by Ray Thursby
Smooth, quiet and understated.
Base Price $19,335
As Tested $23,203
Buick's core market lies somewhere between ostentation and austerity. From the top-of-the-line Riviera coupe to the Century tested here, the GM division has deliberately chosen to appeal to conservative buyers whose requirements have less to do with speed and flash than solid luxury and understated elegance. There is, of course, a danger inherent in this sort of restraint: Subtlety in excess equates to near-invisibility. To this, Buick's designers and product planners seem to be suggesting that a blend of basic virtues wrapped in tasteful trimmings, coupled with sensible pricing, will attract customers.
The Buick Century was totally redesigned two years ago. Its predecessor had sold well even at the end of its 15-year production run when it faced such worthy opponents as the Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Maxima, Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus.
This latest-generation Century has proven as much of a sales success as the previous version and appears to have what it takes to make it into the new millennium.
If you're looking for a textbook example of good taste in four-door sedan styling, here it is. The Century is not startling from any angle, but it looks well-balanced and clean, free of the kinds of dramatic tweaks that can make a new design look old in short order.
Its overall form follows current GM design philosophy, being made up of long, unbroken surfaces, soft corners and a subtle wedge form rising from nose to tail. The nose carries a plated Buick grille -- minus the former stand-up hood ornament -- that looks right at home between two flattened-oval headlamps. Enough shiny trim has been used to trigger visions of luxury in the minds of target buyers. In back, an ovoid full-width taillight assembly gives the rear of the car a handsome look; you'll seldom see a large rear light cluster so deftly integrated. Roof pillars are thin, giving driver and passengers plenty of visibility. In short, the Century is attractive, but doesn't draw too much attention to itself.
To some, the Century's appearance may be a little too quiet, and it may carry too many hints of other GM products. But that hasn't deterred legions of buyers, and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.
The Century model lineup begins with the $19,335 Custom Sedan, which is loaded with enough features to keep all but a few buyers happy. For a modest base price, the Custom comes with power windows, mirrors, door locks, and front seat adjustments, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, antilock brakes (ABS), a tilt-steering column and tinted glass.
For not much more money, the $20,707 Limited is available., which adds magnetic variable-assist power steering, pinstripes, dual-zone air conditioning and fancier wheel covers. A delayed accessory power feature keeps radio and windows operable after the engine has been shut off -- handy for those times when you've forgotten to close a window. It takes more than a casual once-over to tell the two models apart.
Added to the standard equipment package supplied with both Century models this year is a traction-control system. The system reduces engine power when wheelspin is detected and is a welcome addition; more sophisticated systems apply braking force to individual spinning wheel. Also standard for '99 is a tire-inflation monitor that lets the driver know a tire is low via a warning light in the instrument cluster; the system does not identify which tire is low, however.
The options list is short. Among the amenities are a couple of modestly priced model-specific upgrade packages, a better audio system with CD player, a power glass sunroof, and alloy wheels. Also available is GM's OnStar system: Using a cellular telephone and onboard Global Positioning System sensors, OnStar allows the driver to communicate with a dedicated center that can offer roadside assistance, route advice, stolen vehicle tracking and other information.
The Inside Story
Anyone who has ever spent time in a Buick or any other six-passenger GM sedan will feel right at home in the Century. Full-width seats front and rear hold six full-size adults on soft cushions covered in smooth, attractive cloth. All six will find head- and legroom to be more than adequate, and they will have easy access through four large, well-shaped doors. Fancy trim is kept to a minimum; small wood panels in the doors surround the power-window switches and provide a contrast with the interior's monochromatic appearance.
Buick buyers may be comfortable with the single-color interior scheme but having steering wheel, dashboard, door panels, seats and carpet finished off in what is as close as possible to the exact same hue may look strange to some transferring from other brands. But that's up to individual taste. In any event, the color-coordination has been handled skillfully.
The Century's cabin layout is indisputably excellent. All control buttons and switches are large, well-marked and properly located for easy use. Instruments are clear, too, though there are only three. The Century's intended customers are unlikely to care for much more information than speed, fuel level and engine water temperature anyway. Warning lights and chimes will alert them to any problems.
Ride & Drive
Though a midsize sedan when judged by pricing and dimensions, the Century feels more like a large luxury car from behind the wheel. Buick knows its customers aren't looking for the firmness of a German autobahn-burner. They want a Buick. And that's what they get.
Ride quality is the Century's outstanding feature. It is soft and compliant over any road surface. Bumps, dips or ridges on the pavement are seldom heard or felt. Instead, there are smooth up-and-down movements that indicate, in a muted way, that the Century has been driven over something, with little indication as to the nature or size of the obstruction. Road and suspension noise are absent.
Buick has abandoned its mushy Dyna-ride shock absorber calibrations this year, opting instead for a slightly firmer ride. This in no way detracts from ride quality, but does reduce some of the body roll and rocking-horse motions common to previous versions.
We'd like to see the Magnasteer electronic power steering tuned slightly different, however. The low steering effort is nice in tight parking quarters, but there's not enough steering feel at low speeds. Then again, we may not represent what a Century driver wants. Few, if any, owners will ever drive a Century down a canyon road at anything above a modest speed, and fewer still would want the car's steering to have sports car precision.
The bottom line is that the Century is quite pleasant to drive when used as its designers intended. The 3.1-liter V6 engine and 4-speed automatic transmission that come in all Century models deliver enough power to meet demands and they are smooth and quiet and deliver good fuel economy. The brakes also do a good job, though we felt the ABS coming into play a bit earlier than expected during hard stops.
It may seem that our praise for the Century is somewhat muted - as are our minor criticisms. There's a good reason: There is little, if anything, about the entry-level Buick calculated to generate excitement.
But if the Century does not thrill, it does satisfy. The only real surprise is the price. At a whisker over 20 grand when well-equipped, the Century represents a fine value for buyers shopping for comfort and well-executed understatement.
In its particular corner of the midsize market, the Century has all the attributes of a winner. It offers a smooth, quiet ride, competent handling and good performance. It's easy to climb in and out and the interior is attractive and user friendly. And that is what Buick buyers want.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.