Practical Montego beats more powerful LaCrosse in three of five categories
By Anita Lienert and Paul Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
GROSSE POINTE WOODS -- We were having breakfast at the local pancake house in mid-February when a reader recognized us and slid into our booth to get our thoughts on what would be the perfect car for 60-somethings. His main concern: A wife who is troubled by arthritis and is also recovering from breast cancer. She doesn't want to struggle with a trunk lid that's hard to shut or seats that are hard to climb in and out of. And he wants something roomy enough to carry his buddies and lots of golf equipment.
Good thing we'd just finished testing two new five-passenger family sedans that may fit the bill: The 2005 Mercury Montego Premier all-wheel-drive model and 2005 Buick LaCrosse CXS, which is only available in front-wheel drive.
The two domestic competitors are aimed squarely at mature boomers. This is a sizable group of which Don Esmond, head of U.S. sales for the Toyota brand, recently said: "Not only do they have money, they are willing to spend it."
But what's the best way to spend that cash when you're putting the Montego and LaCrosse in a head-to-head face-off? We have a winner -- but it just squeaked past the other car by a nose.
Our test Montego was priced at $30,385, including a $650 destination charge. It had a $595 safety package that included side air bags and side curtain air bags that protect all outboard passengers, plus an $895 moonroof. Our test LaCrosse was priced at $32,750, including a $660 destination charge. It was loaded with $3,755 worth of options, including $650 chrome-plated wheels, $295 heated front seats and a $150 remote vehicle start.
We compared the cars in five categories and then picked an overall winner. Here are the results:
We agreed that one of these vehicles had an extremely frumpy and dowdy exterior that inspired images of Geritol on wheels, while the other had sleek, sculpted lines and a more aerodynamic profile. Unfortunately, we couldn't agree on which was which. The Montego's tall roof and boxier shape spelled a roomier cabin and larger trunk. And we liked the bold grille, which is much more distinctive than the grille on its sister car, the Ford Five Hundred. Neither one of us was terribly enthusiastic about the design of the LaCrosse, however, which resembles a warmed-over Buick Regal. Our test car looked anonymous in silver and a bit dated overall. We'd recommend black paint instead to add a much-needed dose of sex appeal.
The practical aspects of the Chicago-built Montego's cabin shine in a side-by-side comparison. Unlike the LaCrosse, which requires passengers to squat slightly to enter -- as do most conventional sedans -- sliding into the Montego is a snap because it's got a much higher seating position. This is also a benefit when you are behind the wheel because it allows you to see up and over traffic.
The interior of the Montego is simple and plain, but that's a benefit, too. Controls and displays are easy to see, understand and use -- dramatically better than in the LaCrosse. That's a critical factor when it comes to recommending a car to an aging buyer who may be coping with less-than-perfect eyesight. We liked the perforated leather seats, matte metal and glossy charcoal wood grain trim in the Montego.
The LaCrosse had nice gathered leather in the cabin, but chintzy-looking fake wood. We knocked the Ontario-built Buick down for cabin workmanship because of big gaps in the trim and moldings.
Our test Montego had a much roomier rear passenger compartment than the LaCrosse and a considerably bigger trunk, making it the clear champ in the crucial golf-bag test.
The Montego trumps the LaCrosse in one respect because it can be ordered with all-wheel drive, which we consider a significant safety advantage that will improve tractability and security in bad weather. Our test Montego also was equipped with standard antilock brakes, traction control and adjustable pedals. Stability control is not available and side air bags cost extra.
The LaCrosse has standard antilock brakes and a one-year subscription to the OnStar emergency communications system, but its StabiliTrak stability control system costs an additional $495 and is available only on the CXS model. Side curtain air bags are $395. If you want to really get down to basics, the LaCrosse has what may be the most fundamental "safety" feature of all -- a larger, more powerful engine. But we tallied that particular item up as a winner in another category.
Ride and Handling
The Montego has a slightly longer wheelbase than the LaCrosse and standard 18-inch tires. This gives it a slight edge in ride comfort over the LaCrosse, with its smaller wheelbase and 17-inch tires.
The ride quality in the Montego is excellent -- controlled and well-damped, without feeling marshmallowy -- although the longer wheelbase can make squeezing into tight parking spaces a bit of a challenge. The LaCrosse had more of a billowy ride that tended to feel a little floaty when going over bumps or rough pavement.
We gave only average marks to both sedans in terms of steering. The Montego's power rack-and-pinion steering felt too vague with not enough feedback, and the LaCrosse's variable-assist steering felt disconnected from the road.
The Montego may have been a slam-dunk in the overall comparison if it weren't for its tiny -- and noisy -- 3.0-liter V-6 engine, which feels grossly underpowered and overworked at 203 horsepower and 207 pounds-feet of torque. The LaCrosse's 3.6-liter V-6, with 240 horsepower and 225 pounds-feet or torque, handily beats the Montego's power plant. The Buick inspires more confidence on the highway, especially in passing and merging situations. The LaCrosse's V-6 is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, while the Montego's V-6 is mated to a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, to improve fuel efficiency. The CVT, however, does not provide the distinctive "kickdown" feel of a conventional automatic when you step on the throttle to pass or accelerate, which may irritate some drivers. The two sedans have virtually identical fuel-economy numbers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the Montego at 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway. The LaCrosse is rated at 19 in the city and 27 on the highway.
As we shuttled back and forth between both sedans, we tried to picture which one of the two we would recommend to our parents. When you look at it from that perspective, the Montego seems like a natural choice if you are only shopping domestic brands because it's so roomy and easy to use. The biggest disappointment about the Mercury is the engine. But without a doubt, the LaCrosse has its merits, too. A final thought to further muddy the water: The redesigned five-passenger 2005 Toyota Avalon sedan, with its incredible reclining rear seat, stylish and spacious interior and superior workmanship, may have them both beat. The Chrysler 300 sedan, our 2005 Detroit News Car of the Year, is also worthy of consideration, particularly the new all-wheel-drive model.
Overall winner: Montego