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BEHIND THE WHEEL

A Redesign That Treads Softly but Could Use a Big Shtick

February 16, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A contemporary, brighter Buick is continuing its careful dash toward more youthful cars for younger buyers.

Last year, the reshaped Riviera coupe combined Lexus looks and quasi-Jaguar handling to court purchasers between the ages of Jaycees and AARP. Sales went down.

Now comes a second piece of bridgework: a major redesign of Buick's flagship Park Avenue and the sportier, supercharged Park Avenue Ultra.

None of the changes are radical enough to shove Buick's senior buyers into the trauma of a third childhood. Subtle line changes here, a power boost there clearly are aimed at seducing freshly graying, gently wrinkling baby boomers from imports they have bonded with since their first driver permits.

Boomers--with package tours of Vietnam, rediscovery of the martini and Rod Stewart's last birthday an obvious train of evidence--are nudging their 50s.

"They are interested in being at the front of trends, and the architectural enhancements to the Park Avenue meet these needs," said Patrick Harrison, Buick's marketing line manager for luxury cars. Speaking in Santa Barbara last month, eight months ahead of Park Avenue production and with a pair of 1997 prototypes for the press to play with, he explained that the "leading-edge comfort, ride, quietness and safety" of both cars will "satisfy this group . . . now stepping up to the luxury segment."

It's a longshot. For there is still much about both Park Avenues that would seem to appeal less to boomers and more to their parents.

These full-size front drivers are actually longer, wider and several hundred pounds heavier than last year. That's unlikely to wean the fortysomething set from smaller imports with similarly powered V-6s moving less weight.

Although formed from the same rigid chassis and suspension as the Riviera--which also is the foundation of the more successful Oldsmobile Aurora coupe--the Park Avenue's ride remains Detroit soft. The Ultra isn't much tauter.

Certainly neither comes close to the crisp responses of up-market German and Asian luxury sedans.

And in their concern to detour those stepping up to large and expensive, Buick seems to have overlooked a primary point: Converts would be promoting themselves from mid-level Acuras, BMWs, Infinitis, Toyota Camrys and Lexus ES300s that cruise in glycerin and are a nimble blast on twisty bits. They also are very stylish, quite fashionable and, as a general rule, more dependable. Particularly Asian imports.

So, with the kids graduated from college and you shopping for a leather-lined, wood-trimmed statusmobile, would you really rather have a Buick? Or a Mercedes E-Class that shrieks its prestige and the size of your disposable income?

Yet in several ways, these are unfair comparisons, with Buick greatly victimized by the indisputable quality and careful assembly of imports. To say nothing of their cachet and sustaining vogue. In addition, it's tough for a company like Buick to move far and rapidly from its 93-year-old reputation for producing stolid, often leaden, usually sober cars.

But place the Park Avenue twins alongside luxury chariots from Lincoln and Chrysler, even lower echelon Cadillacs, and comparisons are in better balance. Even when adjusting for the V-8 power of Lincoln and Cadillac.

Although prices haven't been set, do your arithmetic around this year's levels and presume about $29,000 for the base Park Avenue, about $33,000 for the Ultra. That's way below Cadillac's Seville, less than Lincoln's Continental, and not much more than Chrysler's New Yorker/LHS series.

Most important, the Park Avenue's price is many thousands reduced from what you'll need to get into something large and luxurious from overseas. And when it comes to value as measured by comforts and trinkets, the Park Avenues are about as overdressed as they come.

The basic Park arrives with enough goodies for the pickiest: Two air bags, automatic transmission, air conditioning, cruise control and a 205-horsepower V-6. Plus antilock disc brakes, daytime running lights with flash to pass, alarm, aluminum wheels, power seats, windows and mirrors.

The Ultra certainly lives up to that adjective: Front- and rear-seat reading lights, wood trim, armrest storage front and rear, heated driver's mirror, auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather upholstery, moisture sensing wipers, traction control, four-note horn, premium sound system with steering wheel controls, heated power seats, even lighted vanity mirrors for better groomed rear-seat riders. And, of course, a supercharged 240-horsepower V-6.

*

This year's styling changes, although subtle, are quite significant. Front windows are one piece and have lost the jarring, faux wind wings of previous years. Side mirrors, praise be to Lenscrafters, have twice the surface area.

The cabin silhouette is pleasantly softened with curves and rounds borrowed from Chrysler's New Yorker/LHS. The front, now empty of overriders and with chrome trim reduced by half, trades fussiness for sophistication. So does the back end.

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