SANTA BARBARA, Calif.: About 10 years ago, just about every carmaker was turning handsprings trying to entice younger buyers into their cars.
A notable exception was Buick, which coined the mantra, "powerful, substantial, distinctive and mature" to describe its products.
Buicks weren't sports cars, so why pretend otherwise? The cars appealed to older, more conservative buyers who were looking for room, comfort and luxury at an affordable price.
The strategy has worked for Buick, even if "mature" has now been replaced by "premium".
While everyone was busy chasing the yuppies, the yuppies were growing older. Whether by good luck or good management, Buick finds the market coming to them. Now that the vanguard of the baby boom is hitting 50, many are discovering that their Hondas and Toyotas are getting small, a minivan is beyond the pale and large foreign cars are way too expensive.
In short, they're looking for cars with room, comfort and luxury at an affordable price. Well, well.
Is trading an Accord for a Buick a bit of a stretch? Wait til you drive the 1997 Park Avenue.
The new Parkie â€“ I almost said "all-new", but it doesn't quite qualify â€“ is based on the same platform as the Oldsmobile Aurora and Buick Riviera, which is renowned for its stiffness and strength.
You'll see few similarities in the three cars, unless you've got a great eye for proportion â€“ the wheelbase is identical. In overall length, the Park splits the difference between the (surprise!) slightly longer Riv and the slightly shorter Olds.
What's shared is the welded underbody structure and sheet-metal, lengthwise from the engine bay to the middle of the trunk, and widthwise between the door sills.
A cutaway model shows changes even here: the rear seat support is higher on the Park, to give backseat riders a more chair-like seating position; the battery in the Olds is under the rear seat, while the well it sits in is still there on the Park, but unused. Buick owners expect to find a battery under the hood, and that's where it is on the Park Avenue.
The side structures â€“ think of the two-by-four framing in the walls of your house â€“ are unique to the Park Avenue, and contain several tubular members which are "hydroformed" â€“ filled with oil and bent under massive pressure. This technique helps achieve consistency in wall thickness and provides greater strength with less metal and smaller cross section.
This was critical since Buick's designers wanted to reduce the width of the door sills to ease access. When you hit 50, this becomes more of an issue. Trust me.
The dashboard support is a single, gigantic, extremely complex magnesium casting. Expensive? Yes, but it replaces a plethora of stamped steel panels, brackets, braces and tabs. Reduced complexity saves assembly time, as the entire dash can be built offline, where it's easier and cheaper to fit all the bits, then bolted into place. With dramatically fewer welds, bolts and screws, it has the potential to virtually eliminate squeaks and rattles in this critical area.
What's more, it contributes substantially to the rigidity of the car, and provides an outstanding operational platform for the air bags.
The body sheet-metal is of course unique, and typically Buick: lots of soft flowing curves, and an ovoid baleen whale's teeth grille. New composite reflector headlights add jewel-like touches to the front end.
The most notable dimension in side view is height. Chief designer Bill Porter notes that a "measure of stateliness is conveyed by Park Avenue's generous proportions."
I don't know whether you could actually drive a Park Avenue wearing a bowler hat, a prime automotive criterion for William T. Keller, president of Chrysler in the World War II era. But Buick general manager Ed Mertz was wearing a pretty tall cowboy hat while riding shotgun with me on my test drive.
In fact, there's lots of room in every direction. Trunk space is down slightly from last year's car, but a much lower lift-over more than compensates. A pass-through from trunk to backseat is standard.
There's more visual room too, notably due to the one-piece front door glass, which replaces the two-piece design with fixed front quarter window on the old GM biggies. The side-view mirrors are also 75 per cent larger. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
All Park Avenues have a 55/45 split front seat. "Six-passenger seating is surprisingly important to a lot of our customers," says Pat Harrison, Buick's marketing manager for large and luxury cars. Why? "Grandchildren!" was his one-word answer.
Buick is GM's lead division on seat design, and the latest in butt-comfort technology is found in the Park. The front belts are attached to the seat frames, a feature pioneered (I think) by Mercedes-Benz on the SL roadster and used by only a few ultra-luxury cars. Since the belt moves with the seat, it is always and automatically adjusted properly for each front seat occupant.
I was delighted to learn the Park Avenue's larger, more legible white-on-black analogue instrumentation was chosen "in direct response to customer feedback". See? I wasn't the only one.
Most of the minor controls are still push buttons, sadly, but at least they're large and well marked. Now that they've got white-on-black instruments figured out, we have to fight for knobs and levers for heating, ventilation and air/con controls, radio, etc. C'mon, Buick customers, work with me here. We already know they don't listen to me.
The Park Avenue has nearly every modern convenience known to mankind, either as standard equipment or an option, including such rare items as dual-zone air conditioning, interior air filter, programmable garage door opener, power head-restraints and lumbar support. Also, Buick's Personal Choice system, which lets each of two drivers preset and recall with the remote keyless entry module things like seat and mirror positions, radio stations and the air/con. The engineers fondly call it the "Fred and Ethel" car. (Don't get it? Watch I Love Lucy reruns.)
The only components that are not new on the 1997 Park Avenue are the engines. As before, the base model uses the normally aspirated 3.8 litre V6, which dates back to Noah's flood. A cast iron 90-degree pushrod V6 is hardly the last word in engine configuration, but it generates 205 smooth, quiet horsepower, 230 pound-feet of torque at 4000 r.p.m., and not a whole lot less at any other engine speed. It's cheap, reliable, fuel efficient, and naturally clean, from an emissions perspective.
It's also compact, which is the answer to the question you may have asked earlier: "Why doesn't the Olds Aurora have its battery under the hood?" With its multicam V8, there isn't room.
The upscale Park Avenue Ultra has the supercharged 3800 V6, which bumps power to 240 horses and peak torque to 280 pound-feet at 3200 r.p.m.
The old 4T60E four-speed electronic overdrive transmission has been reworked sufficiently to be worthy of a new designation, 4T65E. The old one was pretty good; enhanced electronics on the new promise even better smoothness, quietness and efficiency. The electronics are adaptive, monitoring shift duration and automatically compensating for engine break-in and transmission wear during its entire service life.
Suspension remains similar in concept to before â€“ MacStruts up front, semi-trailing arms on coils at the rear â€“ but the bits are all new. Four-wheel disc antilock brakes are standard. Traction control is standard on Ultra, optional on the base car, as is Magnasteer, GM's magnetic power steering.
If someone held a gun to my head and said I had to move to the United States, the Santa Barbara area would be on the shortlist, even if Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson might be neighbors.
Part of the appeal is an endless network of wonderful roads, which is why it's such a popular place for carmakers to show off their wares.
But they had better be confident of their cars' abilities, because the roads are also challenging, and contain the occasional bit of patchy pavement, which is rare in sunny CA.
While the old Park Avenue might not have been a car I'd want to buy, I always thought it was well suited to the people who were attracted to it. The new one is better, much better, in every respect.
Okay, the engine isn't much better â€“ it didn't need to be. It still provides tons of effortless, smooth performance.
But the improved structure of the car returns the usual benefits: vastly better noise reduction at source, and isolation of whatever noise remains. Back-to-back comparisons with a new Chrysler LHS and Lincoln Continental were especially telling in this regard.
GM's second go-round on Magnasteer has resulted in better road feel than the wooden early Auroras, and far-too-light Rivieras. While a Park Avenue is still no sports car, nor even a sports sedan, it handles with confidence, another byproduct of the stiffer body, which allows the engineers to design the suspension to keep the wheels on the road and not have to compensate for a willowy body shell.
Visibility is vastly better, thanks to the new front door glass and larger mirrors. The Park Avenue feels spacious without being ponderous, not an easy combination.
The seats are firmly padded yet still very comfortable, and it's a comfort that promises to hold up over long hours behind the wheel. Not as much lateral support as bucket seats might provide, perhaps, but again, you won't likely be Corvette-chasing down a canyon road in this car.
I've always been convinced that General Motors was capable of building better cars than some of the stuff they've flogged over the past decade, better cars than most of their customers demanded or would even recognize.
But if you aim to satisfy the pickiest prospects, then the easier-to-please will be covered too. Aim low, and you're automatically cutting your potential.
The new Park Avenue proves my point.
It won't arrive in showrooms until the fall. Prices are a long way from being set, but I can't imagine them being hugely greater than the high-$30,000 to mid-$40,000 range of the current car.
If I'm even close, shoppers looking for a roomy, technically advanced, roadworthy, feature-laden luxury sedan are going to have an even tougher time justifying the 50-to-100 per cent larger stickers on German or Japanese iron.