The Buick Rendezvous is easy to like, with solid engineering, useful flexibility, and a handsome appearance. Rendezvous is what the industry calls a crossover vehicle. It blurs the lines between sport utilities, minivans, luxury sedans, and station wagons. It carries people more efficiently than an SUV, and it drives more like a minivan than a truck.
Rendezvous seats five passengers, or seven with the optional third-row seats. Its seats are roomy and comfortable and the interior is elegantly designed. The controls feature big knobs and are easy to operate.
The new Rendezvous Ultra is luxurious with elegant leather and wood trim. It's roomier and can carry more cargo than a Lexus RX 330, the archetype of luxury crossovers. Though not as quiet as a luxury sedan, the Rendezvous rides better than most SUVs. All-wheel drive is available, improving traction and handling in slippery conditions.
New for 2005 is a passenger-sensing system for the right front seat, which turns off the corresponding airbag if it detects a small-size occupant, or no occupant at all, thereby avoiding possibly injuries to a child or small adult and/or an unnecessary replacement of the airbag. A status indicator on the instrument panel tells occupants if the airbag is on or off. Even with this feature, however, the second or third row is the safest seating position for a child.
Buick Rendezvous CX ($26,585); CX AWD ($29,775); CX Plus FWD ($28,315); CX Plus AWD ($31,525); CXL FWD ($30,785); CXL AWD ($32,850); CXL Plus FWD ($32,045); CXL Plus AWD ($34,110); Ultra FWD ($36,025); Ultra AWD ($38,220)
The Rendezvous is probably not beautiful to many, but it has an integrity suited to its purpose and is thus attractive. It's difficult to judge its size of without the context of another vehicle nearby. That's usually a sign that the design team got the scale right. As a Buick, it fits somewhere between the Buick Rainier, a truck-based SUV, and the 2005 Buick Terraza, a new minivan-like vehicle GM is calling a crossover sport van. The spec sheet says that Rendezvous is as tall as an SUV, at 68.9 inches without the roof rack. But with nearly 64 inches between the left and right rear tires, the Rendezvous has a wider track than some medium-size SUVs. And its strong horizontal design visually suggests stability.
The Rendezvous' traditional Buick grille emphasizes a familial resemblance to the Park Avenue, but on Rendezvous it somehow looks less formal and more cheery. It's a pleasing countenance. On Ultra, the familiar grille is body-color rather than black. Bright inserts along the top of the side molding add a look of richness to Ultra. In short, we like its looks.
The amazing thing about the low stance and flat floor of the Rendezvous is that all-wheel drive and a low, flat floor are supposed to be mutually exclusive. Well, the Buick engineers found a way to do it. Too bad being unobtrusive is a mark of success because this accomplishment needs to stand up and take applause. It's best appreciated when driving with a full load of people and their stuff on a nasty, sleety, darkening afternoon with a slippery glaze on the street.
The Rendezvous has a nice, elegant interior with attractive wood accents on high-line models. The seats are comfortable. The Ultra model we drove had a rich, two-tone interior with dark, coffee-colored upper and ivory lower trim with suede inserts on the seats. The leather seats gave off the smell of leather, a new-car smell that we hadn't experienced in awhile.
The steering wheel is nicely finished in leather and wood. The column shifter is covered in a soft, rubber-like material that feels good to the touch. Even the headliner is nicely finished in nylon-like material. The big center console is nicely upholstered and feels like quality. With its big glovebox, big cubby, and neat storage area under the center tunnel, there are plenty of places to stash stuff up front. The cup holders are big, solid and easy to access.
The switchgear is simple and elegant laid out. That's refreshing as many vehicles have become complicated and fussy to operate with small buttons and menus of controls buried in navigation systems. That's not the Rendezvous. Here, climate controls are clear and easy to use and require a minimum of button pressing. Radio buttons are big and easy to operate, a paragon of elegant design. Even secondary controls, like the rear wiper/washer, Park Aid, and front seat heaters, are easy to find and operate.
Even with seven inches of ground clearance and all-wheel drive, getting in and out of the Rendezvous is more like getting in and out of a sedan than an SUV. Small children, arthritic knees and tight-skirts can be grateful for that. All seats are easy to access and quite comfortable.
Rendezvous can seat up to seven passengers. Or it can carry two people with scads of stuff. The seating setup depends on how you order it and then on how you choose to fold and configure. We recommend the second-row captain's chairs as a replacement for the standard 50/50 split bench seat, though the bench seats three. We found the captain's chairs quite comfortable, with supportive seat bottoms. They're nicely finished in leather (on models so equipped), and cup holders are provided. In short, the second row of the Rendezvous is a comfortable place for adults to sit.
Access to the third row is far simpler than in most vehicles with three rows of seats. The third row in seven-passenger models is somewhat cramped for adults, squeezed from the outside by the inner fenders, so it lacks leg room and hip room, and is best for kids. But the third row is no Siberia: Even from way back there the acoustics allow you to participate in conversations with the front-seat passengers.
The Rendezvous works well as a cargo hauler, and the flexibility of the seating configurations is an exercise in automotive origami. The seats fold and tuck and fit into an amazing number of arrangements. Even the second-row seat flips and folds, allowing you to have two people up front and a flat floor behind without leaving anything home in the garage. The available third-row seat ($525) folds flat into the floor. For maximum cargo capacity, the center row can be removed. Hiding places and lockable bins are strategically placed here and there. When ordered without the third seat, CX Plus and CXL come with a cargo storage system that includes a sliding tray.
The Rendezvous' load-height is low, which reduces back strain when loading or unloading heavy objects. The rear opening is wide enough to slide a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood in flat. A red flag affixed at back will have to deal with the length.
The optional XM Satellite Radio features 100 coast-to-coast digital channels, including 71 music channels (more than 30 of them commercial-free) and 29 channels of sports, talk, children's and entertainment programming.
OnStar works well as a navigation system because there's nothing to program. Press the blue button and a human operator responds over the car's speaker, to provide directions and other assistance.
The Buick Rendezvous rides more smoothly and feels lighter on its feet than a sport-utility vehicle. Its long wheelbase smoothes surface irregularities without the road vibration inherent in many SUVs. Overall, the road demeanor of the Rendezvous is pleasing. It stopped well, and was quiet for an SUV, though a little road-noisy by luxury sedan standards.
We found the Rendezvous comported itself surprisingly well on winding roads. Even when pushed it was thoroughly honest and never felt incapable of dealing with stringent demands. At high speeds it feels more like minivan than sedan or truck. Strong side gusts affect it more than they do a car.
The Rendezvous works quite well in treacherous conditions when equipped with all-wheel drive. Driving through sandy, rocky arroyos, the SUV side of its personality came to the fore. Its all-wheel-drive system, called Versatrak, requires no input from the driver. Versatrak drives just the front wheels until sensors agree that some traction assistance from the rear is advisable. Versatrak is clever: Power is meted out separately and individually to each rear wheel, not just to the rear axle. That is a fineness of traction disbursement not available in most other four-wheel-drive systems. The result is better traction and increased stability, making the Rendezvous more capable in the snow and easier to drive in the slush. Versatrak helps Rendezvous cope with gnarly weather and marginal off-highway tracks with dignity.
With its 185-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 the Rendezvous accelerates with reasonable aplomb. This engine uses an iron block and pushrod-operated overhead valves.
Models equipped with the 3.6-liter V6 accelerate more quickly. It's smoother, revs more freely and feels more responsive. The 3.6-liter V6 is an entirely new engine, with all-aluminum construction and dual overhead camshafts. A 32-bit microprocessor continuously adjusts its valve timing according to conditions; GM calls this technology VVT (for Variable Valve Timing). The same computer also manages its more advanced fuel injection and coil-on-plug ignition systems. In short, the dual overhead-cam 3.6-liter V6 is a more modern, more sophisticated design than the overhead-valve 3.4-liter V6. And the 3.6-liter produces significantly more power: 242 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 232 pound-feet of torque at 3500 rpm. More important, 90 percent of that peak torque is present and accounted for between 1500 and 6000 rpm. That means power is instantly available at all engine speeds.
Rendezvous deserves a look on the basis of economy alone. It uses regular unleaded gas, not premium, and its thirst is temperate for its size. Fuel economy ratings: 18/27 mpg City/Highway for the overhead-cam 3.6-liter, 19/26 mpg for the older 3.4-liter. With AWD, the numbers are 18/25 for the larger engine, 18/24 for the smaller.
The load-leveling suspension, available as part of the trailer towing package, uses compressed air to fill bladders in line with the rear shock absorbers. The air pressure keeps Rendezvous level when carrying a heavy load or towing a trailer. The system comes with an auxiliary air outlet, rubber air hose, and pressure gauge, for inflating tires or toys.
Buick Rendezvous is as comfortable as it is practical. It offers a smooth ride, reassuring road manners, and a pleasant cabin. It can be configured to haul six adults in comfort, or a load of lumber from the home-improvement center, or a combination of people and cargo. Rendezvous offers an attractive value with a compelling price and decent fuel economy. It's priced significantly below such luxury all-wheel-drive vehicles as the Lexus RX 330 and Acura MDX.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Denise McCluggage first test drove the Rendezvous, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.