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Quick spin: 2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist

Posted by Bill Griffith  October 14, 2011 04:35 PM

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(Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

It's taken a decade, but I'm finally a convert and believer in hybrid technology.

That said, along comes Buick's eAssist technology, available now on the full-sized LaCrosse and coming soon to the Regal and 2013 Chevrolet Malibu. The folks at GM don't want to go "all in" and call it a hybrid anymore — the former Malibu Hybrid didn't sell well — instead choosing to call the innovation "light electrification."

Buick is using a small, 65-pound, 115-volt lithium-ion battery to provide up to 15 horsepower in starting the engine and during heavy acceleration. The key component of the system is the belt-driven, liquid-cooled motor-generator, a part that replaces the alternator and that either provides the extra power or becomes the charging unit for the battery pack.

The system isn't a full hybrid but does return a more-than-competitive EPA 25/36 rating, about the same as the last Malibu Hybrid in 2010. Like the Ford Focus with the "Special Fuel Economy" package, the LaCrosse eAssist features an electric shutter system behind the front fascia to allow for engine cooling (when open) or improved aerodynamics (less drag) when closed.

We drove a LaCrosse eAssist at a Buick-sponsored event in Boston and found the system was as seamless as advertised, including the engine start/stop function. The electronic boost felt as if the power was just coming through "normal channels," which indeed it was.

Buick offers the LaCrosse either with the eAssist 2.4-liter four-cylinder or a 3.6-liter V-6 with 303 horsepower for $30,820, which includes destination. Either is mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission. The eAssist's four-cylinder produces 182 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque. Those numbers are augmented by up to 15 additional horsepower and 79 lb.-ft. of torque from the electric motor-generator. The eAssist replaces the regular four-cylinder CX and also increases the car’s base price by $2,830.

Al Houtman, Buick's vehicle performance manager, and Daryl Wilson, the lead development engineer for the LaCrosse, had the car on a lift showing how the bottom of the vehicle has been smoothed out aerodynamically with an old-style tunnel down the middle for the exhaust and driveshaft.

However, the fact they were able to explain how regenerative braking "works" might have been the most impressive part of the day.

"It's done via the automatic transmission which transmits the braking energy to the motor-generator via the serpentine belt," said Wilson. "In most automatic transmissions, the torque converter 'locks up' at highway speeds and releases as the unit downshifts. Not in the LaCrosse. Our torque converter remains locked through all the downshifts and the motor-generator smoothes what otherwise would be jolting shifts."

Says Houtman: "The braking and deceleration provide us with energy. In this case, it's free energy for our purposes. Our challenge is to use it wisely and keep everything running smoothly. If we get greedy, we could claim more of that energy but we'd lose drivability."

Of course, not all the technology involved is new.

Mark Hurwitz, head of the Newport Concours D'Elegance, brought a 1931 Buick convertible to add ambience to the evening.

It had a similar shutter system over the grille. The shutters, which were controlled by a thermostat, stayed closed to help the engine warm up more quickly then opened to provide ventilation to the radiator.

"It also was ahead of its time because Buick's then-engineers also introduced an oil cooler," he says.

Hurwitz said while Buick is marketing new technology with the LaCrosse, it was doing the same with the '31 version, and he had three laminated marketing posters to prove it.

"Buick was breaking ground then," he says, "by making their sales pitch to women and showing women in the driver's seat. That was as innovative in its time as the eAssist is today."

Editor’s note: We’ll provide a full, week-long test as soon as Buick sends us a car.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
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