The Buick Rainier shares its body shell and mechanical platform with GM's other mid-size SUVs, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy. But of the three, only the Rainier offers a 300-horsepower V8 engine in the handier, standard-wheelbase configuration. Rainier doesn't even offer an extended-wheelbase version like the TrailBlazer EXT and Envoy XL; and that's fine with us, because the stretch-model Chevy and GMC fall short of the standard trucks in handling and stability, while failing to match the space efficiency of GM's full-size Tahoe and Yukon SUVs.
Buick offers other benefits. Rainier rides more smoothly than the other GM models, and it's among the quietest SUVs we've driven. Rainier has a uniquely Buick style and a near-luxury sensibility. Yet it still seats five and boasts an engine powerful enough to pull a boat or horse trailer.
As with the GMC Envoy, however, choosing the Rainier (especially the six-cylinder model) over the corresponding Chevy may be mostly a matter of image. Just as the GMC badge stands for Serious Trucks, the Buick name has, for over a century now, meant arrival at a certain station in life, an achievement of an elevated socio-economic plateau. From the aptly named Roadmasters of the 1930s-50s, through the sculptured Rivieras of the '60s, a Buick has been about stepping up from the ordinary. The old Chevy may have served you well, and you might still aspire someday to own a Cadillac. But in the meantime you're enjoying the quiet comfort, easy performance, and confidently conservative style of a Buick.
With a price range from the mid-30s to the low 40s, Rainier continues this tradition as an appealing alternative for buyers who appreciate strong silent types.
Buick Rainier CXL 2WD ($35,080); CXL 4WD ($36,905)
Rainier takes its name from the 14,410-foot mountain in Washington and from the royal family of Monaco. One of the Rainier's designers told us that Mount Rainier reflects majesty with ruggedness and independence, while the late Grace Kelly and her husband's family symbolize quality, sophistication and elegance.
The Buick Rainier is based on the GM360 platform, a mid-size, truck-based SUV also marketed as the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, and Isuzu Ascender. It's a solid platform featuring a frame that incorporates hydroformed steel members for optimum strength and rigidity. This strong frame helps Rainier tow up to 6,700 pounds.
Rainier features unique styling cues to differentiate it from the other GM models, including a distinct grille, hood, front quarter panels and rear hatch door. Its large, oval-shaped grille helps soften the boxy SUV architecture. The upper section of the chrome grille provides a bold background for the Buick name, with a large Buick tri-shield badge set in the midst of the grille's vertical bars. The Rainier's face also includes wide, three-element headlamps, with separate fog lights and side marker lights in the lower front fascia. A creased hood lends an elegant strength to the Rainier's appearance.
Rainier's stance is enhanced by Buick-exclusive, eight-spoke brushed aluminum wheels. Six-spoke aluminum wheels with a polished finish have been added as an option on 2005 models. Just as the front grille alerts you to the fact that this SUV is a Buick, the rear view includes a prominent chrome eyebrow bearing the Buick name as part of the license-plate holder. The rear liftgate features a separate glass hatch to offer quick access to the cargo area. Lifting the rear hatch requires some initial effort, however.
Buick has upgraded the Rainier's interior for 2005, with real wood and leather trim on the steering wheel, a woodgrain gearshift lever, and additional chrome accents. Rainier's interior disappointed us last year, with its obviously fake woodgrain and distinctly plebian plastics. While the GMC Envoy has very attractive, metallic colored heating and cooling outlets, the up-market Rainier's are color-matched to the instrument panel and comparatively plain. Nor are Rainier's cupholders of the jumbo-size we've found in competitive vehicles. On the other hand, there are two power outlets up front, so both driver and passenger can recharge their cell phones and power other devices.
The standard leather seats are ventilated by perforations in the center back and lower cushion areas, but the material almost looks more like vinyl than leather. Also, the seats could use more side support. However, we do like the feature that incorporates the shoulder belt into the seat back rather than having it mounted way up on the door pillar.
We also liked the instrument cluster, with its platinum-colored gauge faces and turquoise pointers that almost appear to light up against the metallic background. Not only are these gauges very attractive, but we found them easy to read, even through polarized sunglasses, which is certainly not the case with the electroluminescent gauge clusters on many other so-called luxury vehicles.
Another nice feature is the large dot matrix shield on the windshield above the rear-view mirror and between the sun visors that helps block direct sunlight through this usually neglected gap. We were disappointed again, however, that the Rainier had only single sun visors on either side, instead of dual visors so you could block the sun both ahead and to the side, a useful feature on winding roads.
The rear seats offer decent legroom but not quite luxurious proportions. However, there's plenty of cargo room behind them: 39.8 cubic feet, in fact. An optional cargo organizer ($165) appears to be an excellent way to keep your stuff from sliding around. When more cargo capacity is needed, the split rear seats can be folded forward to open up to 80.1 cubic feet of interior cavern.
The six-cylinder engine that comes standard on the Rainier is a wonderful engine, delivering plenty of power, as we've seen in the GMC Envoy and Chevrolet Trailblazer. Called the Vortec 4200, it's an inline-6, a classic design with inherent balance. The Vortec 4200 has been engineered to deliver power across a wide range of engine speeds, giving it responsive acceleration in all driving situations.
The optional V8, however, provides much better acceleration. Tweaked for 2005, the Vortec 5300 V8 now rates 300 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque (torque being the force that you need to pull around a trailer). We found the V8 to be extremely quiet in the Rainier.
Regardless of our quibbles about Rainier's interior appointments, there's no debate about its quiet ride. This very likely is the quietest body-on-frame SUV we've ever driven. Buick used the Lexus LX 470 as the target for Rainier, but we think Rainier itself sets a new benchmark when it comes to a quiet cabin. Double-pane, laminated glass was used for the windshield and front doors; acoustical foam sound-deadening material was used liberally to fill the doors, roof pillars and other empty spaces in the body.
Rainier rides on an independent double A-arm front suspension, and a live rear axle with electronically controlled air springs providing automatic leveling. Bilstein shocks dampen the bumps all around. This is, essentially, the optional suspension for the GMC Envoy. Combined with quiet Michelin tires and all that extra sound dampening material, Rainier's suspension provides a smooth, comfortable and quiet ride. But it isn't soft or sloppy. We found the Rainier sure-footed even when being hustled along narrow, winding country byways.
Rainier's rack-and-pinion steering is nicely weighted. The big disc brakes responded immediately to pressure on the pedal and slowed our Rainier in a nicely composed and orderly fashion.
All-wheel drive makes the Rainier a good vehicle for driving on snow and ice. Rainier's available on-demand all-wheel-drive system is lightweight, quiet and efficient. If one or both front wheels lose grip, the system goes into action progressively. The driver need do nothing; there are no buttons to press or levers to throw. The system works all the time, poised to help drivers make use of the traction available by transferring torque from rear to front tires as needed.
The optional navigation system ($1,995) features an amazingly clear screen that seems almost immune to glare from sunlight, which often renders such screens unreadable in other vehicles. We found last year's system awkward to operate, but Buick claims to have fixed this with new touch-screen controls for 2005.
GM's OnStar safety and security system is standard on all 2005 Rainier models and includes a one-year subscription to the Safe & Sound plan. It's a great safety feature. On the 2005 Rainier, OnStar service includes the new General Motors Advanced Automatic Crash Notification (AACN) system, making crash data available to 911 centers to potentially dispatch the appropriate life-saving personnel and equipment to crash scenes faster. New-generation hardware for 2005 means upgraded hands-free voice recognition capabilities including more intuitive continuous digit dialing and improved voice recognition accuracy. OnStar is the leading provider of in-vehicle safety, security and information services in the United States and Canada. Using the GPS satellite network and wireless technology, OnStar provides core safety services and OnStar Personal Calling that allows drivers to make and receive hands-free, voice-activated phone calls using a powerful three-watt digital/analog system and external antenna for greater reception. Press a button and an OnStar operator's voice comes over the speakers, ready to give you directions to the nearest five-star restaurant or provide other assistance.
Buick Rainier's strengths are its quiet, comfortable ride and powerful performance. Although built on the same platform as the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy, only the Rainier offers the combination of V8 power in the preferred standard wheelbase length. And while less tangible, Rainier's Buick style is appealing.
The Rainier is a great vehicle for drivers who need the superior towing capacity or off-road ruggedness that a truck-based SUV can provide.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Larry Edsall is based in Arizona.