2012 Buick LaCrosse eAssist

If you’re in the market for a car that prioritizes fuel economy, you probably know that automakers normally charge more for models that sip less fuel. You can save money on gas by buying a Honda Civic Hybrid or a diesel-powered Volkswagen Golf, but it’s going to cost you more at the dealership.

A Civic Hybrid will cost you over $8,000 more than the base Honda Civic, while opting for a Golf TDI will cost you $6,000 more than the base model. That’s not exactly chump change, especially when you consider that these are affordable small cars. I’m not convinced that the savings on fuel is worth the premium you’ll pay at the dealership, either.

The Civic Hybrid’s annual fuel costs are only $442 less than the base Civic with an automatic transmission, while the similarly-equipped Golf TDI only offers a $327 advantage over the gas model. With either car, you’d have to spend roughly 18 years behind the wheel before better fuel economy would offset the higher base price.

However, there are some exceptions to the rule with midsize and large cars. Lincoln offers the MKZ and MKZ Hybrid at the same base price, and Buick is rolling out the 2012 LaCrosse eAssist, which I recently had the opportunity to take on a short drive around Washington, D.C.

Mild-Hybrid Technology

The LaCrosse eAssist isn’t as advanced as most hybrids. It can’t start on electric power alone, and it can’t shut off its gas motor when you’re cruising down the highway, but this version of the LaCrosse also relies on more than just its internal combustion engine.

The LaCrosse

Instead of an alternator, the LaCrosse eAssist has a 15-horsepower electric motor that’s powered by a lithium-ion battery mounted in the trunk. And like most hybrids, the LaCrosse uses regenerative brakes to capture energy and recharge the battery.

These components all work to help the LaCrosse improve power and fuel efficiency. The LaCrosse eAssist’s electric motor gives the gas engine some additional boost on takeoff and during heavy acceleration, such as highway merging. It also features a start-stop function, which shuts the gas engine off when the car is stopped to conserve fuel.

Driving Impressions

Buick will be rolling out its IntelliLink infotainment system as standard equipment soon, but I was disappointed to find that the models available for test didn’t have the latest electronic toys. Still, the interior was spacious and comfortable, though I found some hard plastic surfaces on the dash.

Buick will be rolling out IntelliLink on the LaCrosse, which improves smartphone integration.

I pulled away from GM’s Washington, D.C. office, and the first thing to surprise me was the fuel-saving start-stop function - it’s unbelievably smooth. So smooth in fact, that I had to watch the tachometer to see that it was working. I thought the LaCrosse’s start-stop system works better than the one found in the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid, which I test drove earlier this year.

The LaCrosse eAssist’s brakes also felt surprisingly natural. Regenerative brakes often have an artificial feel when compared with traditional hydraulic ones, and the LaCrosse eAssist did exhibit some of that numbness on initial contact. However, the pedal gained a firm, inuitive feel as the car came to a halt.

My test drive took me through congested city streets and highway traffic right before rush hour, so I didn’t really have the opportunity to get on the throttle. However, the LaCrosse’s 182-horsepower drivetrain seemed competent for daily commutes and highway merging duties.

Same Price, Better Fuel Economy

Car shoppers frequently have to choose between better fuel economy and more power. With the 2012 Buick LaCrosse, that choice is no different. While I wasn’t disappointed with the LaCrosse eAssist’s power, shoppers who want a car with more oomph can get a similarly-equipped V6 LaCrosse for the same price.

2012 Buick LaCrosse Interior

With the V6, you’ll get 124 additional horses, but fuel economy suffers. You’ll only get an EPA-estimated 17/27 mpg city/highway. The LaCrosse eAssist offers a significant advantage with 25 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. The EPA also estimates that you’ll save $674 each year on fuel with the eAssist model.

The LaCrosse eAssist also offers this savings without the penalty of a higher price tag. With Lincoln and Buick offering fuel-efficient alternatives at no additional cost to the consumer, why aren’t other automakers providing a green alternative at the same price?