Special Coverage

2011 Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – Buick has set its sights on a new group of potential customers: those who want to save fuel, but want to save money at the same time.

“We're going after bringing in the hybrid buyers but without the hybrid price,” says Tony DiSalle, General Motors vice president-Buick Div.

The ʼ12 LaCrosse sedan will be first up with the auto maker’s eAssist mild-hybrid technology in June, followed in August by an eAssist-equipped ʼ12 Regal, unveiled here in conjunction with the Chicago Auto Show.

While an eAssist version of the upcoming Verano is expected, DiSalle declines to confirm the new compact car will get the system.

With eAssist, a small lithium-ion battery pack lends an added boost to help the 2.4L Ecotec 4-cyl. gasoline engine under hard acceleration, such as when passing. The system also shuts off the engine when as the car decelerates or comes to a complete stop.

It isn't a full hybrid system in which the batteries either help start and power the vehicle for brief periods in electric mode only or provide added power boosts whenever accelerating.

“The battery pack contributes only about 15 hp during hard acceleration, not every time you accelerate,” DiSalle says.

GM’s previous attempts to market mild hybrids, such as versions of the Saturn Vue and Chevrolet Malibu, met with little success.

“That's why we're calling it eAssist and not calling it a mild hybrid,” DiSalle says. “We want eAssist to communicate what the system does, assist the regular and fundamental gas-engine powerplant.”

The beauty of the system is “no hybrid premium and no consumer tradeoffs,” DiSalle adds.

“The consumer will get both better vehicle performance and better mileage. We estimate both the LaCrosse and Regal eAssist sedans will get 37 mpg (6.4 L/100 km) highway.”

Stephen Poulos, global chief engineer-eAssist, says both the LaCrosse and Regal models will get low-rolling-resistance tires to help boost fuel-economy ratings.

“They won't be as firm as the tires on the Chevy Volt, only about halfway like the Volt tires,” he says, noting the necessity to preserve Buick’s ride character. “They'll be more energy efficient, but not extreme.”

DiSalle declines to predict how many LaCrosse and Regal models will be built with eAssist, saying market demand will determine volumes. He also doesn’t comment on the price of the system, noting only that an eAssist LaCrosse will sticker at about $30,000, while Lincoln and Lexus hybrids start at about $35,000.

LaCrosse gets e-Assist as standard, because those buyers are less price sensitive, GM says. But the system will be an option on the Regal.

Buick is the lead GM division when it comes to eAssist, DiSalle says, declining to reveal how long the brand will have the system as an exclusive.