Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
Most people who turn 95 are probably not thinking about how much free-wheeling fun they're going to have that year, but that's exactly what's going through the minds of executives at Buick during the company's 95th anniversary year.
We're having fun at Buick" was the recurring catch phrase during a week spent in Texas at a company press event. Like most other luxury carmakers, Buick wants a piece of the Baby Booming business, so it has been moving toward new, contemporary products and hoping to lower the average age if its consumers without losing the loyalty of its more mature drivers. But attracting the generation that every business tries to entice is no easy task, and the folks at GM have their work cut out for them.
To Baby Boomers, Buicks were cars their grandparents and, later, their parents, drove. The marque simply didn't mesh with who they were or wanted to be: young and hip. So, during the past decade, Buick has regrouped and done a great job putting together a strong line of more stylish luxury cars. When the company decided to redesign the Riviera back in 1995, they outdid themselves. The luxury coupe won awards across the board for its sleek, yet sporty, design. Automotive journalists sang the praises of the car's unique exterior, applauding its clean lines and sloopy shape that seems to morph languidly from one angle to the next. In a sea of look-alike rowboats, the Riviera was deemed a yacht.
Because of the car's initial success, not much has changed since then. 1998 saw the welcome addition of a standard supercharged engine, as well as a handful of new colors and standard depowered airbags. For 1999, the Riv receives full-range traction control and four new colors.
After spending a day with the 1999 Riviera in Texas, I headed back to Colorado where I spent two full weeks with the '98 version. Although the '99 model had a few extra luxury options tacked on and was a different color, inside and out, there wasn't much difference between the two.
The Riviera is large for a coupe, to say the least. It looks sporty despite its size, but drives more like the luxury sedans Buick is known for than a swift two-door driver's car. It's got the same powerful 3800 Series II supercharged V6 engine that you'll find under the hood of Buick sedans, but don't bother waiting for that aggressive roar that some coupes exude after taking off from a stoplight. It isn't gonna happen. Still, the engine is certainly up to the task of appeasing most power-hungry consumers, making 240 horsepower @ 5,200 rpm and clocking 0-60 mph speeds in 8.5 seconds. In addition to a heavy-duty, electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission, the Riv comes equipped with a suspension so smooth and floaty that those prone to carsickness better stay far from this vehicle.
Steering on the '98 Riviera is looser than the tongue on a Chatty Kathy doll. The power assisted steering on this coupe allows drivers to maneuver it with the lightest touch of a pinky finger, but left us feeling completely out of touch with the road.
Despite past accolades for its distinctive design, the Riviera is currently the slowest selling GM vehicle. We think we know why. While the exterior of a car is certainly important and we automotive journalists never underestimate the importance of a powerful engine, the interior is where you spend the majority of your time. This is where the Riv needs some help.
Sliding into the leather driver's seat of the Riviera may make you feel as if you've entered a time warp. Glowing green digital readouts induced eighties flashbacks and the oversized numbering on the gauges made us feel like we were scanning the large-print section of a bookstore. While the large numbers were easy to read, they were so large that they looked comical next to the otherwise stately interior. Wood trim surrounds the stereo and climate controls, which are uncluttered and ergonomically sound. We felt comfortable in the plush seats and were happy that they moved electronically in six directions to ensure good driving positions for people of varying shapes and sizes. We were also appreciative of the "exit" button on the door panel, which moves the seat back and down automatically, making it easier for the driver to exit.
The top of the dash hangs over the display area in an effort to reduce sun glare on the control panel. While it does accomplish this feat, the stylistic result is most unappealing. This lip also continues along the edges of the doors, making it impossible to rest your arm on the windowsill. Inside, door latches are hard to reach and the doors themselves are long and heavy, requiring occupants to lean far out of the car to pull the door shut after settling into the seat.
All of the windows around the car are short and hinder visibility. In contrast to the extra large gauges inside, the exterior side mirrors on the car are noticeably small and oddly shaped. Blinkers make only a faint sound when activated and are positioned on the dash in such a way that the driver usually has to move her hand off the steering wheel to tell if they are on or off.
On a trip to the airport, we noticed that the car's trunk is quite spacious, but the high liftgate makes it difficult to load a heavy suitcase. The cabin is quiet and peaceful, blocking out the roar of airplane engines and wind noise on the highways, and the A/C comes on fast and cold in both the '98 and the '99 Riviera, which was a welcome feature in Texas' 100-plus degree heat.
The Riviera comes with many standard safety and luxury features, such as leather bucket seats, a six-speaker Concert II sound system, CD and cassette player, Next-Generation front airbags with reduced inflation power, antilock brakes, daytime running lights and 16-inch wheels and tires. Optional are sunroofs, GM's OnStar Communications System, engine block heaters, chrome wheels and a dimming rearview mirror with compass.
While Buick's large coupe provides a nice, comfortable way to get from point A to point B, there is nothing memorable about it. In fact, at one point, I even forgot it was parked in my apartment lot. Throughout the entire two weeks I lived with it, the Riv was my last choice of vehicle when I needed to go somewhere. The simple reason for this lack of excitement is that the car is just not fun to drive, despite Buick's claims. Or maybe they just weren't talking about the Riviera.
While Buick's current Riviera buyer, at age 57, may put power and comfort over an up-to-date interior and communicative drive feel, the Baby Boomers who are going to be buying luxury coupes may still want to let loose. We don't think that some interior enhancements and a little more fun is too much to ask of Buick ... even for a car company pushing 100.
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