This all-new flagship accentuates Buick's positives. by Tony Swan
In an age of shifting allegiances, Buick is in an enviable position. Buick buyers keep coming back for more, giving this make just about the highest brand loyalty in the business.
But there's a challenge inherent in this kind of loyalty, because as time passes, the loyal ranks thin out. So the challenge for Buick designers is coming up with automobiles that satisfy the old guard and simultaneously recruit new, younger loyalists to the banner.
Since those younger recruits have come of age in an automotive era of intense import competition--weaned on Hondas and Toyotas--that's a tough tightrope act, and there's no net.
Neverthless, the '97 Park Avenue lineup--particularly our test subject, the Park Avenue Ultra--seems well conceived to satisfy both sets of prospects. It's not aimed at upwardly mobile types who fortify their status with BMWs and Mercedes. Rather, it's a pleasant step up into quiet, roomy luxury, bolstered by high quality and a much more authoritative set of dynamic capabilities.
Although the '97 Park Avenue looks like an evolutionary update on the current car, it's all new, with underpinnings based on the Riviera-Aurora chassis. While this means more weight--about 250 lbs. for both models--it also means a longer wheelbase and wider track (the lateral distance between the wheels).
That evolutionary impression is also a little deceptive. A closer look shows that Buick, in its own reserved way, has in fact taken some risks here. The result is a design that quietly throws off the shackles of some hallowed General Motors design traditions. Ever since the days of the late Harley Earl, the man who established the annual model makeover at GM, the ethic governing GM designs has been longer, lower, wider and sleeker.
The Park Avenue doesn't violate all of these hallowed tenets--it is indeed longer, wider and arguably sleeker--but it's definitely not any lower.
In fact, it's just the opposite. At 58.1 in., the '97 Park Avenue stands 3 in. taller than the '96. For contrast, the Chrysler LHS, targeted by Buick as a key Park Avenue Ultra competitor, stands 55.9 in. So does the Lincoln Continental.
So why is Park Avenue design chief Bill Porter violating the gospel of Harley Earl? Because in the evolving mission of Buick automobiles, a mission driven by GM's sharpened focus on individual brands, comfort takes precedence over sheer style.
In the Park Avenue, the two key comfort elements in the design scheme were interior roominess--including headroom fore and aft--and door openings that eliminate any contortions in the process of getting in or out.
Now, you could perceive these same design priorities in a basic brick like the old Checker Marathon, qualities that made it a favorite with taxi fleets for so long. But the real achievement in the new Park Avenue is that it embodies these virtues in a shape that's also graceful and quietly elegant.
It may not turn heads like the Riviera. But it does have an undeniable dollop of the Omuscular graceO that Buick designers want their cars to project.
And for all its mass, it's also got enough smooth, quiet power, from GM's excellent 3800 Series II V6, to provide peppy acceleration. Available in normally aspirated (Park Avenue) and supercharged (Ultra) versions, the 3800 has lots of low rpm getaway grunt, plus plenty of punch for passing.
Power goes to the front wheels through one of GM's butter-smooth electronically controlled 4-speed automatic transmissions--they're among the best in the business--and automatic load-leveling is standard equipment.
Buick has added four new colors to the palette for the '97 Park Avenue--silvermist metallic, Bordeaux red (burgundy), Santa Fe red and light Autumn green metallic. Our test car was black, with a taupe leather interior.
The Inside Story
As we noted, roominess and ease of entry/egress were top design priorities, and the car is a bullseye on both counts. Interior space is simply vast, a word that also applies to the trunk. And getting in and out is devoid of the simultaneous duck-and-bend move required in some swoopier designs, even though the door sill is a trifle higher.
Like the exterior, the interior styling rates as more contemporary. Over resistance from old line Buick owners, interior design chief Paul Tatseos managed to break out of the old horizontal dashboard theme that afflicts the '96 Park Avenue.
According to Buick research, those traditional owners don't like anything that suggests the cockpit styling of a sport sedan, but Tatseos and his staff went ahead with a modestly curved cowl over the main instruments. Besides a more modern appearance, this allowed Buick to increase the size of the speedometer and tachometer.
Another welcome change is the general appearance of the dashboard, which shows a strong Riviera influence with its sharp color contrasts between secondary controls (sound and climate control systems, for example) and the interior color schemes. You'll find more woodgrain trim than in the Riv, but the look is clean and distinctive, and the wood is the real article.
Beyond that, the sound system buttons and climate controls are close copies of the Riv, which means they're bigger, better located and far easier to operate when the car is in motion.
As you'd expect, the Park Avenue Ultra includes a full array of luxury goodies--premium sound system, automatic climate control, power everything--that make the going more pleasant. For that matter, so does the standard Park Avenue. And safety features such as dual airbags, antilock brakes and side impact protection are up to the minute.
Ride & Drive
The Aurora-Riv chassis is one of the stiffest in the entire GM warehouse. This is a good thing. A stiff chassis makes it easier for the suspension engineers to create ride and handling traits appropriate to a particular car's target market. It also makes it easier to keep noise out, and pays long-term durability benefits.
Given this start, it was interesting to see the handling distinctions made between the basic Park Avenue and the flagship Ultra. The ride and handling traits of the standard '97 Park Avenue are all but indistinguishable from its predecessors, traits that have earned big Buick sedans a stodgy image over the years--floaty ride quality, lots of body roll in hard cornering and vague power steering, particularly when the steering wheel is at or near dead center.
The responses of our Park Avenue Ultra test car, equipped with Buick's optional Y56 Gran Touring suspension package, felt much more closely related to the Riviera. The steering system, which is different from the basic Park Avenue, varies the amount of power assist as vehicle speed and/or steering wheel angle increases, providing a significantly better sense of where the front wheels are pointed in the process.
More important, the stiffer Gran Touring suspension package yielded much sharper responses in quick maneuvers. It's not quite as firm as the Riv, but it's far from flabby and the tradeoff in ride quality is minor.
All in all, the Ultra's combination of enhanced control and slightly firmer ride lends a contemporary feel to this car's dynamics that's a pleasant step forward for Buick.
Quiet operation has always been a top priority for Buick sedans, and here too the new Park Avenues represent a step forward. Wind noise has been reduced to a mere whisper, and the all-new unitbody does a superior job of keeping road and engine noise out of the passenger compartment.
Add roomy seats with real move-around comfort, and the going becomes exceptionally serene.
How this car will stack up in terms of value remains to be seen.
Buick won't announce pricing until the cars are ready for the showroom this fall. We'd guess the basic Park Avenue will start pretty close to $30,000, while the Ultra will start at about $34,500.
Inevitably, these numbers represent a hike over the '96 Park Avenue and Ultra, though they're competitive with other cars in the lower luxry ranks.
But based on our experiences with our test car, we'd say the '97 Park Avenue Ultra will be a much stronger contender.
It's not a sport sedan, yet it's surprisingly athletic, particularly in contrast to its predecessors.
Add excellent road manners to subdued good looks, class-leading roominess and lots of luxury features and you have a Buick that's very much in step with the late 20th century.
Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084
© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.