The re-introduction of a full-size, body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive sedan to Buick’s lineup in the 1990s was somewhat surprising. After all, despite switching almost entirely to front-wheel-drive – the slow-selling Estate wagon being the lone exception – sales had not been negatively impacted. Buick’s 1985 Electra and 1986 LeSabre were modern, efficient and attractive offerings, and even Buick’s more traditional consumers were opting for these FWD sedans despite stabilizing gas prices. For 1991, Buick launched a brand new FWD flagship, the Park Avenue, which received plaudits for its elegant styling and comfortable interior. But while the Park Avenue may have been the most expensive Buick, it wasn’t the biggest. We’ve covered the wagon here before, but let’s look at Buick’s biggest sedan of the 1990s: the Roadmaster sedan.
The big B-Body sedan’s arrival had been pre-empted by the Roadmaster Wagon. The longroof had arrived in 1991, thus ensuring Buick dealerships always had a full-size wagon. Roadmaster wagons were almost identical to the Chevrolet Caprice and the short-lived Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, differing only in trim and minor details like the grille.
The first RWD Buick sedan in 7 years would receive much more visual differentiation than its wagon counterpart. Designed by Wayne Kady, the Roadmaster sedan had a bold waterfall grille and striking full-width taillights. Despite styling vastly different to the related Caprice sedan, the Roadmaster sedan received many of the same criticisms levelled at the Chevy: their smoother, more aerodynamic lines arguably seemed ill at ease with the platform’s sizeable dimensions. And those dimensions were indeed sizeable: wheelbase was 115.9 inches and overall length was 215.8 inches, 5 and 10 inches longer respectively than the flagship Park Avenue. The interior was spacious, and the 21 cubic-feet trunk was cavernous.
There were two Roadmaster sedans available: base and Limited. The base model came well-equipped with air-conditioning, cruise control, power steering, power windows and anti-lock brakes. The Limited added climate control, keyless entry, power locks and power mirrors. Detail changes were made to the equipment list during its run, the most notable being the addition of dual airbags which came with a slightly rejigged dashboard. In a sign of the times, a vinyl roof became an option, even on the Limited.
Initially, the Roadmaster sedan’s engine was the L05 5.7 V8 with 180 hp and 290 lb-ft. The big news for 1994 was the arrival of a much more powerful V8, the LT1. This was a detuned version of the same V8 used in the Corvette, and put out an impressive 260 hp and 335 lb-ft; 0-60 was around 8 seconds. With the trailer-towing package optioned, a Roadmaster could tow up to 5000lbs. Even the Park Avenue Ultra’s supercharged V6 had just 205 hp and 260 lb-ft. The transmission was one of GM’s smooth-shifting four-speed automatics, the 4L60E.
It may have looked huge, and indeed it was at 4,300lbs, but the Roadmaster achieved pretty admirable fuel economy with its powerful LT1. The EPA rated it at 16/25mpg (slightly better than the previous V8), while the more modern Park Avenue was only marginally better at 17/29mpg.
Handling was nothing to write home about, with copious amounts of body roll. These cars were built for cruising and not for racing around the twisties. The towing package helped firm up the ride and handling, but if you were after a full-size sedan with some athleticism you would have been served by a Park Avenue with the Gran Touring suspension option. The Roadmaster may not have handled terribly well, but its ride quality was excellent and its cabin was extremely hushed.
But the Roadmaster Sedan’s advantages in pulling power and towing ability weren’t enough to prevent it from being outsold, often quite significantly, by the more expensive Park Avenue. The former outsold the latter only once, in 1992. From 1993-96, the Park Avenue would outsell the entire Roadmaster range each year.
The market had shifted away from big, body-on-frame, RWD sedans. Although the B-Body platform was now quite old and each Roadmaster sale was likely a very profitable one for GM, the company had found an even more profitable sale: a full-size SUV.
Of the final B-Bodies, the wagons often have a loyal following because they were the last of their kind. The Impala SS has that unassailable cool factor. The Caprice sedan was beloved by cops, who were often reluctant to change to Crown Vics. The Fleetwood Brougham has a brobdingnagian, classic Cadillac charm. The Roadmaster sedan, in comparison, seems to be one of the most overlooked of its kinfolk. The only final-B that seems to enjoy less attention is the short-lived ’91-92 Custom Cruiser.
All of GM’s B-Bodies would face the executioner’s axe for 1996. The Arlington, Texas factory would be retooled to produce SUVs. These less efficient and generally cruder vehicles had become much more acceptable for families and city-dwellers to own.
It’s a shame, as the GM B-Body was the quintessential full-size American sedan. With the LT1, it achieved levels of power and efficiency the likes of which had never been seen, and all at a competitive price. The Roadmaster sedan may have had its flaws – frumpy styling, some cheap interior materials, mediocre handling – but where else could you find that combination of value and ability in the 1990s?