Call it the Toyota paradox: Although the automaker has greatly increased its efforts to add pizzazz to cars like the current Toyota Camry and Toyota Corolla, past models had long been ridiculed by the "experts" for being about as attractive and fun to drive as a small kitchen appliance. Yet they also sold millions of units over the years.
Now, two new cars are about to launch in the next few months that are looking to take the same path: Many observers '” myself included '” have expressed concern that the four-cylinder 2011 Buick LaCrosse and the Honda CR-Z hybrid sports coupe simply aren't going to meet customer expectations, which, in turn, would mean they aren't going to meet sales expectations either.
Could people be as wrong about these cars as they were about those older Toyotas? Let's find out.
The Break-out Buick LaCrosse
First up will be the LaCrosse, where GM is discontinuing the 3.0-liter V-6 found in the base CX model and the mid-range CXL, with the former getting a direct-injection 2.4-liter I4 instead. (The CXL moves up to a advanced 3.6-liter V-6, also with direct injection.)
It's a surprisingly aggressive move by the General, which is seeking nothing less than to bring four-cylinder engines into the luxury mainstream. The only sedan with that few cylinders from Lexus '” in theory a key Buick rival '” is the Lexus HS 250h. But that's a dedicated hybrid, built off the Toyota Prius, and can't exactly be considered in the mainstream.
Honda's premium division offers the Acura TSX with a 2.4-liter four, but that sedan is not exactly aiming for the same kind of lux positioning as the Buick. The Audi A4 packs a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but the small Audi sedan is neither in the mainstream nor aiming for the same customers.
Regardless, those three non-Buick products do have something else in common beside the size of their engines, and it's really the key to the whole four-cylinder business. I'm talking about the size of the rest of the package. The Buick is more than 195 inches long, while the longest of the other three is the Acura, at just 185.6 inches. And the LaCrosse tips the scales at 3,829 lbs, while the heaviest four-cylinder TSX weighs only 3,486 lbs.
The A4 can get up to 3,704 lbs, but it's being motivated by an engine that's good for 211 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, while the heavier LaCrosse CX will make do with 182 horses and 172 lb-ft of torque. Oh, and the even lighter TSX has a more powerful engine than the Buick, too, coming in at 201 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque.
Even the Lexus, not known for its performance, gets 187 horses and 187 lb-ft of torque out of its propulsion unit.
And while Buick is boasting that the four-cylinder LaCrosse will achieve 30 mpg highway, so do the Audi, Acura and, of course, Lexus.
On paper, that would seem to make the base LaCrosse a pretty tough sell. But you know what? I'm betting most potential Buick buyers aren't going to make their purchase decisions based on a close reading of the vehicle's specifications.
The LaCrosse '” Autotropolis' 2010 Car of the Year '” has been ringing up triple-digit monthly sales increases lately, and I don't think the four-cylinder model will slow that down, despite what the experts may say.
Honda CR-Z Already a Hit in Japan
Then there's the CR-Z, which debuted to much derision earlier this year at the Detroit auto show. The problem: For a car that was being positioned as offering the fuel efficiency of a hybrid and the driving experience of the iconic Honda CRX, the CR-Z didn't look like it would supply either.
The vehicle relies on just 122 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque for its motivation, and that's just not going to get you too many speeding tickets even with the lightweight Honda checking in at approximately 2,700 lbs. And its best estimated EPA fuel ratings are 36 mpg city/38 highway/37 combined, which sounds pretty good until you remember how small and light the vehicle actually is. Remember, the larger Honda Insight attains a line of 40/43/41.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the CR-Z's U.S. launch: Namely, it's become one of the hottest products in the Japanese marketplace, with Honda claiming it has more than 10,000 orders for the car after just a month on sale there. That's none too shabby, as the automaker was expecting to sell 40,000-50,000, globally, for the entire year.
Those results might not mean much for the Honda's fate in the U.S., especially considering the numbers that will show up in the CR-Z's sales brochures, but remember this: People drive cars, not spec sheets '” and that's probably a good thing for both Honda and Buick.