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BEHIND THE WHEEL

This Luxury Cruiser Is Shipshape

August 19, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only those with lessened senses of history would dismiss Buick as just another builder of large lumps and considerable stodge.

Remember the toothy Supers of the '40s that looked like sperm whales playing harmonicas? Or the bat-winged fenders of 1959 and the 1971 boattails? Or Buick's mammiferous era? Or portholes on 1949 Roadmasters that became teardrops and eventually faded to slits before disappearing in 1970?

Well, after dawdling with safe cubes, dinosaurs and dumplings for the past two decades, Buick the brave is back.

And the radical 1995 Riviera is another boat.

Not as in tugboat, battleship or barge. But boat as in a nautical form recalling the elegant prow and sensuous fantail of mahogany launches built by Chris Craft in the '30s. With just a hint of Jaguar XJ6 purring from the rear deck to remind us this is a car, not a jolly boat with a steering wheel.

Buick's newest luxury cruiser shows a stern that is a short, tapered slope. The bow is sculpted just as roundly with a passenger cabin mounted more forward than amidships.

And there's certainly a gunwale--more of a sharp crease, really--starting inboard of the headlights and slicing the length of the Riviera before disappearing into curves of the trunk.

In further keeping with the hydrodynamic form, there isn't a straight line or flat surface anywhere on the car. And as with a senior skipper's fine gig, there is chrome around the windows and grille, but it's more of an accent than an abundance.

Yet if marine be the theme, where be the portholes?

Inside, matey. Sixteen of 'em, all over the dashboard and doors, ranging in diameter from a saucer for the speedometer to doughnuts for air vents and secondary dials. Even the headlight switch, system warning lights and passenger-side climate controls on the SS Riviera have their mouse holes.

Everything dramatic on the inside, of course, is a deliberate carry-over from the distinction of the outside. The curving instrument panel slopes forward and is shrouded by a deep overhang. This cowl bridges the entire car before curving into small ledges above both doors.

Something to keep the spray off knees and instruments during heavy seas? An innovative design? Or over-styled gimmick?

Somewhere in between, we suspect, with Buick once more choosing boldness and difference as weapons in its continuing luxury coupe duel with the Lincoln Mk VIII and Cadillac Eldorado.

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Riviera, of course, has been Buick's risk-taker since the Roadmaster Riviera pioneered pillarless hardtops in 1949.

The 1963 car was conceived as a "Ferrari-Rolls-Royce" after designer Bill Mitchell squinted at a Rolls through a London fog. Then came the infamous boattail, a shaping that worked well on narrow Corvettes of the '60s, but looked like Shamu in goggles on broad-beamed Rivieras of the early '70s.

Most have blocked out the 1986 Riviera with its squared dash, digital readouts and computer-fed Graphic Control Center TV that delivered more information than most salesmen.

Now, after some pallid years Buick is betting on a ski boat.

The standard sticker is $27,632, a $10,000 bite below the cost of arriving at Pinot Bistro in a MkVIII or Eldorado. Unfortunately, you don't get V-8 power at that price. You do get a capable V-6 that won't wrench your kidneys and produces 205 smooth, capable horsepower. Another $1,100 delivers a supercharged six good for 225 horsepower; still no Winston Cup banshee but certainly offering enough power to kick the occasional bumper.

The Riviera is as four-star as the name suggests and that is high value, large luxury and lots of neat trinkets. Of course there are two air bags, anti-lock brakes, a deep-freeze air conditioner with individual controls for front and rear seat passengers, cruise control and power everything.

Optional luxuries: An alarm, heated seats, CD player, lighted vanity mirrors, leather bucket seats with memories for power adjustments, electric sunroof, and traction controls that have tires gripping well enough to add one second when accelerating hard to 60 m.p.h.

Hip stuff: Seats designed by biomedical specialists that eliminate pressure points and offer more comprehensive cradling, no matter your height or Jenny Craig ranking. A soprano gong reminds the dense and dreamy that their turn signal is still on. Retained accessory power allows forgotten windows to be raised or lowered with the ignition off.

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We did like the rear seat area. It offers more wriggle, lounging and snoozing room than any other coupe on the market.

We did not like the trunk. It is deep but narrow and it will not accommodate a golf bag or your favorite pool cue straight across. The lift-over is high and a loaded ice chest becomes a hernia waiting to happen.

There also are hints that some inner materials, moldings and machinery may deteriorate before their time. Our test vehicle was an 800-mile car but the cigarette lighter had already died. The upside was an immediate reduction in cellular phone costs.

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