1999 Buick Park Avenue

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2003 Buick Park Avenue

This 2003 review is representative of model years 1997 to 2005.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 7

Bottom Line:

Buck makes top-line Park Avenue Ultra model more competitive with nostalgic touches.
Pros:
  • Nifty retro styling touches for Ultra version
  • Fast with supercharged V6
  • Luxurious
Cons:
  • Average handling with base suspension
  • Standard model lacks retro styling items
  • Space eating trunk hinges

Call it patriotism or habit, but many Americans prefer a big U.S. luxury sedan such as the Buick Park Avenue, despite the growing number of foreign luxury 4-door models.

Buick long has offered posh sedans that slot just below Cadillac models in the General Motors luxury pecking order. And Buick is aware that its top-line models have long, colorful histories known by older domestic-car-oriented folks.

Buick thus is catering to such people by putting nifty retro items on the new $39,145 Ultra version of the front-drive Park Avenue, which also comes as a $33,845 base model.

For instance, the Ultra has front fender chrome-plated "portholes" reminiscent of the ones on 1949 and 1950s Buicks. It also features an aggressive looking vertical bar grille that's a modern interpretation of a grille from the 1939 Buick Y-Job. The slick Y-Job was GM's first "dream" (spell "concept") car and influenced Buick styling until the late 1950s.

Buicks from 1942 to 1954 had a widely recognized "toothy" vertical bar grille, which led war-torn Europeans to say that post-World War II Buicks had a "million-dollar grin," which they felt was symbolic of affluent America.

Unlocking Design Cues
"By studying Buick's rich history, we unlocked design cues that give Buicks instant recognition and have applied them to the 2003 Park Avenue Ultra," said Park Avenue marketing director Annette Smith.

The portholes are more than cosmetic items—they also provide underhood cooling by increasing air flow. They first were seen on 1949 Buicks, with the idea coming from World War II fighter airplanes.

Historical Portholes
GM crack designer Ned Nickles came up with the portholes, which then were called "Ventiports." That was a more adventuresome time in the U.S. auto industry, so Nickles put amber colored lights in the holes and wired them to flash in his 1948 Buick Roadmaster convertible when the engine was running. The lights suggested a powerful engine with a flaming exhaust.

Buick boss Harlow Curtice liked the portholes because Buicks had sporty flair. However, he vetoed the lights, which he felt were too radical for production Buicks.

You could tell which 1950s Buicks were higher-line models by the number of Ventiports on their front fenders. The top-line Roadmaster model had the most (four per fender), although the new Ultra has three of these design icons on each fender. (The Park Avenue has a V6, and Buick says the number of portholes is related to the number of engine cylinders.)

Base Model Lacks Retro Items
However, the regular Park Avenue doesn't get the Ultra's grille and portholes—or chrome plated dual exhaust tips and other special cosmetic items found on the Ultra. The base model is a Park Avenue, so it should at least have the special grille and portholes.

The Ultra has a supercharged version of the Park Avenue's 3.8-liter pushrod V6. It develops 240 horsepower and more torque than the non-supercharged, 205-horsepower version in the standard model. The Ultra also has such exclusive items as a woodgrain/leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Best Handling
The Ultra has the best handling, thanks to a firmer Gran Touring suspension and rear stabilizer bar, which are accompanied by larger new 17-inch chrome-plated aluminum wheels and wider 55-series tires. The standard model has 16-inch wheels and 60-series tires.

Steering is more precise with the Gran Touring suspension. It eliminates drawbacks of the overly soft standard suspension, which does best when the Park Avenue is driven in a straight line.

However, the Gran Touring suspension is a $285 option for the base model. Also, the Ultra's standard traction control and anti-skid systems, which allow safer handling, are optional for the base Park Avenue.

Despite the stiffer European-style Gran Touring suspension, the Park Avenue's comfortable ride occasionally gets a little floaty—showing that Buick didn't want to go too far with a firmer suspension for Park Avenue buyers.

Well Equipped
The base model has everything from air conditioning with dual-zone automatic climate control to most of the comfort and convenience items expected in a luxury car. The Ultra has additional luxury features, including as faux burled walnut trim, heated front seats, upgraded sound system, moisture-sensing windshield wipers and heated outside mirrors with large red turn-signal lights.

GM's OnStar assistance system and a tire pressure monitor are standard for the Ultra and optional for the base Park Avenue.

Safety Items
Both versions of the car have standard side impact airbags up front and are offered with a $295 rear-obstacle detection system. That's a handy option because it can be impossible to see what's immediately behind the large, wide sedan when backing up.

A major Ultra option is an $1,875 Ultra Luxury option package that has such items as a power sliding sunroof and individual front seats. They replace the standard front bench seat, which has a near-useless center area for adults.

Supercharged Performance
The supercharged engine provides stirring acceleration and loafs at 1600 rpm at 65 mph. It lets the Ultra easily outperform the regular Park Avenue and allows fast passing and merging. However, it's not as smooth as a V8, which hasn't been offered in a Buick since the mid-1990s.

The standard V6 provides ample power and decent acceleration. And both versions of the engine are hooked to an alert 4-speed automatic transmission.

The standard engine provides an estimated 20 mpg in the city and 29 on highways. The supercharged version delivers 18 and 28 and calls for premium gasoline.

Short stops are provided by the anti-lock all-disc brakes, although there's some front-end dive during quick stops.

Roomy Interior
The interior is quiet, except for some wind noise at highway speeds. Even the individual front seats are not as supportive as they should be when zipping through curves. But the driver's seat moves back far enough to satisfy an NBA player, and the rear seat area provides limousine-style room.

Gauges can be easily read, and both versions of the car have a tachometer. Controls are large because many older buyers don't want to fool with tiny ones. Interior materials are upscale, but don't match those in some rival foreign autos. Rear windows will not lower all the way, but front cupholders are large and there's a roomy front console storage bin.

The long, deep trunk has a low opening, but its lid has conventional hinges that eat a little into cargo space.

The Park Avenue—especially the Ultra—shows that Buick still can make a good car at a competitive price for those who prefer full-size American luxury autos.

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BB04 - 7/24/2014 8:45:31 AM