PLYMOUTH, MI – In the nick of time, it appears General Motors Co.’s Buick division has struck paydirt.

For more than a decade, Buick and GM product developers have been digging in search of a new brand DNA that caters to younger buyers – or at least those without one foot in the grave.

Sift through Buick’s product cemetery and the mistakes readily are unearthed: the Terraza minivan (2005-2007), Rainier SUV (2004-2007) and Rendezvous cross/utility vehicle (2002-2007).

Venerable nameplates died when product surgeons lacked the knowhow or vision to resuscitate them, administer Botox or even prescribe a little Viagra: Departing U.S. showrooms were the Regal (2004), Century, LeSabre and Park Avenue sedans (all in 2005).

Now comes a new Buick, arriving at showrooms destined to attract new, younger buyers.

The second-generation ’10 LaCrosse sedan targets entry-luxury intenders more likely to shop the Acura, Lexus, Infiniti or Lincoln brands. After extensive seat time in all three trim levels, the LaCrosse stands as Buick’s best hope for rebirth.

Starting with last year’s launch of the Enclave CUV, Buick has discovered a more expressive – and youthful – styling language.

The Enclave turned heads when it debuted at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and the LaCrosse will do the same, with its muscular rear haunches, coupe-like physique and steeply raked windshield.

Gone is the slabby, bloated sheet metal that ensured most buyers would be in their 70s and 80s. The Lucerne and first-generation LaCrosse helped modernize Buick styling when they launched, respectively, in 2006 and 2005.

But the new LaCrosse, thankfully, moves the design needle significantly farther. The hood and door panels are neatly sculpted to convey a sporty, downward trajectory to the front of the vehicle, where the chrome waterfall grille pays tribute to the tri-shield badge in a handsome, contemporary way.

From the rear, the square, dull expanse of Buicks past has been replaced by sleek taillamps and rear fascia that wrap around and integrate beautifully with the quarter panels.

Some critics will say Buick ripped off the design of its primary target, the Lexus ES 350, but the back end looks more like a vehicle from GM’s own stable, the Saturn Aura.

Overhangs are shockingly short for a Buick. The only drawback is a trunk that, although deep, suffers from a surprisingly small opening. Golf clubs will fit, if placed in tail end first.

Perhaps the LaCrosse is not intended to attract golfers. GM has canceled sponsorship of the Buick Open in Flint after this year – a sign the brand is seeking a new demographic.

Mechanically, two engines new to Buick’s car lineup serve as the right and left defibrillator paddles necessary to jolt the brand back to life. The 280-hp 3.6L DOHC direct-injection V-6 that has earned Ward’s 10 Best Engines honors since it debuted on the Cadillac CTS two years ago is the standard powerplant on the top LaCrosse CXS trim, which should account for about 20% of sales. The Enclave also employs this excellent powerplant.

The volume engine, however, is expected to be the 255-hp 3.0L DOHC V-6 from the same direct-injection family. The smaller V-6 is standard in the mid-level CXL trim, which should account for 55% of deliveries, and until later this year pulls duty in the base CX. That trim should rack up 25% of LaCrosse sales.

The new 3.0L V-6, also available in the all-new Chevrolet Equinox, is a marvelous engine that dashes to 6,800 rpm under heavy throttle before the 6-speed automatic finds the next gear. In most driving situations, the V-6 is a gentle tiger, purring as it works. But it snarls with confidence when pressed to the red line.

The lighter V-6 is slightly less powerful than the 3.6L, but not noticeably. With this agile powerplant, the Buick LaCrosse is – dare we say it – downright sporty.

After a daylong media drive, the midlevel 3.0L front-driver reported an average fuel economy of 23.7 mpg (9.9 L/100 km) – not too shabby.

’’10 Buick LaCrosse CXL
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 3.0L all-aluminum DOHC V-6
Power (SAE net) 255 hp @ 6,900 rpm
Torque 217 lb.-ft (294 Nm) @ 5,100 rpm
Compression ratio 11.7:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 111.7 ins. (284 cm)
Overall length 197 ins. (500 cm)
Overall width 73.1 ins. (186 cm)
Overall height 59.2 ins. (150 cm)
Curb weight 4,018 lbs. (1,822 kg)
Base price $29,645
Fuel economy 17/27 mpg (13.8/8.7 L/100 km)
Competition Lexus ES 350, Acura TL, Toyota Avalon, Lincoln MKZ, Hyundai Azera
Pros Cons
Contemporary DIG engines Occasional torque steer
Downright sporty styling Too much chrome inside
Firm chassis, steering feel Three wheel options?

By December, a new direct-injection 2.4L Ecotec 4-cyl. replaces the 3.0L as the standard engine in the CX trim. It is expected to achieve 20/30 mpg in city/highway driving (11.7-7.8 L/100 km).

Whether a 182-hp I-4 can properly motivate a vehicle that weighs about 3,900 lbs. (1,769 kg) remains to be seen, as the new engine was not available at the media launch. But the same engine moves the slightly smaller Equinox quite ably.

Don’t expect the new I-4 to keep pace with the mighty 211-hp 2.0L direct-injection turbocharged I-4 in the smaller Audi A4.

But kudos to Buick for recognizing the need for better fuel economy in a segment not known for it. Not long ago, GM was putting antiquated V-8s inside front-wheel-drive Buicks. A 6-speed automatic is standard with each engine, and regular unleaded is recommended for all three.

From behind the wheel, your grandfather won’t recognize the new LaCrosse as a Buick, and that’s a good thing.

The sedan is derived from GM’s excellent European-designed Epsilon II global midsize car architecture, and the three trim levels allow varying levels of suspension firmness. But in all cases, engineers have managed to eliminate much of Buick’s notorious body roll and moonwalk chassis dynamics.

Same goes for the hydraulic rack-and-pinion power steering, which responds directly to driver inputs and obliterates the signature numbness that typified Buick steering for decades. One reason to forego the 3.6L V-6 is the slight torque steer experienced in front-drive models under hard acceleration.

The driver can adjust the steering column manually, but engineers say a power option is in the works.

To further separate from Buick’s past, the LaCrosse CXS is available with a Touring package with 19-in. wheels and “Sport Mode,” which uses four electronically controlled dampers to constantly adjust within milliseconds to the road surface.

In case that ride is too harsh for older drivers, softer suspension settings, as well as 17- and 18-in. wheels, are available. The quietest ride comes from the base CX with cloth seats, the softest tires and no sunroof.

Inside, the LaCrosse generally succeeds in setting a luxurious tone, although too much chrome trim adorns the instrument gauges, center console and shifter housing.

Yes, drivers love chrome in China, Buick’s new home away from home. But is it too much to ask for a trim level that doesn’t require sunglasses? Brushed aluminum would look better.

Material selection throughout is excellent, from the woven, high-grade headliner to the comfortable cloth seats and thoughtfully organized center stack.

Vehicle Line Executive Jim Federico, however, cringes repeatedly as he sees fit-and-finish issues in these pre-production models. He vows the issues will be fixed in saleable models.

A few other minor complaints: The walnut-finished poplar has too much gloss, threatening to resuscitate perceptions of the old Buick. And the door trim, although beautifully designed, provides a small gap for big hands to grip the door pull; the ergonomics could be better.

As a safety concern, the back row seats three comfortably but only provides head restraints for the two outboard occupants. A third restraint would prevent severe neck injuries for average-size adults in rear collisions. And there are plenty of airbags throughout the vehicle, but buyers must pony up $350 for thorax airbags in the back seat.

The sedan is extremely spacious, especially in the back seat, which is where 40% of Chinese buyers will ride in the new LaCrosse. Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, standing at 7-ft.-6-ins. (2.3-m), would be tight for headroom in the back but likely would have plenty of legroom.

Pricing is competitive for the segment. The well-equipped base CX with cloth stickers at $30,135, while the top-of-the-line AWD model sells for $40,205. Both vehicles feature the 3.0L V-6. The LaCrosse comes from GM’s assembly plant in Fairfax, KS.

Executives are not forecasting LaCrosse sales, but Buick is beyond desperate for a hit.

Through the first six months, the division sold 71,290 vehicles in the U.S., down 36.9% from year-ago’s 113,039.

That figure represented a 19.1% decline from the first six months of 2007, according to Ward’s data.

It’s been a long, painful fall from 1984, when Buick sold nearly 1 million vehicles.

If any vehicle can turn the tide, the LaCrosse can.

Following it must be solid vehicles that continue what the Enclave started. At that point, no one will question GM’s reluctance to pull the plug on the brand.

The LaCrosse proves Buick still has a pulse. But keep the defibrillators handy.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com