EXPERT REVIEW

washingtonpost.com's view

THE CATHOLIC liturgical calendar was turned to the Easter season. But the 1996 Buick Skylark Gran Sport in the driveway was a car for ordinary times — that period between birth, death and renewal when all things are possible, but not much is expected.

It is a period of epiphany, when small slights and delights reveal larger truths, such as the meaning of value. The Skylark Gran Sport provided such a revelation.

The car was homely — a box with rounded corners, accented with tiny swoops front and rear to give it a sporty appearance. The seats were covered with a mix of leather and vinyl, hinting at luxury. But the hint was a joke. The rest of the car’s interior styling was so missionary, those seats practically begged for good Republican cloth.

The surprise came in the Skylark Gran Sport’s road performance, which was not so thrilling as to speed the heartbeats of recalcitrant throttle jockeys but was certainly more than most of us might expect from an entry-level Buick.

Suffice it to say that this ordinary car handled roadwork with extraordinary aplomb. It was competent, comfortable, safe and actually fun to drive.

Background: The Buick Skylark has been around in one form or another since 1953. As presently constituted, it’s a front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, compact family car sold in several iterations, of which the Gran Sport is the snazziest model.

Other Skylarks include the base Custom and the reasonably well-appointed Limited. All Skylarks are available either as two-door coupes or four-door sedans. All have received cosmetic and mechanical touch-ups for 1996.

External changes include a new grille, new headlamps and a redesigned rear end. Interior fixes include a simplified instrument panel with buttons and gauges that are easy to reach and read.

Mechanically, the biggest change involves the welcome disappearance of the Skylark’s noisy three-speed automatic transmission. It has been replaced by a smoother, more amenable, electronically controlled four-speed automatic.

The standard engine in the Custom and Limited versions is a 2.4-liter, twin-cam, inline four-cylinder model rated 150 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Torque is rated 150 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm.

The tested Skylark Gran Sport gets a standard 3.1-liter, sequentially fuel-injected V-6 rated 155 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. Torque for that engine is rated 185 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm.

Though it has only marginally more horsepower than the inline four-cylinder engine, the V-6 is a smoother, quieter power plant that makes driving the Skylark Gran Sport more of a pleasure than a chore.

All new Skylarks are equipped with dual-front air bags and standard anti-lock brakes — those brakes being items sold as expensive optional equipment on many comparable compact cars.

Also standard is General Motors Corp.’s Passlock anti-theft system, which includes a computer chip-embedded key that sends a coded signal via the ignition lock to start t he engine. A wrong signal equals a no-start or, at least, a late start, either of which is a deterrent to apprentice thieves.

Ah, trunk space! There’s enough of it in the little Skylark Gran Sport — 13.3 cubic feet.

Complaints: I hate names like “Gran Sport,” especially when they are applied to perfectly decent, perfectly ordinary cars. How about something like “Citicar” instead?

Praise: A well-made, practical, reliable car that is fun to drive and reasonably affordable.

Head-turning quotient: Zilch.

Ride, acceleration and handling: A triumvirate of decency and competence. This car will please most people who simply want to be in a safe, comfortable place between points of departure and arrival. Braking was very good.

Mileage: With the tested V-6, about 27 miles per gallon (15.2-gallon tank, estimated 396-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), combined city-highway, running with two occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Four-speaker AM/FM ster o radio and compact disc by Delco. Decent.

Price: Base price for the Skylark is $15,495. Dealer invoice on that model is $14,798. The Gran Sport package is $2,206. Price as tested is $19,141, including $940 in options and a $500 transportation charge.

Purse-strings note: The Skylark shares characteristics with the Oldsmobile Achieva and Pontiac Grand Am. Without the “Gran Sport” package, which includes the standard V-6, the Skylark can be had for $15,495. This car compares favorably with any compact model sold in the U.S. auto market. It’s a buy.

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