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1997 Buick Park Avenue Ultra

Is it because I'm getting older that Buicks are starting to

make sense?

Or is the 1997 Park Avenue Ultra really that good?

I, of course, have no choice but to believe the latter.

Regardless, there can be no doubt that 99 per cent of the

people who buy this car will never drive it hard enough to find

out how good it is.

The Parkie, as it is affectionately known in the industry, has

never generated much interest among so-called enthusiast

drivers. Not that Parkie owners don't love their cars. But they

are hardly the canyon-running, apex-strafing hotspurs of legend,

song, and Wheels road test.

The '97 iteration looks every inch a Buick. Make that metre.

Maybe kilometre — this is a big car. The full-figured,

voluptuous, dare we say Reubenesque, lines are nonetheless

nicely handled, and decoration is kept to a minimum.

The baleen whale tooth grille is as much a Buick touchstone as

the twin kidneys are to BMW, while the clear-lensed

reflector-style headlamps lend a modern touch.

My burgundy test car was tastefully trimmed inside with gray

leather that was soft both to the eye and to the touch. Strips

of dark real tree wood trim across the base of the dashboard and

on the doors signify to buyers in this price range that this is,

indeed, a luxury car.

A full complement of large, legible gauges confront the

driver. The age demographic of typical Buick owners is such that

they may not have yet become fully conversant with the Metric

system; the Parkie offers a switch to flick from one to the

other. It not only changes the digital read-outs for temperature

from Celsius to Fahrenheit, but also the speedometer. If you're

going 100 km/h for instance, and hit the switch, the " km/h"

logo on the dial is replaced by an "m.p.h." logo, and the speedo

needle drops to 62 the corresponding road speed in miles per

hour. Cool. The dear, departed Cadillac Allante had this trick.

Another so-equipped GM two-seater is coming, but I can't tell

you about it for two weeks yet.

The radio and ventilation systems are a moderate armstretch

to the right. My test car had a full-featured AM/FM stereo

radio, a singleshot CD player, plus a trunk-mounted 12-disc CD

changer. Where you might expect a cassette slot was a solid

plank of plastic. Two CDs, no tape? Weird. Other systems are

available.

The ventilation system is a mass of push buttons. I keep

complaining, but this is apparently what the market wants. It's

not easy to adjust in the dark when you're unfamiliar with it;

if you own the car, you'll figure it out.

Buick was, I believe, the first domestic maker with dual-zone

air conditioning; the driver and front seat passenger can set

their own preferred temperatures. Doesn't sound like a big deal

until you're driving north on a cold but sunny morning. (Think

about it . . .)

The Parkie's air/con system now incorporates a pollen filter,

a real boon for allergy sufferers or those who must drive in

dusty environments.

Redundant controls for several radio functions and temperature are in the steering wheel spokes. These are almost too

handy — every time I twirled the wheel to park this car, I

switched radio stations. The buttons also get hot when the

lights are on (for me, all the time). And, I'd prefer the "seek"

control be replaced by one that pages through the radio station

presets.

Maybe this is one of the things you can custom-tailor in this

car. Two different drivers can store preferences for a whole

bunch of things, like power seat and mirror position, radio

stations, or whether the horn honks when you lock the car with

the remote. Depending on which remote entry system key fob you

use, or which memory button on the door you push when you get

in, your car is ready for you and only you. Your dealer can even

set up a welcoming message in the dash, each time Driver One or

Driver Two gets in the car. A long evening with a hot cup of tea

and the owner's manual is truly called for.

At least one federal political party could hold a caucus

meeting, complete with recording secretary, in the back seat of

this car — there's enormous room in all directions.

Heated front seats are standard on Ultra. The button for the

left throne is hidden by the steering wheel rim, but one really

cold morning, I made a point of finding it.

Buick is GM's lead division on seat design, and the Parkie's

split-bench exhibited fine comfort; not much in the way of

lateral support, but you'd scarcely expect that in a limousine

like this.

The shoulder belt is attached to the seat itself; a bit harder

to reach with your opposite hand than if it were on the door

pillar, but it does ensure the belt is properly fitted, no

matter how the seat is adjusted.

Odd, though, that the 55 side of the 55-45 split is on the

driver's side. If you were taking three people in front,

wouldn't it be better to let the driver choose his or her

position, then let the passengers sit where they may, rather

than forcing the middle rider to go along with the driver? I

assure you, any two average-sized adults sitting up front with

the diminutive Lady Leadfoot behind the wheel would vote my way

on this one.

With only two up front, an armrest can be folded down between

the seats. A dual cup holder flips out of the clamshell lid, but

it's not a very stable platform for your morning double-double,

since it flops around on large bumps.

At least one federal political party could hold a caucus

meeting, complete with recording secretary, in the back seat of

this car — there's enormous room in all directions. There's a

centre armrest here too, which opens to reveal cubby storage.

Flipping it down reveals a pass-through into the cavernous

trunk.

Most of the interior is executed with care. However, at least

one hint of GM's old "good enough is good enough" philosophy

remains: when our neighbor's walking demolition test cell tried

to stuff his duffle bag through this passthrough, he dislodged

a trim panel in the trunk and knocked one of the hatshelf

speakers awry. It had been secured by three clever plastic clips

that work well enough, and were easy to refit. But in something

like a Mercedes, the speakers are probably held in with

lock-wired aircraft-quality bolts.

The range-topping Ultra Park Avenue comes with the

supercharged version of the venerable but praise-worthy 3.8 litre

V6. Pumping out 240 horsepower and a pier-shaking 280

poundfeet of torque at 3600 r.p.m., this ancient lump motivates

the 1782 kg beast with satisfying alacrity.

Most of the urge is right where drivers in this country need

it: in the low to midranges. On the highway, you cannot exceed

2000 r.p.m. without also shattering the speed limit. Driven with

any care at all, you'll better 9.5 L/100 km on the highway (to

speak to those typical Parkie owners again, that's 30-plus

m.p.g.)

And with such modest r.p.m., excellent vibration control and

sound insulation, it'll be an eerily silent cruise as well.

I was pleasantly surprised that the standard traction control

system was very benign in operation; you really have to be

getting into it on slippery surfaces before it engages, and even

then it does so gently. I defy you to find the shut-off switch;

one of my most highly esteemed and, for today, unnamed

colleagues never did.

Nobody does automatic transmissions as consistently well as

General Motors; this one is near-perfect. Shifts are always

smooth, and nearly indiscernible on light throttle application.

Driven harder, it allows just a slight thump to let you know

your bidding has been heeded.

My sole complaint about the powertrain is that there is

virtually no engine braking in fourth gear; lift off on the gas

and you'll freewheel from here to eternity. Probably the result

of lowdrag tranny internals to save fuel, but get that foot

over the brake pedal, just in case.

The biggest surprise on the Park Avenue is the chassis. Sure,

it rides softly; it's a Buick, after all. But the car retains

its composure on the rough stuff far better than previous big

Buicks. Those used to the control exhibited by the best German

sports sedans might prefer the shocks cranked up one notch, for

firmer damping on large undulations. Indeed, a "Gran Touring"

(sic) suspension option does just that, and adds more

aggressive tires too.

And when you pound this car into a corner — yes, you can — the

Magnasteer magnetic power assisted steering does a fine job of

communicating what's happening at the front wheels.

There could be a bit more resistance in the oncentre

position; this might minimize the slight wandering in

straight-ahead driving. (In the old days, Dad would have asked the

alignment shop for more caster.)

Much of the credit for the car's essential goodness ride,

handling, solidity, quietness goes to its structure. The

platform is essentially Oldsmobile Aurora, with the addition of

hydroformed chassis rails, which provide similar beam strength

with vastly narrower cross-section. The Parkie is much easier to

get in and out of than the Olds because the outboard chassis

members, under the rocker panels, are thinner. A new (and for

the moment exclusive that upcoming two-seater has one too)

cast magnesium crossmember behind the dash contributes further

rigidity and durability.

So, what's not to like about the Buick Park Avenue Ultra?

Room, comfort, performance, ride, decent handling, all the luxo

features, quality, and styling which, if you squint a little,

might even remind you of a Jaguar — all up, for under $50,000.

ProtoYuppies might feel they'd have to wear a bag over their

heads, rather than be seen driving a Buick.

But if you have enough self-assurance to drive any car you

want, you should give the Buick Park Avenue Ultra a try.

(Geez, did I just give away yet another million-doller

marketing slogan?)

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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