There's a product renaissance going on at General Motors, and Buick's Century is typical of many new vehicles coming from GM. Hidden under conservative styling is a car with a tight body structure, vastly improved function and an interior that is both bigger and better designed.

The Century Custom starts at $17,845; the Century Limited starts at $19,575. Last year I drove the Custom, but this time I tried the Limited. Equipped with options such as power leather seats, dual-zone air conditioning, alloy wheels and a CD player, the Century Limited has a sticker price of $23,040, which is squarely in line with competitors such as the Oldsmobile Intrigue, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

New in 1997, the Century is based on the same platform as the Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile Intrigue. It shares many of its underpinnings with the Regal as well. This solid foundation is a vast improvement over the previous Century, not only because the wheelbase is 4.1 inches longer but because the track is wider.

Changes for 1998 include lower-powered airbags and the availability of GM's OnStar system. This communications system uses the combination of a Global Positioning System and a hands-free cellular phone to link drivers to a communications center that can provide a wide variety of services, from directions and road service to notifying the center to call for help in the event of a medical emergency or an accident.

The handling is fairly responsive, not as tight as the Grand Prix or as supple as the Intrigue. Over frost-laden highway the back end felt too soft, but in general the ride quality is much improved over previous GM mid-size sedans, thanks for the independent suspension front and rear. Anti-lock brakes are standard.

The variable-assist steering unit is electromagnetic. It feels light in parking situations yet firms up well on the road.

A separate cradle holds isolates the front suspension and reduces the amount of noise and vibration that enters the passenger compartment. Triple door seals and strategically placed sound deadening material also lessens the amount of noise that filters into the cabin.

Power is suppled by a 3.1-liter V6 with 160 horsepower. While this engine is not as smooth or powerful as the 3.4-liter V6 found in the new Grand Am and Oldsmobile Alero, it still has reasonably energetic acceleration and decent fuel economy. It gets 20 mpg in town and 29 on the highway.

Of course, it feeds power to the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission whose shifts are almost imperceptible.

The passenger compartment is much bigger than before because of the longer wheelbase. There is ample room in the front, and the leather bucket seats in the Limited are very comfortable. The back seat has moderate legroom and can accommodate three persons. A built-in child seat is optional. The back seat does not fold down. I prefer the split-folding seats because they prov ide flexibility for carrying long objects.

Cupholders that fold out of the center armrest are not as handy as those built into the console.

New instruments are a snap to read and look as handsome as those in most imports. The large speedometer and tachometer are flanked by secondary gauges. The radio sits high in the center of the instrument panel while climate controls are down lower. I still prefer round, rotary knobs for climate control instead of push buttons, but these have a nice, soft touch. The passenger can adjust their own temperature independent of the driver, which is good.

Remote buttons for the radio are mounted on the steering wheel, and I found them to be most handy.

Other handy items include battery-rundown protection and micron air filtration for the passenger compartment.

With the redesign of the Park Avenue, Century and Regal in the last couple years, Buick's product line has gotten shot of youthfulness that has long been mis ng. These cars are helping define the company and lead it in a new direction.

Price @otx:The base price of our test car was $19,575. The Prestige Package ($1,620) included cruise control, dual-zone air conditioning, steering-wheel radio controls, rear-seat armrest, six-way power driver's seat and upgraded stereo. Other options consisted of aluminum wheels, CD player and 55/45 split bench front seat.

The sticker price was $23,040.


The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. @otx:Point: The redesigned Century offers clean, uncluttered styling and a tight, solid body structure.

Counterpoint: The ride is a tad too soft and I miss the fold-down back seat.


ENGINE: 3.1-liter, V6


WHEELBASE: 109 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,354 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $19,575


RATING: 20 city, 29 hwy.