Hybrids are not popular in China. Toyota has produced the Prius at its joint venture with First Automobile Works since 2005, yet last year total sales were just 414 units. On the face of it, Buick's decision to introduce a hybrid version of its LaCrosse seems unjustified by the market. So, why does the US marque's owner, General Motors, think it will succeed where Toyota has failed?
On the mainland, Buick fits in as a premium brand between GM's more mass-market Chevrolets and high-end Cadillacs. The LaCrosse, introduced in 2006, is a large, mid-range car. At just under five metres long, it's much bigger than a BMW 5-Series or a Mercedes E-Class. And although it's based on the same architecture as the American LaCrosse, the Chinese version was designed at Shanghai GM's Pan Asia Technical Automotive Centre for sale on the mainland and Taiwan. The exterior and interior are different, and it's not even offered with the same engine choices.
It's a well-proportioned car. Front and rear overhangs are long and the body curves between the two in a pleasing manner. On the outside, the hybrid is nearly identical to the petrol-driven version, the only additions being a hybrid badge with a green 'H' on the side and another on the rear to highlight the model's GM Hybrid System, one that was first used on the Saturn Vue Green Line in 2006.
The car's interior is decked out to please Chinese consumers and is more striking than its American namesake's. There's the ever-popular two-tone dash, with a dark grey top and the ubiquitous cream underneath, separated by a ribbon of fake wood. Dominating the centre is a grey LCD display with controls for the radio and CD/DVD player. At the bottom are climate-control switches and a display showing information such as outside temperature. Attention to detail is pleasing, with touches such as a clock bearing the Buick logo and a central console accented in chrome.
The cream leather seats are supportive and comfortable, and the carpets are a similar shade. All the materials are good quality and the build is to a high standard, yet the overall feel is less luxurious. Rear passengers have plenty of legroom, although tall folks might suffer under the sloping roof, given the seats' slight recline.
The car is equipped with electric windows, mirrors and sunroof, and a navigation system that also functions as a DVD/CD/MP3 player. It's wired for MP3 players and Bluetooth mobile phones, with controls for much of the equipment on the leather-trimmed steering wheel, which is also home to a button for shifting between gears.
Overall, the hybrid isn't radically different from the luxury version of the standard LaCrosse, but one special feature is eco-friendly air conditioning, which uses less energy than a standard air-con system.
For the most part the hybrid offers the same sort of drive as the standard 2.4-litre model. Mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox, the engine is responsive and has plenty of power, which proves useful when overtaking on Yuan Dong Da Dao out towards Pudong Airport. The steering is light but speed-adaptive and feels tighter the faster I go. Roadholding is good even when cornering at speed on the tight curves of spaghetti junctions, and the softness of the ride helps cushion the bumps on poorly maintained roads such as the one to the Shanghai Links Golf Course.
The hybrid is a winning ride in traffic, too. Any car uses a lot of fuel when idling, so when the Buick is stationary and the needle on the rev counter falls to the point marked 'auto stop', its engine stops. On the other side of the speedometer are two gauges: one for the fuel and one above it for the battery. When driving efficiently and when the brakes are applied, the nickel metal hydride battery is charged. On a hot summer's day you can see the needle on the battery charge fall back as the air conditioning drains power. To further encourage fuel efficiency, there is a green 'eco' light on the rev counter that illuminates under optimum driving conditions.
GM claims the hybrid uses 15 per cent less fuel than the regular 2.4-litre LaCrosse, with fuel consumption cut from 9.8 to 8.3 litres per 100km. But as I sit in city traffic with the air con blasting away, the fuel efficiency figure displayed under the speedometer is well over 10l/100km.
The LaCrosse is not a hybrid in the mould of the Toyota Prius. It has a bigger battery than the regular LaCrosse but, unlike the Prius, it doesn't carry a huge battery pack under the floor. The electric motor helps drive the car from a standstill while the engine bursts into life and at some points of acceleration, improving mid-range performance. The technology has more in common with BMW's EfficientDynamics, which combines auto-start and stop with efficient battery charging and regenerative braking. Only for brief periods does the car operate on electric power.
GM hopes the LaCrosse will give it first-mover advantage in the mainland market. The Prius failed largely due to its price, analysts say, but the LaCrosse hybrid costs only 20,100 yuan (HK$22,992) more than the standard LaCrosse, putting it in a similar price bracket to a Prius - yet it's a much larger and more prestigious car. With rumours of a hefty increase in the cost of fuel as part of the 'Olympic hangover' GM might be on to a winner.
AT A GLANCE: Buick LaCrosse Hybrid
What drives it? A 2,384cc Eco four-cylinder engine with a six-speed automatic gearbox and GM Hybrid System that delivers 168hp (125kW) at 6,400rpm to the front wheels.
How fast is it? It's said to hit 100km/h in 10.9 seconds and peak at 180km/h.
How safe it is? It has only four airbags but is compliant with the mainland's National Vehicle Safety Standard. The middle occupant in the rear gets a full seat belt.
How thirsty is it? Swigs 11.9 litres/100km in town and 8.3l/100km on the highway.
How clean is it? No CO2 emission figures are available, but the lower fuel consumption of the hybrid promises less fug than the standard LaCrosse.
Available: The LaCrosse sells on the mainland for 269,900 yuan (HK$308,740).