The Detroit News's view

We love dogs – except of the automotive variety. And for a long time, the Buick Skylark was a real barker. Previous models lacked a passenger air bag, had awful “passive” seat belts anchored to the doors, was fitted with an outdated and inefficient three-speed automatic transmission – and had a lousy cupholder to boot. Woof. But we’re happy to report that the 1996 Skylark has an improved pedigree, particularly the Gran Sport model we drove. In fact, it’s no longer even part of the animal kingdom.

He: I actually enjoyed having the ’96 Skylark in our kennel, er, garage for a week. As much as its predecessor seemed kind of pointless and unfocused, the current edition not only fits right into the Buick family, it will give the high-end Accords and Camrys a run for their money. I’m impressed by any car that gives you this much equipment, plus the comfort and ride quality of a much larger car, for under $20,000.

She: If you were a little more sensitive, you’d mention that it’s excellent news for all those nurses, teachers and entry-level types who are looking for a

He: The redesigned Skylark should appeal not just to women, but to a whole generation of baby boomers who would never think of setting foot in a Buick dealership because of the division’s longstanding “Mr. Bulky” image.

She: There’s a lot of value for the money here, especially with things like standard traction control and antilock brakes, which are important safety features in slick weather. Even the air conditioning and power locks are standard equipment. I know plenty of women who would jump at a car with standard air. You really feel like the company is looking out for you when you see something like that on a sticker. I love the Mercury Mystique, which is a chief competitor, but I’m hard pressed to recommend one over the other. That’s a ton of improvement from Buick.

He: I’m not nearly as enamored of the Mystique as you are. In fact, if I had to pick a styling leader in the segment, it would probably be the Chrysler Cirrus. Don’t get me wrong. The ’96 Skylark isn’t necessarily homely. And it’s a much nicer car to drive than the Cirrus. I applaud chief designer Wayne Kady and his team for really sprucing up what used to be an oddball design, inside and out. I suppose the ’96 model is a little more mainstream, but that’s probably not a bad thing as far as Buick’s clientele is concerned.

She: I don’t think you could call the Gran Sport “mainstream.” It had a racy look with those 16-inch alloy wheels, Goodyear Eagle GA tires, bucket seats and console. And it had a sportier suspension, so you’re more connected to the road than you are in many typical sedans.

He: Speaking of performance, the base Skylark for ’96 gets a new 150-horsepower twin-cam, four-cylinder engine. But I really like the V-6 that comes with the Gran Sport package. It’s small enough, at 3.1 liters, to return nearly 30 mpg in highway driving with the new four-speed automatic tran smission, but it also pumps out gobs of torque. You don’t need a lead foot to make the Skylark get up and go. And you won’t have any trouble passing or merging.

She: But I also think Buick is paying attention to the concerns of women buyers, especially in the safety and convenience areas. I mentioned traction control and antilock brakes, two items that cost extra on most of the competition. And Buick finally put a passenger-side air bag in the Skylark. I liked the other little details – like battery run-down protection which cuts the power if you forget to turn off the interior lights, and platinum spark plugs that don’t need to be changed for 100,000 miles. And for those of you who don’t like to work on your cars, Buick is also using long-life engine coolant and transmission fluid. This is as close to maintenance-free as you’re likely to get.

He: Too bad the Skylark isn’t nearly as stylish as the Cirrus or its own sibling, the Pontiac Grand Am, which is GM’s best se in he class. Buick might discover a whole different group of prospective buyers than it’s ever had, which of course, was the whole point of the original design.

She: Buick still needs to work on the Skylark’s back seat, which is a bit cramped and unfriendly. And I found the power rack-and-pinion steering just a tad slow to respond, especially in deep turns. But it was a minor aggravation, not a major annoyance. You start crabbing about little stuff and then you remember – hey, what am I talking about? This is a car you can order with goodies like leather upholstery and steering-wheel radio controls and still keep the sticker under $20,000.

He: You know, even our miniature schnauzers loved riding in the Skylark. What better endorsement could you ask for than that?

1996 Buick Skylark Gran Sport

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger compact sedan.

Price: Base, $15,495; as tested, $19,553 (inc. $500 destination charge).

What’s new for ’96: Twin-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, passenger air bag, Passlock theft-deterrent system, revised antilock brakes, restyled front and rear ends, redesigned instrument panel, revised wheel covers, air conditioning, tilt steering column, rear defogger, four-speed automatic transmission, traction control, optional steering-wheel radio controls, revised radios.

Standard equipment: Power steering, tilt steering column, air conditioning, rear defogger, power door locks, tinted glass, dual visor vanity mirrors, AM-FM stereo, two-speed wipers, battery run-down protection, Passlock theft-deterrent system.

Safety features: Dual front air bags, antilock brakes, traction control, child-proof rear door locks.

Options on test vehicle: Gran Sport package, inc. 3.1-liter V-6, analog instrument cluster and gauges, power mirrors, AM-FM stereo cassette, manual driver’s-seat adjuster and lumbar support, full console, sport suspension, Goodyear Eagle GA 16-inch tires, aluminum wheels, trunk net, power windows, body-color grille ($2,205); graphite leather and cloth bucket seats ($495); 6-way power driver’s seat ($270); remote keyless entry ($135); deluxe headliner with lighted vanity mirrors, extendable sunshades and reading lamps ($135); steering-wheel radio controls ($125); CD player ($125); premium speaker package ($45); rear window antenna ($25).

EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway.

Engine: 3.1-liter V-6; 155-hp at 5200 rpm; 185 lb-ft torque at 4000 rpm.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic.

Competitors: Pontiac Grand Am, Oldsmobile Achieva, Ford Contour, Mercury Mystique, Dodge Stratus, Chrysler Cirrus, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Mazda 626, Subaru Legacy, Mitsubishi Galant, Volkswagen Passat.

Specifications: Wheelbase, 103.4 inches; overall length, 189.3 inches; curb weight, 2948 pounds; legroom, 43.1 inches front/33.4 inches rear; headroom, 37.8 inches front/37.0 inches rear; shoulder room, 5 2.3 inches front/52.3 inches rear.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $894

*Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Lansing

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