Our view: 1998 Buick Riviera

The boomers have aged to the point where they want the increased comfort and convenience afforded by four doors. So they’ve been buying sedans — and relegating coupe sales to life in the sewers of Paris.

Indeed, the sales figures have sunk low enough to trigger the demise of several coupe models. Toyota has stopped making a coupe version of its popular Camry, and Ford has sent the Thunderbird winging off to that native automobile burial mound on the outskirts of Dearborn.

But so far, the Buick Riviera has been spared such indignities. Despite the coupe climate — and the fact that the Riv isn’t the import that so many low-end luxury-car buyers want — this big, beautiful Buick keeps on chugging along, selling about 20,000 copies a year.

I suspect there are several reasons for this. For openers, the Riv is easily the most distinctive and dramatically sculpted luxury car to come along in this decade. It is also an exceptional value. Most low-end luxury cars (the Riv starts at $32,500) are midsize, not large. They aren’t this gutsy (240 horsepower), and they aren’t this well-equipped (leather is standard).

But while the Riv may be a deal, its styling is what makes this car so interesting. The Riviera’s body design pushes the envelope of the acceptable, and creates intense feelings. People either love it or hate it.

I love the way this car looks. It is so sensual and voluptuous. And it has those wonderful front-fender bevels adjacent to the hood that disappear and reappear as your viewing angle changes. So what happens, in effect, is that the car keeps reinventing itself as you walk around it.

There is something mysterious about this changing state, and that mystery was compounded by the test car’s Slate Green Pearl paint, a new-for-’98 color that changed with the lighting conditions.

But I must emphasize that my slavish worship is only half of the Riv’s love/hate story. A colleague told me the car looked like a dead fish.

Actually, even I must admit that the Riv is not aesthetic perfection. Its otherwise attractive interior is marred by a homely, dated dashboard populated by cheezoid gauges and phony-baloney wood trim.

As its standard leather and large-car roominess might suggest, the Riv is a comfortable way for four adults to get from point A to point B. And as its grottoesque, 17.4-cubic-foot trunk might suggest, those four folks will be able to bring along plenty of extra socks and undies.

The Riv’s solidity contributes to a pleasant passage. The Riviera is built on the exceptionally rigid platform used in the Oldsmobile Aurora. That lack of flex encourages squeak and creak to catch a ride in someone else’s car.

Thanks to a decree from the marketing molehill, Buick doesn’t build any of that sporty kid stuff that we arrested adolescents like so much. But the Riviera has received some performance improvements for 1998 that make it livelier than you might have guessed.

The 240-horsepower, supercharged version of General Motors’ 3.8-liter V-6 is no longer an option in the Riv. It is now standard equipment. And with a substantial 280 foot-pounds of torque, it gets this 3,700-pound car off the dime in a big hurry.

The engineers have also tweaked the Riv’s suspension again to enhance handling. Although the suspension is still too soft for my taste, the car certainly acquits itself well enough in the corners. The steering is responsive, and a reduction in body roll has made the car feel more composed.

The Riv’s standard equipment list is as long as Wilt Chamberlain’s inseam. It includes several items you’d expect in a luxury car, such as disc brakes and an antilock braking system, and some you might not, such as dual-zone climate control and a cassette/CD player.

You’re also getting a nicely assembled car that’s surprisingly easy on gas, and doesn’t break very much.


Buick Riviera

Base vehicle Front-drive, 3.8-liter engine, magnetic variable-assist power steering, power disc brakes, antilock braking system, 16-inch alloy wheels, P225/60R16 all-season radials, dual air bags, daytime running lights, power locks, keyless entry, electric trunk release, power windows, heated power mirrors, dual-zone climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, tilt steering, cruise control, automatic suspension leveling, rear window defogger, stereo/cassette/CD, power antenna, leather seating, power seats, theft-deterrence system.

Test model: Traction control, cornering lamps, augmented theft-deterrence system, power lumbar supports for front seats, universal transmitter, steering-wheel-mounted radio controls, chrome-plated alloy wheels, driver’s seat heater and memory, automatic rear-view mirror with compass.

Base price: $32,500

Test model: $35,490 (inc. shipping)

EPA city rating: 18

Test mileage: 19

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.

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