2004 Buick Rainier CXL
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Story and photos by Greg Wilson

Upscale Buick SUV has impressive six cylinder engine


In 2001, General Motors introduced three new mid-sized sport-utility vehicles: the Chevrolet Trailblazer, the slightly more upscale GMC Envoy, and the top-of-the-line Oldsmobile Bravada. Apart from their unique exterior and interior styling, these three sport utes were, and are the same vehicles with different levels of standard equipment.

At the end of the 2004 model year, the Oldsmobile Bravada will drive off into the sunset as part of the phase-out of the venerable Oldsmobile brand. Its replacement is already here: the 2004 Buick Rainier, a well-equipped, upscale SUV with a price-tag just under $50,000.

For that you get leather seats, driver/passenger temperature control and rear heater/stereo controls, wood trim, power front seats, windows, locks and heated mirrors; AM/FM/CD stereo, cruise control, power adjustable pedals, remote keyless entry, and 17 inch tires and alloy wheels.

Like the Bravada, the Rainier has a full-time “on-demand” four-wheel-drive system rather than the 2WD and AutoTrac 4WD systems offered in the Trailblazer and Envoy (Rainiers are available with 2WD in the U.S. but not in Canada).

2004 Buick Rainier CXL
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The standard engine in the Rainier is the smooth-running and powerful 275 horsepower inline 4.2 litre DOHC 24 valve six cylinder engine that first appeared in 2001. This is a wonderful engine, and in my opinion, there’s no need for a V8 in the Rainier. But if you want one, say to pull a really heavy trailer, a 5.3 litre all-aluminum OHV V8 is available as an option. The 5.3 litre V8 is also optional in the GMC Envoy XL, and in the extended length Trailblazer EXT and Envoy XUV, but it’s not available in the regular Trailblazer.

2004 Buick Rainier CXL

2004 Buick Rainier CXL

2004 Buick Rainier CXL

2004 Buick Rainier CXL
Click image to enlarge

From an appearance standpoint, there’s no mistaking the Rainier. Its huge, oval chrome-trimmed grille makes it easy to identify, although its generic rear-end styling is less distinctive. I didn’t like the exposed spare tire under the cargo floor. From a practical point of view, the Rainier is a well-designed vehicle. The step-up height into the cabin is not too high 457 mm (18 inches) and the four door openings are large. The rear hatch door is large and easy to open, and the cargo area is huge. The tall cabin is roomy and driver visibility is good. And the Rainier is not only comfortable, but very well equipped – as it should be for $49,245.


Interior

Aside from a rather “lumpy” dash design, the Rainier has an attractive, well-finished interior. My test vehicle’s beige colour scheme, chrome door handles, and dark wood trim on the dash and doors looked very attractive. All the passengers sit upright in chair-like seats, and have plenty of headroom and legroom. The rear bench seat is just wide enough for three adults and has three 3-point seatbelts but only two height-adjustable head restraints.

The driver sits up high with a good view of the road ahead, and the Rainier’s large side windows and big rear window make it easy to back up or change lanes. The driver’s seat is power height adjustable, the pedals are adjustable, and the steering wheel tilts, so it’s easy to find a comfortable driving position. The leather-upholstered front seats have seat warmers too: the seat cushion has three temperature settings and the seatback has one temperature choice. The Rainier’s silver-coloured gauges with black numerals and green pointers have a classy appearance, and there are six gauges in all.

Ergonomically speaking, the steering wheel is well-positioned for reach, the controls are simple (with the exception of some navigation system functions), and the floor shift lever is located within easy reach. The handbrake seems out of place just to the right of the transmission lever – I would have expected a foot brake.

The optional DVD navigation system screen in the centre panel also serves to operate the radio, but it’s not a touch-screen – the buttons beside the screen are used to operate functions displayed on the screen. I found this system a little confusing – for example, I had trouble operating the Tune function for the radio because it would sometimes select a function that I hadn’t intended – I never figured out what I was doing wrong. And if you want to play a CD, you have to take out the DVD for the navigation system, which means that you can’t listen to a CD and used the navigation system at the same time.

To operate the navigation system, the driver must alternately use buttons and a small joystick for scrolling. A display tells you which exits to take, the mileage to go before exit, and the route you’re on. And a female voice will instruct you where to turn so that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road.

2004 Buick Rainier CXL
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Separate driver/passenger temperature settings for the automatic climate control system have only one temperature display reading. However, the display will adjust to whichever dial you turn. Rear passengers in the Rainier can adjust the heater and the radio using controls at the back of the centre console. And rear occupants also have a rear 12 volt powerpoint and two cupholders.

The 70/30 split folding seatbacks are unique. First the seat cushions fold up against the back of the front seats; then the seatbacks fold down flat, and as they do so, the head restraint flips back out of the way – it’s not necessary to remove the rear head restraints.

The Rainier’s roomy cargo area is accessible by a lift-up hatch door which includes a separately opening rear window with a rear wiper and electric defogger. I liked the easy-to-grip pull handle on the rear hatch, and the protective rubber step on the rear bumper.

2004 Buick Rainier CXL
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The load height for the cargo compartment is a manageable 787 mm (31 inches). The rear opening is four feet (1219 mm) wide, but two protruding door stops reduce the width at the point to 1168 mm (46 inches). With the rear seats up, the length of the cargo area 965 mm (38 inches), and with the rear seats folded down, the cargo floor length is 1753 mm (69 inches). However, the folded rear head restraints which sit up against the front seatbacks, reduce the load length by a few inches (see photo).

A sliding privacy cover, carpeted floor and mat, five cargo hooks for securing cargo, and a shallow storage bin underneath the cargo floor are also included.


Driving Impressions

Driving around town or on the highway, the Rainier is an easy vehicle to drive and the cabin is quiet with minimal wind noise, despite the Rainier’s extensive frontal area and tall cabin. The 4.2 litre straight six with twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and variable exhaust valve timing puts out a healthy 275 horsepower @ 6000 rpm and a respectable 275 lb-ft of torque at @ 3600 rpm. Though it’s a heavy vehicle, the Rainier can zip from 0 to 100 km/h in under 9 seconds. Whether it’s from a standing start or when passing on the highway, the Rainier is a surprising performer. As I said, you don’t really need the V8 engine.

2004 Buick Rainier CXL

2004 Buick Rainier CXL
Click image to enlarge

At freeway speeds, the inline six engine revs very low and is barely audible. At 100 km/h in fourth gear, for example, it does just 1,900 rpm. The standard heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission is also very smooth.

Fuel consumption is respectable for a mid-size SUV: 15.5 l/100 km (18 mpg) city/10.5 l/100 km (27 mpg) highway.

As a tall, heavy vehicle with a body-on-frame design and a solid rear axle, the Rainier’s handling is competent but it shows some lean in the corners and it feels heavy. With its fairly wide stance however, the Rainier is resistant to cross-winds, and tracks well on the freeway. Its standard Michelin Cross Terrain P255/60R-17 inch all-season tires mounted on alloy wheels offer plenty of grip, the ride is very pleasant, and the body feels tight.

The Rainier’s on-demand all-wheel-drive system operates in rear-wheel-drive until the system senses some wheel slippage, and then sends some power to the front wheels. This system is virtually undetectable in dry conditions, but improves traction and stability automatically in wet or icy conditions. The driver does not have to engage the AWD system.

A standard rear air spring suspension which automatically keeps the vehicle level provides extra stability and is a useful feature when towing. Equipped with the 4.2 litre I6, the Rainier can tow up to 2767 kg (6100 lb.). With the optional 290 horsepower 5.3 litre V8 engine, the towing capacity increases to 2948 kg (6500 lb.).

The Rainier’s power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a light feel at slow speeds, and the turning circle of just 11.1 metres (36.4 feet) is very tight. Rainiers come with standard four wheel disc brakes and 4-wheel ABS – good brakes are a good idea on a big vehicle like this.

Overall, I liked the Rainier’s quick acceleration, smooth engine, comfortable ride, maneuverability, responsive braking, and quiet cabin, but I thought it felt big and heavy in the corners. Still, it is a mid-sized SUV.

Competitors

Competitors for the Buick Rainier ($49,275) include the Ford Explorer Limited ($48,450), Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland ($53,270), Lexus RX330 ($48,525), Acura MDX ($49,800), Honda Pilot EX-L ($43,000), and Toyota 4Runner Limited V8 ($50,330).

Though the Rainier has a six cylinder engine, its performance is comparable with other competitor’s V8 engines, so buyer’s should not discount the standard Rainier because it has a six. Other major differences: the Rainier has seating for five while the Explorer and Pilot have seven passenger seating. The Explorer, 4Runner, MDX, and Pilot offer five-speed automatic transmissions rather than a four-speed automatic transmission. And the Rainier’s import competitors offer a 5 or 6 year powertrain warranty while the Rainier does not.


Verdict

As mid-size luxury SUVs go, the Buick Rainier is a powerful, comfortable, well-equipped SUV with the advantage of relatively fuel-efficient inline six cylinder engine. But competition is tough in this segment, and there are many attractive alternatives.

The Buick Rainier is built in Moraine, Ohio.


Technical Data: 2004 Buick Rainier CXL

Base price $49,245
Options $4,685 (DVD navigation system $3,355; sunroof $1,130; cargo cover and mat $200)
Freight $950
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $54,980
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-sized SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 4.2 litre inline 6 cylinder
Horsepower 275 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 275 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Tires P255/60R-17
Towing capacity 2767 kg (6100 lb.)
Wheelbase 2869 mm (113.0 in.)
Length 4866 mm (191.6 in.)
Width 1897 mm (74.7 in.)
Height 1892 mm (74.5 in.)
Ground clearance 203 mm (8.0 in.)
Cargo area 942 litres (39.8 cu. ft.) rear seats up
  2269 litres (80.1 cu. ft.) rear seats down
Fuel consumption City: 15.5 l/100 km (18 mpg)
  Hwy: 10.5 l/100 km (27 mpg)
Fuel Regular unleaded
Powertrain 3 yrs/60,000 km

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