One for the former century.
by Marc K. Stengel
Do you think General Motors' Buick Division fully appreciates the meaning of the name "Century" that designates its well-known family sedan? Of course, for the 2001 model year, Buick's marketing operatives clearly mean to imply a new era dawning, with their car leading the way. I cannot deny spending an entirely lovely week in Buick's latest version of its entry-level sedan. But it was clearly a week spent behind the wheel of a car from the former, and not the future, century.
It is decidedly old-fashioned--but surely not unwise--to offer an affordable family car for six passengers in this Brave New Age. Hasn't Buick been paying attention? Don't those Buick slide-rule types notice the rash of minivans and sport-utes that spent the last decade of the last century transforming people into truck cargo? It takes some nerve to buck this trend, I suggest. Just the same, it is the postwar Buick sedan from the middle of the last century that, arguably, represents the apotheosis of the six-seater family car. So if Buick perfected it, why shouldn't the company keep making it?
Certainly, for the Century's base price just under $23,000, it would be hard to find any new minivan or SUV with comparable seating room, interior comfort - and let's not forget plain and simple grace. As old-timey as a three-passenger front bench seat may be, this latest Century has thoroughly modernized it: When there are just one or two up front, a handy console folds down to create an impression of semi-sporty bucket-like seats, split 55/45 between driver and passenger. The console even has functional, un-fancy cupholders and rectangular cutouts for holding items like cell phones and pagers, plus a covered, leather-upholstered bin under the driver's right forearm. But...when occupant number six steps up to claim his seat, the console folds back, and a new berth is born. State-of-the-art 1950, I'll admit; but you'd be hard-pressed to count the competing models offering a similar retro-change-o front-bench layout in 2001.
The Buick Century that I evaluated was an up-level "Limited" edition to which a $1680 option package added many of the most popular modern power conveniences. One of these, the auto HVAC with dual-zone temperature control, was quite effective, although vents for the driver offered a limited range of motion for aiming airflow. GM's fancy OnStar telecom and SatNav system is now standard on the Century Limited; but for once, I happened to know where I was going all week, so I didn't use it. On my 750-mile round-trip to a conference in South Georgia, I was especially grateful for the optional CD player with steering wheel controls for volume, program source, track selection, and mute/pause. (I don't think Moby or Tull or The Watersons ever imagined playing so enjoyably together in the same gig.) In all, the Century's as-tested price of $25,151 packs an awful lot of enjoyable, comfortable "content" into Buick's so-called entry-level car.
As befits its price and status, Century features Buick's least potent powertrain, a 3.1-liter V-6 that delivers 175 horsepower to the front wheels. A four-speed automatic is the only transmission available. For interstate driving in particular, I found the Century an especially competent cruiser. It would surely have been different with five more bodies wedged in, of course, but my cruising speeds were - well, let's just say that I overtook far more traffic than overtook me.
The key factor in this regard is Century's quite decent torque output of 195 lb-ft. at the beefiest part of the powerband (4000 rpm). This is the factor that cracks the whip in passing mode, so to speak. My only serious complaint is Buick's persistent refusal to provide an easy way to shift into and out of overdrive. That same old-fashioned column shifter from the '50s and '60s is mated to a very newfangled electronic auto transmission, and these new-style autos are programmed to slip into overdrive at the very earliest opportunity - thank-you, EPA. But sometimes traffic conditions favor the more responsive behavior of third gear, and it takes a sort of half-nelson maneuver to crank the column shifter repeatedly into and out of third and fourth. A push button, a la Ford, sure would be nice.
The bigger issue, however, is whether a typical prospective buyer of a Buick Century is the sort interested in using his or her car in this "interactive" way. An instructive line item on the window sticker is the Century's inclusion of a "starter grind prevention" device as standard equipment. Granted, we're all fallible; but is it that unfair to suggest that Gramps and Grams are the usual suspects when it comes to attempting a restart while the motor's already running? It's Gramps and Grams, after all, whose own parents tooled them around in the great Buick family sedans of the postwar period. But it's Gramps' and Grams' grandchildren who've bolted in droves into the driver's seats of minivans and SUVs. At this interesting crease of the calendar, it appears that Buick's century is more of a come-and-gone affair rather than an up-and-coming prospect.
The worm is famous for turning, nevertheless. Sales of the Century may be down about seven percent so far this year, while the invisible hand of the market keeps ratcheting prices upward for the mere trucks that are passed off to us as sport/utes and minivans. How long, though, can it be before saving money is fashionable once again--particularly with a $25,000, six-passenger car, fully loaded and leather lined? Soon, I think, and in the present new Century, perhaps.
2001 Buick Century Limited
Base price: $23,000
Engine: 3.1-liter V-6, 175 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 194.6 x 72.7 x 56.6 in
Wheelbase: 109.0 in
Curb weight: 3368 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 20/29 mpg
Safety equipment: ABS, Gen2 SRS airbags, side airbags, traction control
Major standard equipment: six-passenger seating, OnStar, AM/FM/cassette, six-way power driver's seat adjusting, leather covered seats & trim, speed-sensing rack-and-pinion steering, folding heated wing mirrors
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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