The Miami Herald's view

Draw up a list of some of the best-looking coupes on the market, and the 1996 Buick Riviera would be near the top with most car aficionados.

Sleek in a way that sets it apart from its competitors, the current Riviera is a worthy descendant of the stunning 1963 Riviera, which helped define the luxury sports coupe genre.

The good looks have helped put some bright news on Buick’s tally sheet. For 1995, Buick moved more than 25,000 Rivieras — close to its production capacity of about 30,000 units a year.

Such success flies in the face of Buick’s shrinking market share.

Although the General Motors division sold more than 488,000 cars in 1995, that was down from 535,000 in 1994. Market share has slipped from 6 to 5.6 percent.

Some of the weakness in the Buick lineup come as the division, which traditionally ranks just below Cadillac in the GM marketing scheme, struggles to attract younger buyers with less-expensive cars.

Taking on Toyota’s tough

While offering solid, well-equipped cars such as the Century and Skylark at list prices well below $20,000 is a worthy goal, Buick has not met with much success going door- handle-to-door-handle with the likes of Toyota.

Buick faces a long haul in getting younger buyers — who often have no tradition of owning GM cars — to give their lower-priced models a spin.

Given the success of the Riviera, perhaps the division should concentrate more on its upscale products.

That is not to say that the Riviera is perfect. What it lacks, to some degree, is the performance to back up that cutting-edge look.

The suspension has been tuned to appeal more to traditional Buick buyers — who apparently appreciate taking the feel of their family room sofa on the road.

It’s not that the Riviera handles poorly — it’s competent — but it lacks a fun-to-drive feel of, say, a Mazda Millennia or even an Oldsmobile Aurora.

Numb but quiet

There is a lot of body roll in tight turns, and the power steering feels numb.

On the plus side, the Riviera is very quiet on the inside, taking on an almost churchlike quality.

Such hushed tones are befitting a Buick Park Avenue, but seem ill-placed in a Riviera, which should give the driver useful road feedback and a throaty roar from the exhaust pipes during hard acceleration.

One way in which Buick has perked up the Riviera is by offering an optional 3.8-liter supercharged V-6, which puts out 240 horsepower.

Coupled to the four-speed automatic transmission, the supercharged Riviera can get to 60 mph in about 7.1 seconds, yet squeeze between 17 and 27 miles from a gallon of gasoline.

While V-6’s numbers impress, the engine still fails to stir the soul. It gets the job done in about the same fashion as the V-8 powered Olds Aurora, but stabbing the accelerator in the Olds is a far more entertaining exercise.

Interior’s a classic

One area in which the Riviera gets high marks is interior styling. The dashboard uses flat surfaces with round air vents and instrument clusters to create a classic look. Of all the cars rolling out of Detroit, the Riviera has the most pleasing interior.

Since it’s built on the same front-wheel-drive chassis as the four-door Aurora, the two-door Riviera has a back seat that is unusually large for a coupe.

Rear headroom is somewhat compromised by the body’s cigar shape, but two adults can be hauled around in comfort, and a third grown-up can be squeezed back there for short periods.

Price is also a selling point, which is a theme these days at Buick. The base price of the Riviera is a tad over $30,000; a supercharged model lists for about $34,000.

When you consider that a number of sport utility vehicles and minivans list for about the same, it’s easy to see that the Riviera offers a lot of style for the money.

It’s just a shame that Buick didn’t see fit to push the performance and handling en lope to match the promise of the Riviera’s styling.

Base sticker price: $30,010.
Price as tested: $34,450.
Major options on test car: Supercharged V-6, $1,195.
Engine: Supercharged 3.8-liter V-6.
Horsepower: 240 at 5,200 rpm.
Transmission: Four-speed automatic.
Weight: 3,722 pounds.
0 to 60 mph: 7.1 seconds.
Safety: Dual front air bags, antilock brakes, side-impact beams.
Mileage: 17-27 mpg.
Competition: Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, BMW 328is, Lincoln Mark VIII, Lexus SC300.

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