2010 Buick LaCrosse CXS. (photo by General Motors)

Let’s kick-off our road test series with the 2010 Buick LaCrosse, an all-new car which is one of the prime examples of how far American-made car quality and attention to detail has come. And I see nothing wrong with sometimes rooting for the home team, especially when it’s well-deserved.

Buick has had growing sales (comparing month-by-month to the past year) for six straight months and in March sales were up an impressive 76 percent.

The 2010 LaCrosse is a perfect competitor for the Lexus ES 350 and Chrysler 300 (which is pretty long in the tooth), thanks to its looks, a choice of three direct-injected engines, optional Haldex all-wheel drive (on CXL) and a healthy mix of standard and optional interior gadgets, including in-dash nav, rear entertainment system and a rearview camera.

I find LaCrosse’s appearance aggressive and powerful, not quite intimidating but certainly muscular for a big four-door. The Chrysler 300? We’ve seen it for a long while now; nothing really new. And Lexus makes a point of not changing styling too much; their buyers don’t like a lot of change.

Two design cues harkening back to Buick’s glory days is the large grille with vertical louvers. In years past people would say about Buick’s signature big grille that, “I don’t know whether to drive it or shave with it.”

The distinctive Buick portholes are back too. Now they’re found next to the engine compartment on the inside top of the fenders.

You have three engine choices: for the first time in a decade, Buick offers a four-cylinder engine standard on the CX. It’s a direct injected Ecotec 2.4L which pumps out 182 horsepower. The CX has a new 3.0L V-6 powerplant which make 255 horsepower. The high-zoot CXL comes with a 3.6L V-6 liter providing 280 horses. All engines are direct injection, which increases power and mileage and can decrease pollutants. Six speed automatics come on all three cars and they have a center console stick with tap-to-change-gear.

For 2010, only the 3L CXL model has AWD available; in 2011, the CXS standard with the 3.6 V-6 will have the option.

LaCrosse in 2011 will offer just the four-cylinder and the 3.6 liter V-6. That 2011 model will now be able to offer all-wheel drive paired with the direct-injection 3.6-liter

LaCrosse 2011 models start production on June 14 of this year. If it were me and I had the kick, I’d wait a few months for the CXS AWD.

Inside, it’s Buick-level plush and quiet. Dashboard, switchgear, gauges and driver position are among the best in the industry. Most people will feel right at home in just a few minutes. Precise fit and finish inside (and out) shows GM is paying attention to details which the old GM would have let slide. “Ship it and let the dealer fix it” was the long-time GM mantra and thankfully those days are gone.

Driving LaCrosse on either the 17-inch (CX), 18-inch or optional 19-inch wheels is mostly a pleasure and can be fun. Front-drive cars sometimes have a lot of understeer, what NASCAR drivers call “push.” LaCrosse, while it has its share of understeer, is fairly predictable and controllable. If you want no understeer, order the AWD option.

The car, despite its luxury size and weight, feels taut and surprisingly sporty. Fuel mileage, GM says, ranges between 17 and 26 mpg depending on the engine ordered, though I found my mileage lower. Around town mileage was between 12 and 15 mpg, and on the open highway was 21 to 23 mpg, but not 26. The 2.4-L is EPA-rated 30 mpg on the highway and 19 mpg in the city. Still all fairly impressive for a 3,929 pound automobile.

Base price for the four-cylinder is $26,995, for the V-6 CX $27,835, $30,395 for CXL and $33,765 for the top-line CSX with the big 3.6L V-6. Our tester, a CSX with a sunroof, Xenon headlamps, heads-up info display and optional paint, Red Jewel Tintcoat, came in at $36,130.

LaCrosse is built at GM’s Fairfax Assembly facility in Kansas City, Kan.

Buick was always known as the “doctor’s car” because, in the days of yore and house calls, no doctor wanted to pull up to your home in a Cadillac; a Buick was perceived as more conservative, less expensive and more sensible than its big bro Caddy.

LaCrosse signals Buick sedans are headed into a much higher realm. If this is your kind of car, there’s little to complain about, including not much rear seat legroom, the aforementioned understeer, not the greatest sound system and some other problems. But there’s plenty to enjoy, too, and that’s right for a car which tops out at nearly $40,000.

 On my scale of one to five, four tires and a spare, LaCrosse rates a three-plus to four.

Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winner who has covered the world’s auto industry and motor racing for over 35 years.

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