My test car, a 2012 Buick LaCrosse with eAssist (making it a mild hybrid), is as good a place as any to gut-check the mettle of that much-maligned entity, the American automobile. Let’s go back 20 years. Taken together, it was indeed pretty dispiriting: the rusting hulk of de-industrializing Detroit, the clueless and increasingly bankrupt automakers, and their sub-standard, built-by-bean-counters gas guzzlers, trumped in every possible category by Japan and Germany.

But that was then. Like the prospect of being shot in the morning, bankruptcy court is a great way to concentrate the mind. Even before that—starting in the mid-1990s—the Detroit automakers were starting to build good automobiles again, but it took reformers like Alan Mulally and Bob Lutz to go through the entire product lines.

I know Lutz is the quintessential auto insider, who never met a muscle car or SUV he didn’t like. And his views on the environment would win him pride of place at a Fox News picnic. But he contains paradoxes—he's also known as the father of the Chevy Volt (at left). And he’s got a thing about quality that stood him well during his most recent stint at GM, as vice chairman. His book Car Guys vs. Bean Counters hammers the point relentlessly—he spent as much time as possible in the trenches, confronting the “good enough” mindset and pointing out how Lexus and Audi get it right with panel gaps and quality materials. And he proved it was cost effective.

Ed Welburn, the head of design at GM, says, “Cars like the Malibu, the Buick LaCrosse, and the Cadillac CTS are successful because they look and feel the way great cars should look and feel, and he was the one who turned the thinking of the company in that direction—to not reduce everything to cost analysis.” Lutz told Popular Mechanics in his “exit interview,” “The thinking I brought here was this: If we can put $1,000 more goodness in each vehicle, and reduce the incentive spent from $4,000 a car to $2,000, we are $1,000 per car ahead. And that is in effect what happened.”

Indeed it did. The four-cylinder LaCrosse I’m driving just feels right, from the high-quality materials in the interior to the narrow, evenly spaced panel gaps (see photo at right, Lutz was a stickler for gaps). Despite the absence of a V-8, there's plenty of creamy power when you need it, and the car is as quiet as Herman Cain's campaign headquarters.

The good news is that eAssist is standard in the LaCrosse—you don't have to buy "the hybrid version." This car is part of the belated recognition by Detroit that Americans care about fuel economy. This is a big luxury sedan with lots of room for six-footers, but it gets 25 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway. The LaCrosse with eAssist, which went on sale in August, does its magic with an on-board lithium-ion battery pack (pioneered by GM for the Volt), a motor generator that provides up to 15 horsepower of electric boost, and start-stop technology so it saves fuel at traffic lights. And don’t forget the six-speed transmission.

Plus, the LaCrosse looks like the Lexus that Toyota never built. Styling for the most conservative citizen of Oshkosh is out. But there’s lots more that GM can do. At 3,835 pounds, the LaCrosse is no lightweight, and the company should take a page from the BMW playbook and find ways to use composites so its hybrid and electric drivetrains don’t have so much poundage to push around. It’s also pretty pricey, considering it’s not a full hybrid--$36,685 as tested, including a $1,345 audio system (which should be standard). I can buy a nice 50-mpg Prius starting around $23,000.

I sat in the LaCrosse’s cockpit and tried to pretend I was Bob Lutz. I think he’d like the even stitching on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the natural way that the padded dash is integrated into the dashboard. None of it looks cheap. He’d probably want to narrow the door-to-interior gaps, though. And he’d nod with approval at the way the auto-stop feature works—not nearly as clunky as on early GM vehicles (such as the Silverado Hybrid).

Would I buy one? Not for $36,000. My little Honda has great panel fit, too, and it cost $15,000, with even better fuel economy. But then I’m not a candidate for a big luxury car. Within the category, it’s far more competitive than they’d like to admit in Stuttgart, Seoul and Tokyo. We can thank Bob Lutz—the guy who said that global warming is @*$%*@—for that. Let’s hope he enjoys watching his swans in country squire retirement. Did I hear that he’s consulting with an electric car company?

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

In praise of American cars
Once painfully uncompetitive, the U.S.-made automobile is clawing its way back with good-looking designs, attention to detail, and even respectable fuel economy