2002 Buick Rendezvous - Wins you over slowly

Jan. 24, 2002
Some cars look good at first glance but turn out to be disappointments when put to work.

Some cars look good at first glance but turn out to be disappointments when put to work. There is something to be said for eye-catching, but if a vehicle is cramped, rides poorly, or gets lousy mileage, then it isn't much of a car. The seven-passenger Buick Rendezvous is just the opposite. It looks okay, not great. But the longer I drove it, the more it surprised me with its conveniences, competence, and all-around good performance.

Its looks are acceptable but not impressive, especially from a distance because it has a humpback appearance that appears so nonaerodynamic. But up close, styling details are remarkable. Take a close look, for instance, at the headlamp and turn-signal unit. Really. Its curved reflective surfaces, clear-acrylic lens, and different colors combine to make it quite a striking design element. And up close you see that the dark lower body portion is cladding that takes the abuse of everyday driving and parking.

Inside, the impression I had was one of being surrounded by competence. The instrument panel looks sharp and modern. The leather bucket seats are firm and comfortable, and you know that a long trip will not be a tiring one. Buick engineers may have heard my complaining about the switches for the front seat heaters. The problem was that the switch was on the side of the seat, making it easy to accidentally turn a heater on while making seat adjustments. You wouldn't realize the error until things got too warm. Rendezvous engineers relocated the switches below the radio so there is no accidental warming. More good news: On a cool morning that I tried the seat heater, I discovered that its elements have been appropriately downsized to warmers. Excessive heat was never necessary, but just the right amount on a cold morning is a pleasant experience. Additional dual-temperature controls for the driver and front passenger are also welcome features. Second-row passengers have their own temperature and radio controls and headsets.

The Buick rides quietly enough to make conversations easy at highway speeds. An optional third-row seat holds two more people. When not in use, this seat folds flat. When the second row is removed, the SUV holds almost 109 ft3.

An independent four-wheel suspension adds to the smooth ride. Even on bumpy roads you won't feel jostled. I always felt in control. Maneuverability is also good. A slight turn of the steering wheel at low speeds helps easily get around packed parking lots.

The drivetrain combines a 3.4-liter V6 with an automatic four-speed transmission, making a capable team. The engine rates about 185 hp, (210 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm) and that's plenty for fast getaways. On the one occasion I needed rapid acceleration, the Rendezvous took off like a shot. And despite plenty of get-up-and-go, the instantaneous mpg meter hovered around 22 mpg. The EPA figures are 18 and 24 mpg, respectable for a 4,000-lb vehicle. The Buick was also equipped with an on-demand four-wheel-drive system. But snow did not fall, so the feature went untested. However, the two-wheel-drive system rates 19 and 26 mpg.

The Rendezvous was packed with 22 options that list for an additional $6,700. These included dual HVAC controls, a heads-up display, a third row of seats, power sunroof, and universal garage-door opener. But after a few days with the SUV, I found myself more impressed with little common-sense features rather than the expensive, technological ones. For example, the heated seats, dual-temperature controls, large sideview mirrors, and radio controls on the steering wheel are big hits in my book. I could easily live without the four-wheel-drive system, power adjustments on the seats, and the heads-up display.

My only complaint, and this goes for any vehicle with tinted windows, is that it's difficult to see behind the vehicle when backing up, especially after dusk. Buick engineers must have sensed my apprehension and included what they call a rear-parking aid. When any of four ultrasonic sensors detect an object behind the vehicle, a chime sounds and a red light mounted near the roofline on the passenger side begins blinking. The first time I noticed the blinking, I stopped backing up and got out, only to find a neighbor had parked close to our drive apron. Because it was dusk, I did not see the vehicle. But if you've run over bicycles before, and it's easy, you'll appreciate the extra eyes.

The final question is, would I buy one? The vehicle we drove topped out at $34,737. The base vehicle without four-wheel drive lists for about $25,000. That's still a bit pricey, but not out of reach. However, when the kids are out of college, a Rendezvous coming off a lease could look pretty good.

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