns green or the way is clear, the engine fires up once the brake pedal is released.

The eAssist electric motor-generator, now standard on all LaCrosse models, replaces the traditional alternator and draws on a lithium-ion battery pack to boost the 182-horsepower (and 172 pound-feet of torque) 2.4-liter gasoline engine by an additional 15 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque. It also generates an additional 15 kilowatts of power by recovering the energy produced from braking and converting it into electrical energy to help recharge the batteries.

Instead of the usual continuously variable transmission found on most hybrids, the eAssist drivetrain uses a traditional six-speed automatic with a separate electrically operated oil pump that maintains transmission fluid pressure when the car is stopped.

Technical explanations aside, what really matters is the significant fuel economy improvement that can be achieved through eAssist. The LaCrosse is now rated at 25 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway, up from 19/30 for the 2011 LaCrosse with the same gas engine alone.

A dash-mounted display advises the driver when the battery is charging and when the electric motor is in play. Additionally, an “Eco” gauge adjacent to the speedometer indicates when the vehicle is being driven in a fuel-efficient manner.

The LaCrosse’s optional 3.6-liter V-6 also receives some upgrading and now makes 303 horsepower, up from the previous 280-horse level.

A six-speed automatic transmission is also connected to this powerplant.

Specifying the V-6 is the only way to access the optional all-wheel-drive system that can distribute 85 percent of the power to the rear wheels if and when the fronts start to slip.

For the 2012 model year, Buick has replaced the CX/CXL/CXS trim nomenclature with seven separate option groupings that pile on the luxury with heated and cooled leather-covered front and rear seats, 11-speaker Harmon/Kardon sound system and electronically controlled front and rear shocks that constantly adjust to road conditions (part of the Touring Package).

At $30,800 (including destination charges), the 2012 LaCrosse costs about $2,700 more than the 2011 edition, but that financial hit should be ultimately recoverable over time. It should also turn old-time Buick-istas into converts for great looks and superior fuel economy.

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