Avoidable Contact #64: Why LaCrosse beat Lexus, and why it never will

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John Baruth

This will sound a bit odd coming from a fellow who majored in an odd combination of 18thC BritLit and post-structuralist philosophy, but if a calculus-ignorant moron like me can see it, then it should obvious to everyone: We need a little less emotion, and a little more hard logic, in the American discussion at the moment.

It’s long past time for people to understand that the passion behind one’s beliefs does not make those beliefs any more valid. If you think that thousands of people were killed by sharks last year, and I can demonstrate to you that it was only about 65 people, the fact that you really, really believe the wrong answer doesn’t make it any less false. Maybe you personally know a shark attack victim, and maybe you watched Jaws 20 times, but that doesn’t change the truth of the matter. Furthermore, if you then claim that this country needs to spend $1 trillion on a comprehensive suite of measures to prevent those thousands of shark attacks, you are wasting real money in the pursuit of an ignorant belief and someone should be brave enough to stand up and stop you.

On the other side of the argument, we have the Buick LaCrosse.

A few years ago, I was sitting at a table with some General Motors engineers whom I thoroughly respected. I’d just driven a great new Corvette which surpassed all expectations—so much so that I was a little embarrassed at having ever possessed the mere shadow of a doubt. These engineers were telling me all sorts of fascinating stories about how they’d used all sorts of reproducible and exact methods to ensure the Corvette’s excellence. Meanwhile, my brain was telling me …

DON’T SAY IT
DON’T SAY IT

And then there was a lull in the conversation, and to my horror I heard myself SAYING IT ANYWAY: “If you fellows can build a Ferrari-killer for one-quarter of the cost, with three times the reliability, why is it you can’t build a car to match the boring, everyday, completely non-amazing Lexus ES?” There was a dead silence around the table, and I had a long moment to remember that some of GM’s engineers are weightlifting enthusiasts who can probably beat me up. Then the brightest bulb among them offered a gentle response.

“I don’t think that’s true. I think you’ll find that we evaluated the Buick LaCrosse against the Lexus, and that the LaCrosse meets or exceeds the Lexus in every area. We take it just as seriously as we take the Corvette.” There wasn’t a trace of guile in his voice, and I truly believed he meant what he said. I am certain that the LaCrosse is quieter than the Lexus at, say, 45 miles per hour, or that it has a measurably lower “natural resonant frequency,” and stuff like that. I don’t think the tests are rigged, and I bet GM would be willing to show me some or all of them as they take place.

None of that changes the fact that the Lexus ES is obviously more desirable than the Buick LaCrosse in the eyes of, well, pretty much the whole world, to the point that GM has given up on the nameplate here in the States. In the words of Lawrence “Kris” Parker, known to my generation as “KRS-One”—why is that? There is apparently more in the entry-luxury heaven and earth than can be dreamed of in General Motors’ philosophy of measurement. How do you find the difference, if it cannot be measured? Or is all of this just a phantom, leaving the LaCrosse as the unfairly maligned superstar of front-wheel-drive upscale automobiles and the Lexus a usurper sitting on a throne of lies?

The answer, if there is one, seems to be a matter of context. The Lexus brand has been painstakingly built up over 30 years of moonshot prestige sedans, indestructible leather-lined Land Cruiser variants, and perfectly-positioned mainstream family vehicles like the ES and the RX. Buick, on the other hand, has a Korean wagon, a Chinese wagon, and the TourX, which just might be the first new car in modern history to not clear last year’s inventory even after being discounted to 50 percent of its original retail price at some dealers. I’m personally a tremendous fan of the Buick brand, but that’s because I associate it with the razor-sharp ’77 LeSabre Custom driven by my father during the Carter years, not because I think the Encore and Regal are great products.

This branding business shouldn’t matter, but it does. If it didn’t, then Rolex ownership would be limited to people who have a particular fetish for a certain kind of machine-made mainspring. (It even works on your humble author, who occasionally wears a bronze-cased Tudor because I like Rolexes but don’t necessarily want to be seen wearing one.) Beyond the brand, you have the dealers. Not every Lexus dealer is better than every Buick dealer, but the standards to which they are required to conform are quite a bit higher. My younger readers won’t believe how bad “luxury” dealers used to be in the years before Lexus. I worked for a BMW dealership that had three chairs in the service area, two of which were broken. The Benz dealer down the street actively discouraged people from waiting on their cars, but they also refused to run a loaner program. “You want to wait? Is your wife too sick to come get you?” was an actual phrase I heard uttered by a service writer at that shop. More than once.

With two strikes against it already, the LaCrosse would have to be much better than the Lexus to get people interested—or much, much cheaper. GM is very good at making Corvettes, which are sometimes better, and always cheaper, than the competition, but it’s easier to beat Ferrari in this regard than it is to beat Toyota. The Lexus ES has been comprehensively engineered over multiple generations to satisfy its customers’ expectations just about perfectly. It’s also priced in remarkably aggressive fashion when compared to Buick, Cadillac, and Lincoln. My personal opinion is that the LaCrosse has occasionally been better than the ES over the past decade, but it hasn’t been a country-mile kind of better. Meanwhile, the long-term resale and reliability virtues of the Lexus ES are quite clear-cut. You buy one knowing that you can put 200,000 miles on it and then sell it for real money the same day you put it on Craigslist.

Next to these obvious virtues, the faults of the Lexus ES (disappointing interior materials, a surprising lack of refinement on rough roads, a face only a blind mother could love) just don’t matter that much. If it were sold in Costco with no brand next to a LaCrosse that also had no brand on it, you might buy the LaCrosse, the same way the various no-name Chinese and Korean flat-screen TV makers are always in imminent danger of being blown out of the water by another no-name competitor. Unfortunately for Buick, it’s not that kind of party.

The only way to revive the fortunes of cars like the dearly departed LaCrosse et al. is to apply a little non-scientific thinking. The engineering team has proven that it can make a good car, one that meets all the measurable criteria. It’s up to GM to find some brilliant people who can write a new story for their products, one that compels rather than confounds. It wouldn’t hurt to browbeat some of the worse dealers out of the game. That’s really how Lexus succeeded: a good product, a good story, good dealers. It’s not rocket science. But it’s also not something you can measure with a micrometer. You need people who have “soft skills” excellence equal to the “hard skills” excellence displayed by GM Powertrain when it built all those super-neato 6.2-liter V-8s and whatnot.

I don’t think GM will do it. I think the firm conceived a bit of an allergy to really effective soft-skills people during the Roger Smith years, when it became obvious that the company had been carried through a decade’s worth of second-rate engineering by some really slick sales-and-marketing lizards. I think the various accountants and engineers who work there are afraid that a Don Draper type of fellow might put them in another 1980 X-Car situation, where the whole world is ready to buy a car that isn’t quite ready to be sold. Right now the hard-numbers types have the upper hand over there, which is why we see objectively outstanding products like the new Silverado that just don’t manage to fire the public imagination.

Some of my car-nut friends have suggested that GM should let the Corvette team build and design all the cars GM makes, but that’s like saying that the whole plane should be built out of “black box” material because the “black box” can’t be destroyed in a crash; it ignores all the obvious engineering impossibilities in doing so. Rather, I’d like to suggest that GM should hire some of the people who have done such an excellent job of getting people excited about statistical rarities over the past few years and let those folks work their magic in the cause of truth, justice, and the Detroit way.

What if people were as worked-up about new Buicks as they are about, say, shark attacks? Everybody! Turn on the television! The Discovery Channel is doing LaCrosse Week!

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