Our view: 2003 Buick Park Avenue

If you don’t know who Harley Earl is, if you weren’t aware that he changed the shape of the American car, General Motors Corp. is pleased to fill in the details.

Who is Earl?

He’s GM’s pitchman on all those Buick ads. With a fedora and a pin-striped suit, Earl’s the guy who has been commissioned to revive a dying brand. The only problem is that Earl himself is dead. He died more than 30 years ago.

The irony is lost on no one.

If you are wondering why GM has turned to the past to liven up a brand that seems stuck in it, you might be onto something.

Nicknamed the “Da Vinci of Detroit,” Earl was a designer who was into progressive thinking. During three decades at GM, he changed the shape of the American car. He took the tall, boxy, disjointed rides of the early 1900s that were more function than form and turned them into works of art.

But would he have taken the 2003 Buick Park Avenue? We doubt it.

Earl would tell the good folks at GM that with style, substance has to follow. That looks are only skin deep. And that as times change, sometimes mindsets have to be altered as well.

While the exterior restyling on the new Park Avenue is attractive, it’s everything else that is living in another generation.

Its ride is too mushy, its handling too loose and its price too high.

Sorry, Harley.

Six years ago, when GM set out to redo the Park Avenue, the 1997 version of its flagship sedan came up a winner. Stacked up against the competition, it actually fared pretty well. But that was 1997. This is a new century.

Six years later, the Audi A6 has muscled into the luxury sedan market along with the Lexus GS 300 – not to mention GM’s competitive cousins, the Cadillac DeVille, Oldsmobile Aurora and Pontiac Bonneville.

Where does the luxo-liner Park Avenue fit? That’s a big question.

GM says those attracted to the Park Avenue are older customers who aren’t looking for the firmness of a European sports sedan. And in its most basic form, the Park Avenue is meant to do one thing well: Haul five people with a ride that resembles the top of a pillow. Check.

The only question: Is that worth $40,000? (Talk about a lot of goose feathers.)

While it is big and comfy inside, our problem with the Park Avenue is that it is too much of a stroll – a cruiser that makes you think you’re ready to set sail.

Pack the Dramamine.

With a floaty ride that lumbers around corners, it’s tough to take the Park Avenue too seriously. On highways it performed well, but take it over city streets and each bruise or pothole in the road sends a shudder down its spine. Not what luxury riders want.

Buick says this is an improved ride, mainly thanks to a specially tuned Gran Touring suspension and rear stabilizer bar. It left me looking for a 21st-century screwdriver (and left one of my passengers a little nause ous).

The 3.8-liter V-6 is steady enough. It puts out an impressive 205 horsepower in the base model, and when you opt for the Ultra’s supercharged version it bumps that number up to 240 horses and more torque – and, regrettably, more torque steer. Pound the pedal (which most Park Avenue buyers won’t) and the sedan jerks at the steering wheel.

Aesthetically, you can’t complain.

The Park Avenue arrives with an attractive design. There’s a new vertical-bar grille, side-mounted turn indicators, 17-inch chrome-plated aluminum wheels and “portholes” on each side – three holes on each front fender meant to link the 2003 to 1949 and provide better air circulation under the hood. Inside, there is a ton of faux wood and new gauges.

Mostly, it is a classy look. And that satisfies one part of what the Park Avenue crowd is after, but not everything.

Buick has always prided itself on quiet comfort, yet we found the Park Avenue surprisingly noisy, especially near the windows at highway speeds. But it is roomy. Five fit quite well in the cushiony interior. This is a big family car that can haul a family’s load of luggage – 19 cubic feet worth – and there’s even the option of a fold-down rear seat for lengthy objects. But don’t forget the 41-foot turning radius means a mall parking lot is a tricky place to be.

On safety, the Park Avenue has been awarded high marks in frontal and side-impact crash tests. There are standard seat-mounted side air bags for the front passengers – but no head-protective ones – and the Park Avenue also comes with GM’s StabiliTrak system. The brakes were excellent, providing solid stopping power for a vehicle that is on the hefty side at 2 tons.

But what’s also hefty is the price, something that was hard to look past.

The Park Avenue is no cheap cruise. It drives in at $39,600 for our test Ultra model. Add $2,470 in extras (sunroof, CD changer, heads-up display and rear parking assist) and you are up to $42,070 before GM incentives. Now that’s a load.

Even with deep discounts, the Park Avenue feels like a ride that has seen better days. It looks better. It tries hard. But compared to what’s out there, it has a long way to go.

Something says Harley would understand.

2003 Buick Park Avenue

Rating: 2

High gear: Comfortable and roomy, the Park Avenue has always been a large sedan that can take you from Point A to Point B with a soft ride and plenty of cargo room. This year it also adds some interesting styling cues inside and out.

Low gear: Even with a suspension that’s tuned with a better screwdriver, the Park Avenue floats along the road. It doesn’t eat bumps as well as it should, and it takes corners like a wagon would. Price also gets pretty steep with options.

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger luxury sedan.

Key standard equipment (Ultra model): Four-speed automatic transmission; driver and front passenger frontal and side-impact air bags; OnStar communications system; anti-lock brakes; keyless entry; traction control; tilt, power steering; cruise control; dual-zone climate control; power windows, mirrors and locks; 10-way power leather seats; 17-inch alloy wheels; AM/FM/CD and cassette radio.

Key competition: Audi A6, Cadillac DeVille, Oldsmobile Aurora, BMW 5-Series

Base engine: 205 horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6

Torque: 230 ft.-lbs. @ 4,000 rpm

Wheelbase: 113.8 inches

Length: 206.8 inches

MPG rating: 20 city/29 highway

Manufactured: Orion, Mich.

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; drivetrain is three years/36,000 miles; roadside assistance is three years/36,000 miles; and rust is six years/100,000 miles.

Base price: $39,600

Price as t ested (including options, destination and delivery): $41,865

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