About a hundred miles south of Los Angeles, cruising in the serenely competent comfort of a new Buick Park Avenue Ultra, I was seized by a minor midlife crisis. Throughout my career, I've always touted cars that were long on agility and short on curb weight. Yet there I was, feeling increasingly affectionate about this big two-ton sedan. What's going on here? This isn't a hard-edged driving weapon for attacking off-ramps or mountain switchbacks. This is a big ol' American luxo cruiser. Could I be getting o...o...on in years? The seizure was brief. Once I'd identified the source of the anxiety, it was easy to rationalize the neurotic notion that a Park Avenue Ultra is suitable only for those approaching their golden years. OK, the Ultra may not send out the right kind of lifestyle signals for folks who are thinking about a big BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Lexus. But with the right equipment -- specifically, the optional Gran Touring suspension package -- the Park Avenue Ultra delivers surprising driver satisfaction, as well as the blue-chip virtues you'd expect of a Buick: smooth ride, living room interior space, luxury appointments and quiet operation. Of course, satisfying isn't quite the same as stimulating, and the closest you'll get to the realm of adrenaline is when you tramp on the gas and the supercharged 3800 V6 hauls all this refined mass -- about 250 pounds heavier than the previous Park Avenue Ultra -- to 60 m.p.h. in less than 8 seconds. More important, the 3800's tugboat torque provides lots of punch for passing maneuvers, say from 30 on up to 75 m.p.h. And for folks who don't feel a need to re-establish their reputations as hot drivers every time a Mustang or Camaro pulls up in the next lane, 240 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque do the job just fine, thanks. Beyond that, the supercharged 3800 V6 goes about its business smoothly, quietly, and with surprising efficiency. In I-5 cruising, my tester turned in a steady 26 m.p.g., and its all-around average rang up at 23 m.p.g. The only downside of the supercharged version versus the non-supercharged 3800 in the standard Park Avenue is at the pump. The non-supercharged edition runs on unleaded regular, while the supercharged requires premium. As noted, this is a big car -- bigger and heavier than its predecessor, particularly in the vertical dimension. At 57.4 inches, the new Park Avenue is more than two inches taller than the old one, making it the tallest of the current Buick tribe. For comparison, the Chrysler LHS and Lincoln Continental, key Park Avenue Ultra competitors, stand 55.9 inches. Why'd they do that? Two reasons. Reason No. 1: In the evolving mission of Buick, comfort takes precedence over style. No. 2: With the old rear-drive Roadmaster consigned to history, the Park Avenue is now the grand dame of the Buick fleet. In the Park Avenue, the two key comfort elements in the design scheme were interior roominess -- including top-hat headroom fore and aft -- and door openings that eliminate any contortions in getting in or out. The finished product gets top marks on both counts. Interior space is vast, a word that also applies to the trunk. And getting in and out is devoid of the duck-and-bend move required in some swoopier designs -- the Olds Aurora, for example -- even though the door sill is a trifle higher than in the previous Park Avenue. You probably could say the same things about certain minivans. But the real achievement in the new Park Avenue is that it embodies these virtues in a shape that's also graceful and quietly elegant. It doesn't turn heads like the Aurora. In fact, I found it to be well-nigh invisible in the southern California traffic mix. But it does have a strong touch of the "muscular grace" that Buick designers want their cars to project. A smooth, quiet r e For all its roominess, the biggest improvement in this car is something you can't see. Although the '97 Park Avenue looks like an evolutionary update on the previous car, it's all new, with underpinnings based on the Riviera-Aurora chassis. With the exception of curb weight, this is a good thing. The Aurora-Riv chassis, or platform, is one of the stiffest in the entire GM warehouse. The stiffer the foundation, the easier it is for the suspension engineers to create the desired ride and handling traits. It also makes it easier to keep noise out of the car, and pays long-term durability benefits. Given this start, it was interesting to experience the dynamic distinctions between the basic Park Avenue and the flagship Ultra. The ride and handling of the standard Park Avenue are all but indistinguishable from its predecessors. This is essentially the same setup -- they call it Dynaride -- that's earned big Buick sedans such a geriatric image over the years: excessively soft ride, lots of body roll in hard cornering and vague power steering, particularly when the steering wheel is at or near dead center. Compared to the standard car, a Park Avenue with the firmer Gran Touring suspension package delivers responses that feel much more closely related to the Riviera. The Ultra's magnetic power rack and pinion steering system, which is different from the basic Park Avenue, varies the amount of power assist as vehicle speed and/or steering wheel angles increase, providing a significantly better sense of where the front wheels are pointed in the process. It's also dealer programmable, which means you can tailor the level of steering effort to suit your tastes and driving style. More important, the Gran Touring suspension package yields significantly sharper responses in quick maneuvers. It's not quite as firm as the Riv, and there's always a sense of plenty of mass moving back and forth, but it's far from flabby and the trade-off in ride quality is minor. All in all, with the Gran Touring package the Ultra's combination of enhanced control and slightly firmer ride lends a contemporary feel to this car's dynamics that's a pleasant step forward for Buick. Interior comfort Like the exterior and the underpinnings, the interior styling rates as more contemporary. Buick managed to break out of the old horizontal dashboard that afflicted the old Park Avenue, installing a modestly curved cowl over the main instruments, which in turn allowed the design team to increase the size of the tachometer and speedometer. Another welcome change is the general appearance of the dashboard, which shows a strong Riviera influence with its sharp contrasts between secondary controls and the interior color schemes. Inevitably, there's more wood grain, but the overall look is clean and distinctive, and the wood is the real article. Beyond that, the sound system buttons and climate controls are close copies of the Riv, which means they're bigger, better located and far easier to operate when the car is moving. As you'd expect, the Park Avenue Ultra includes a full array of luxury goodies -- premium sound system, automatic climate control, leather, power everything -- that make the going more pleasant. Check the specs. For that matter, so does the standard Park Avenue. A basic Park Avenue starts at $30,660, including destination charges -- roughly the same as a Chrysler LHS. The Park Avenue Ultra starts at $35,660 -- about a grand less than a Lincoln Continental and very close to the Aurora, which can be viewed as competition whether GM brand managers like it or not. Although the LHS and Continental are headed for change in '98 -- big change, in the case of the Chrysler -- I'd say the Park Avenue stacks up very well against its short list of direct competitors. Sure t's sedate, and it's probably not going to satisfy anyone who's in the market for a sport sedan. But there's a lot to like here: excellent road manners, subdued good looks, class-leading roominess and lots of luxury features. If comfort, competence and quality are your priorities -- and you're not worried about midlife crisis -- here's a big Buick that's very much in step with the late 20th Century. Just make sure you order the Gran Touring package. RATING: 3 wheels VEHICLE TYPE: Front engine, front-drive, full-size sedan KEY COMPETITORS: Chrysler LHS, Lincoln Continental, Oldsmobile Aurora BASE PRICE: $35,660 PRICE AS TESTED: $36,105 STANDARD EQUIPMENT: ABS, dual air bags, traction control, 4-speed automatic transmission, keyless remote entry, AM/FM/CD audio, steering wheel audio controls, trip computer, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, power adjustable headrests, leather seats, heated power front seats, tilt steering, universal transmitter, aluminum alloy wheels, low tire pressure warning SPECIFICATIONS: (manufacturer's data) Engine 240-hp 3.8-liter supercharged V6 EPA fuel econ. 18 city/27 hwy. Curb weight 3,879 pounds Wheelbase 113.8 inches Length 206.8 inches Width 74.7 inches Height 57.4 inches Where assembled Orion
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