The affordable premium American road car.
by Ted West
Base Price $19,602
As Tested $22,393
Buick's Century offers value and practicality. It comes with a strong but frugal V6 engine, a roomy interior with bench seats that can seat three people and a big trunk. Otherwise, there is little to distinguish this mid-size sedan.
The Century line is composed of the Custom ($19,725), the Limited ($21,860) and the Century 2000 Special Edition, which is essentially an appearance package. The key difference between Custom and Limited is the latter's leather upholstery and a driver's side-impact air bag.
Standard on all Century models are keyless remote entry, power locks, daytime running lights with Twilight Sentinel automatic light control, anti-lock brakes, traction control, tire-inflation monitor and theft-deterrent.
We drove the new Century 2000 Special Edition, which retails for $21,035 (including discounts); it comes with cast aluminum wheels, a blacked-out grille, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, a six-way power driver's seat and an AM/FM cassette player with steering wheel controls. Century 2000 Special Edition is also available in Custom leather trim and goes for $21,833 (including discounts).
In differentiating models in a line like Buick's, the more up-market models can easily be distinguished in the buyer's eye by greater content (features, luxurious trim) and enhanced appearance cues. But while dressing up pricier models, the danger exists that the more affordable models will seem stripped-down. Buick's Century strives to strike that difficult balance. It combines a solid drive train and a reasonable level of deluxe equipment with less glamorous styling cues that might be seen as bordering on blandness. The Buick Century will not appeal to auto enthusiasts enamored of flashy styling and high performance. Instead, it was designed to perform its duties quietly and faithfully, drawing a minimum of attention to itself.
From the traditional grille to its capacious interior, the Century is unmistakably a Buick. It has a smooth, organic form that is inoffensive, but that some might consider excessively generic. But this understated appearance seems to be exactly what Buick is aiming for, and with good reason. Buick knows its market, and in recent years, this division's sales have been growing by small but regular increments.
Century 2000 Special Edition's blacked-out grille is a gesture in the direction of European panache, and its handsome polished aluminum wheels are, for this car, almost startling. These attractive wheels make a bold styling statement against the backdrop of the car's otherwise neutral appearance.
The 2000 Century's understated exterior styling theme continues inside. The dashboard is decidedly on the Spartan side. Instrumentation is limited to a small analog speedometer, a water temperature gauge and a fuel gauge. On the lower left and right of the dash are two circular warning-light complexes, each split three ways in pie-chart fashion. The left three warning lights indicate problems with oil pressure, battery charge or anti-lock brake circuitry. The three indicators on the right warn that the seatbelts are not fastened, the parking brake is on or the air bags are not initialized to function properly. Century comes standard with dual air bags and, oddly, one side air bag on the driver's side only as an option.
The interior is finished in earth tones. At $20,000, we think it would not be out of place to provide a little more excitement inside. The six-way power seats work well and provide a generous range of adjustment; our up-level Century Special Edition offers six-way power seat adjustments for both the driver and the front passenger seats. Both front seatbacks, however, are adjusted manually.
The thin steering wheel has four spokes upon which are mounted remotes for the audio system: Seek, Scan, AM/FM, Source, Mute and Volume. Generally, such remotes are useful, but the Century system had its problems. We constantly tapped Seek by accident while wheeling the Century in and out of parking spaces, losing our selected station. Annoying. Also annoying is that these steering-wheel controls are illuminated whenever the lights are on and after a while the plastic buttons become hot to the touch.
Befitting a Buick, the front and rear seats are roomy and comfortable, and the rear headroom is excellent. Our up-level Century Special Edition featured handsome leather upholstery. The trunk is generous, as is expected of a Buick. A useful cargo net is supplied, but opening the trunk requires using a separate trunk key instead of the ignition key. This is a long-standing GM inconvenience that should have been corrected way back in the 20th century.
Under the hood, the 2000 Century has plenty of good news: a newly revised 3.1-liter 3100 V6 engine that delivers more horsepower and more torque than before. Output is 175 horsepower at 5200 rpm, up 15 horsepower from 1999. Torque is 195 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm, up 10 from the previous edition. The 3100 V6 is fed by sequential-port fuel injection.
The 3100 V6 provides crisp, authoritative response. That's encouraging: A keynote of Buick heritage is that the big cars from Flint were historically expected to deliver vigorous performance. What is even more impressive about this engine is that, in addition to providing plenty of power, it also produces excellent fuel mileage, including a whopping 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
The 3100 V6's power is delivered through an electronically controlled four-speed automatic. This transmission is smooth and adequate. Its kick down response is slow, however, when compared with the latest automatic transmissions found in high-priced imports. Electronic traction control comes standard and reduces wheel spin for improved control on slippery surfaces. Also standard is an antilock brake system; ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control of the car in a panic braking situation.
The 2000 Century's front suspension is a MacPherson strut design, while the rear suspension is multi-link independent using a coil-over strut. It offers a smooth and soft ride when cruising on smooth, straight highways at normal speeds. This soft, "boulevard" ride is traditional for Buick, but results in undistinguished handling in any sort of vigorous maneuvering: The Century leans when driven quickly through corners and it floats and wallows at high speeds over wavy surfaces. This tends to isolate the driver from the road.
Buick Century is modest yet generously equipped. It is a utilitarian four-door sedan. It was designed to provide long, workmanlike service for those who appreciate the traditional Buick values, a premium vehicle at an affordable price.
The Century's engine is very satisfying, and its ample interior space is sure to please traditional Buick buyers. Its soft ride should also please longtime Buick owners, who are extremely loyal to the brand. The Century is one of the best-selling midsize cars sold by General Motors; Buick sold more than 157,000 Century models last year.
However, the over-the-road personality of the Buick Century looks backward to the sensibility expressed in earlier American large sedans, not forward to the more international vision of the fully balanced sedan of the future. For now, Buick is successfully finding car buyers whose values are rooted in the past. But if Buick is to attract new customers, then it must begin producing cars that look enthusiastically to the future.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.