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Second-Hand: Buick Century

To say the Buick Century is synonymous with lawn bowling and arguing for the seniors' discount at the deli is an understatement. But don't be quick to write off what is actually a pretty reliable North American sedan.

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“The car is old-man grey and corners like an old man with a back problem. It was inherited from an 80-year-old man and he should have taken it with him,” read a particularly malicious note on the Internet.

To say the Buick Century is synonymous with lawn bowling and arguing for the seniors’ discount at the deli is an understatement. But don’t be quick to write off what is actually a pretty reliable North American sedan.

As one owner put it: “Little old ladies know what they’re doing when they buy these cars.” The Century was reintroduced in 1982 as one of the four models to share General Motors’ A-body platform, itself a stretched version of the X-body that ushered GM into the world of front-wheel drive big time.

Incredibly, the Century remained largely unmolested until 1997, when the A-body was retired and the nameplate was affixed to the new W-platform.

It takes mettle to market the same iron for 15 years, especially when the Japanese tend to scrap perfectly good platforms every four or five years. Yet the Century kept selling so well for so long that the General saw no reason for an overhaul.

CONFIGURATION The Century was built as a four-door sedan and station wagon.

With the model changeover in ’97, the wagon was deep-sixed, leaving GM with no large wagon to offer. Gone was the ability “to use up the country’s stockpiles of woodgrain plastic,” wrote one owner acerbically.

In the earlier cars, buyers could choose from the Iron Duke 2.5 L four-cylinder or one of two V6s. For 1993, the dubious Duke was replaced by the 2.2 L four-banger out of the Chevy Cavalier.

The choice of four or six cylinders was in keeping with its X-car heritage. Although, to be blunt, the 110-hp four should never have been asked to power a mid-size sedan. That’s just cruel.

With the switch to the world-class (in terms of rigidity and safety) W-platform in 1997, the engineers mercifully designated the 3.1 L V6 as the base motor. Hooked up to the standard four-speed automatic transmission, good for 160 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, it was a well-matched powertrain.

Inside, the Century offered good space utilization, particularly in the back seat. The car could accommodate six in a pinch. The seating was criticized for being too soft and providing no lumbar support, though.

The instrument panel was simple, offering idiot lights instead of gauges. In the 1997 and newer models, the dual-control heating/air conditioning cluster was judged a winner.

ON THE ROAD Powered by its tried-and-true pushrod 3.1 L V6, the Century could reach highway velocity (96 km/h) in 9.5 seconds – perfectly acceptable performance.

The car felt quicker, thanks to gobs of torque on tap with no waiting. The buttery-smooth autobox helped, snapping off gear changes with the best of them.

Where the Century fell down is in the ride. Like most Buicks, its suspension was skewed for comfort. Which meant the car wallowed and bottomed out with the worst of the land yachts.

“Has that Buick pitch and roll,” commented one owner.

The tiller (sorry, steering) was overassisted and dead to the touch. Press it in a curve and the tires howled in protest. A late-model Century could muster only 0.73 g of lateral acceleration.

Turning of the Century was intended to be gradual, measured.

There are other versions of the W-body (Olds Intrigue, for example) that better lend themselves to spirited driving.

On the positive side, the Century was a good highway cruiser.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED “It is functional and comfortable, with a strong engine and smooth transmission. The Century replaced a 1997 Mercury Sable, which was a horror,” wrote one owner on the Web.

The Oshawa-built Century enjoys good word of mouth. The Internet is loaded with owners’ praise, many citing a low purchase price (new or used) that bought lots of value.

Fitted with one of the firm’s best powertrains, reliability has been better than the average for a GM product.

“In addition to regular maintenance, the only other thing I have put on the car is an alternator,” wrote the owner of a ’93 model with 236,000 km on the odometer.

The alternator was a common sore spot with owners, and a familiar failing for anyone who drives a GM. A battery replacement often follows, too.

The other frequently cited repair was the disc brakes, which required more rotor turning and replacement than usual.

“I wish the brakes were better; it seems like they belong on an econobox instead of a mid-size car,” noted one owner.

For people who demand a big trunk, plush seating, a no-compromise size and throttle response that mimics a V8’s thrust, the Century is a good buy.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadlines: Acura Legend/RL, by Jan. 9; Eagle Talon, by Jan. 23. Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, 2060 Queen St. E., PO Box 51541,Toronto ON M4E 1C0.

E-mail toljagic @ idirect.com.

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