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Rainier raises the bar

Friday, September 26, 2003

srobertson

Buick Rainier offers a quiet, comfortable ride

Several months ago, after test driving a new Buick Rendezvous, I had this to say: "Upscale, good looking and comfortable -- that's always been my impression of a Buick." I went on to describe the competent, comfortable Rendezvous and added, "... I've not been in [an SUV] that delivers a better ride or has more comfortable seats."

Well, guess what? Buick has raised the bar again, and like last time, they've given it a name that's hard to pronounce, and hard to spell. Named after the mountain that dominates the Seattle, Wash., landscape, this vehicle's name rhymes with the little fellows who pull Santa's sleigh. It's the Rainier, and unlike its sister vehicle with the longer name, this is a truck-based SUV, sitting on a frame borrowed from the Chevy Trailblazer and the GMC Envoy. But the frame is where its similarity to a truck ends.

When I picked up the beautiful 2004 crimson pearl metallic Rainier CKL at Van Matre Buick last week and pulled out onto South Kingshighway I knew immediately I was driving something very special. There was an eerie silence. A heavy truck roared past me, but I hardly heard a thing. It was like the sensation you have when your ears are plugged. As I drove toward the interstate I braced for the upcoming bumpy, concrete section of road. But the bumps nearly vanished. It was like riding in a Buick Park Avenue! "So this is what happens when you put Buick's famous ride technology in an SUV," I thought.

After picking up three other guys -- Bob, Ken and Larry -- I moved to the comfortable leather back seat and began to examine the sales literature and take notes. "I think they are going to sell a ton of these," Ken said. "This is one for the real world of driving. Everything in the interior is rounded, so you can rest your legs against things without pain." The literature said the excellent ride can be attributed to the electronically-controlled air suspension. It is so sophisticated that the air springs are continually monitored by sensors that feed data to a compressor which inflates or deflates them according to varying load and road conditions. Made of rubber, the air springs naturally retard noise traveling from the axle up into the frame and into the cabin. The front suspension features coil springs over Bilstein shock absorbers, to provide touring car precision with SUV toughness.

Larry, a retired SIU design professor, who drives a GMC Yukon SUV, was also impressed. He's shopping for a replacement SUV, and high on his list are a BMW X5 and an Acura MDX, which have both received rave reviews. "This is remarkable," he said. "I wasn't even interested in seeing it because I thought I knew what GM had to offer. But it has won me over." He told me the Rainier is quieter and has a better ride than both the BMW and the Acura, and its performance is comparable to the 6-cylinder engines in those vehicles. He felt the BMW had a slight edge in emergency handling, but that may be attributable to the tires on the Rainier.

Tires rolling over pavement can create a lot of noise, so Buick selected quiet riding 17-inch tires with a special tread pattern. In addition, Rainier is equipped with special acoustic glass -- essentially two layers of glass with a thin film of plastic laminated in between, as well as glass layers of different thickness, that help block sound from entering the passenger compartment. Finally, there are strategically positioned acoustic absorbers and seals in the doors and body panels to help block outside noise.

The all-wheel drive system is just as sophisticated. The driver doesn't have to think about pushing buttons or pulling levers. If the system senses wheel spin, it reacts in _ of a second and sends the right amount of power to the wheel or wheels with the most traction. Under normal conditions, when the vehicle is moving at less than 20 mph, Rainier's system sends 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels. Above 20 mph, a small amount of power is sent to the front wheels, even when no slippage is detected, allowing for up to 100 percent of torque to be transferred to the front axles during a slip condition. On Bob's farm, I drove the test vehicle in a tight circle on the gravel driveway and there wasn't a hint of wheel chatter or skidding. Then we took the Rainier to a steep, grass-covered levee. We tried everything to get stuck, including coming to a complete stop halfway up the levy. The all-wheel drive system would spin its rear tires for just a moment, and then, as advertised, the front tires would dig in and up the hill we would go. Very impressive.

There are many other Rainier innovations and comfort features to tell you about if space permitted, but you can go see them for yourself. I will add that the Rainier should get about 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway when equipped with the 275 horsepower in-line 6 cylinder, 4.2 liter engine and 4 speed automatic transmission, and it can also tow a hefty 5,600 pounds in that configuration. A V-8 engine will be available soon.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian.


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