Vintage Comparison Test and Commentary: 1988 Buick Regal, Olds Cutlass Supreme, Pontiac Grand Prix – Road & Track Assesses The GM10 Personal Luxury Coupes

GM10spreadThough the giant was teetering badly by the late 1980s, General Motors could still garner quite a lot of attention when it came time to announce new vehicle platforms.  While personal luxury coupes really weren’t to Road & Track’s taste, they duly evaluated the much ballyhooed, allegedly differentiated trio from Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac.  What was their take on the latest and greatest from GM?

The hype surrounding the GM10 cars was in full swing for 1988.  GM was predicting that the new Regal, Cutlass Supreme (not to be confused with the Cutlass Calais, Cutlass Ciera or Cutlass Supreme Classic) and Grand Prix would sell to the tune of 500,000 units annually, just in their two-door guise alone.

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Buff Books seemed more than ready to play along.  Naturally, Motor Trend named the Grand Prix as its 1988 “Car of the Year.”  Car and Driver also boosted Pontiac’s “Excitement” imagery by highlighting the style and—ahem—performance potential of the car.  Automobile Magazine, being the self-proclaimed “most sophisticated” of the American buff books, preferred the subtler, “aero” looks of the Cutlass Supreme.  No one really paid much heed to the Buick, other than to acknowledge it was returning to being “Buick-like” after the incongruous detour into all-black Turbos.

But only Road & Track drove the three cars back-to-back, and as such provide an interesting glimpse into how well executed the divisional identities really were.

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As Road & Track’s introduction to the cars pointed out, GM was betting that Americans would once again come flocking to large personal luxury cars as soon as they saw the GM10s.  The harsh reality was that the massive Baby Boomer cohort was showing a strong preference for smaller cars, plus the market in general was shifting to 4-door body styles.  Between the three divisions, GM managed to sell 311,077 GM10s for 1988 (Regal: 129,997, Cutlass Supreme: 94,723, Grand Prix: 86,357), far short of the half million unit target.  It was also a far cry from the heady days GM was trying to recreate: 10 years prior, during the peak personal luxury period, these same models had sold a whopping 901,448 units in 1978 (Regal: 273,365, Cutlass Supreme: 399,639, Grand Prix: 228,444).

The price tag for the GM10 bet was colossal.  Road & Track noted that the development costs were $5 to $6 billion (other reports peg it closer to $7 billion).  Even in today’s dollars, that total is a huge amount to spend on a new platform.  But these figures were from the mid-1980s, so the comparable amount now would be $10.5 to $14.75 billion!  Let’s pause to let that sink in: nearly $15 billion dollars!  Did all that money buy all-new, state-of-the-art OHC multi-valve engines, world class chassis tuning, outstanding space utilization and efficiency, exemplary materials and build quality or the latest safety features like a driver’s side airbag?  Not a chance!

The GM10s were new-ish, but shared many components with other GM products like the 1986 E-Bodies (rear suspension) and 1980 X-Bodies (engine).  Yes, the GM10’s “corporate” 2.8 Liter V6 started life in the Spring of 1979 as an option for the Citation/Phoenix/Omega/Skylark.  Luckily, for GM’s enormous investment, they were able to add fuel injection and coax an extra 13 horsepower and 12 lbs ft of torque out of the old-school OHV V6 by the time the motor was plunked into the GM10 coupes!  That was surely worth at least a billion or two…

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To GM’s credit, the styling of each of the GM10 cars was unique, both inside and out.  In that regard, the designs harkened back to the days where GM products were clearly related but well differentiated.  It was a refreshing change from the uninspired and depressingly similar FWD GM “look alike” offerings from the early and mid-1980s.  But the beauty was only skin deep—underneath the specific divisional identities were the same unspectacular underpinnings.

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Different didn’t necessarily mean better, however.  Inside the GM10s for example, emphasis was placed on styling gimmicks at the expense of function, be that subpar digital instruments or overly complicated switch gear.  In an era where more and more buyers were seeking ergonomically excellent interiors, the GM10’s style over substance approach seemed out-of-step for the times.

That disconnect applied to the dimensions of the cars as well.  The GM10s were essentially full-sized outside, measuring just 4 inches shy of the large FWD H-Bodies in length, while basically matching them in width and weighing only about 125 to 175 pounds less.  Inside however, the GM10s were far from full-size, and were actually tighter in basically all interior dimensions when compared to the mid-sized A-Bodies, though the latter were shorter by 4 inches, narrower by 3 inches and lighter by 200 to 300 pounds.  Bigger-on-the-outside and smaller-on-the-inside had gone out of fashion by the mid-1970s, never mind the late 1980s!

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Needless to say, the GM10s would have a tough time appealing to the desirable demographics GM was targeting for each model.  By 1988, Baby Boomers ranged from their mid-20s to early-40s, and many of them were being seduced by Japanese and German imports or trendsetting domestic offerings like the Ford Taurus.  Sporty cars and minivans were also “in”—larger, less practical 2-door American cruisers long on looks and short on power?  Not so much…  Also alarming was the fear expressed by the divisional managers about attempting to deploy too much “new” technology with the GM10s, demonstrating that GM was once again completely out-of-step with the increasingly sophisticated and tech-oriented tastes of the prospective buyers.

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One of the biggest shocks with the introduction of the GM10s was under hood.  It was nearly unthinkable that each division would be saddled with the same underpowered 2.8 Liter corporate V6.  After all, in 1988 Buick and Olds were already offering the well-regarded 3.8 Liter V6 as an option in their A-Bodies (Century, Cutlass Ciera) and standard in the H-Bodies (LeSabre, Delta 88), while Pontiac made the slightly better 3.1 Liter V6 (merely enlarged from the 2.8 and far from “new”) standard in the A-Body STE and the the 3.8 Liter V6 standard in the H-Body Bonneville.  GM couldn’t be bothered to make the 3.1 V6 standard and/or offer the tried-and-true 3.8 Liter V6 in any GM10 at launch, even as an option?  Where exactly did all those billions in development costs go again?

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Road & Track’s final assessment of the GM10s was lukewarm at best, dryly noting that the platform itself was sound enough, though I doubt at the time anyone would have dreamed that variants of the W-Body would still be available for sale 25 years later!  R&T’s editors opined that perhaps GM would make needed improvements for the 1989 model year.  No such luck.  The more popular 4-door body style didn’t start appearing until the 1990 Chevrolet Lumina arrived.  Airbags wouldn’t come until 1994.  While the slightly more potent 3.1 V6 would become standard across the board for automatic-equipped cars in 1989 (manuals stuck with the 2.8 that year), performance was slow in coming to the GM10s.  Pontiac did in fact get the limited-edition McLaren Turbo for 1989, but those were few and far between.  Most GM10s continued to offer anemic performance for their first 3 model years—larger, more powerful engines only began to appear in volume for 1991. Given the truism that “you only get one chance to make a first impression,” launching the GM10s with suboptimal power was really a deadly sin, especially given their looks and market positioning.

This is not my mother’s actual ’83 Cutlass Supreme, but looks almost exactly like hers—same color (Silver Sand), loaded, no vinyl top—except mom’s had the body-colored Super Sport wheels. It was pretty sharp looking for the time.

This is not my mother’s actual ’83 Cutlass Supreme, but looks almost exactly like hers—same color (Silver Sand), loaded, no vinyl roof covering—except mom’s had the body-colored Super Sport wheels.

I can provide some additional real life commentary, based on my family’s own GM10 experience.  In the early summer of 1988, my mother was ready to replace her 1983 Cutlass Supreme sedan.  She’d enjoyed the Olds and had gotten good use out of it, keeping it a bit longer than her usual 4 years.  But the square-cut sedan did seem dated as the aero look came into vogue, so she was ready for a switch.  Since the last of her kids (me) had just graduated college, she also was ready for something more “personal” since “mom-duty” was officially over.  She was adamant that she wanted a two-door coupe.

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I naturally thought that the highly-praised Acura Legend Coupe would be perfect.  Upscale, quick and desirable, what wasn’t to love?  Well, that would be the price.  Neither my mother or father could wrap their head around the $28,000 ($56,629 adjusted) price tag for a Legend L Coupe with automatic.  So while the Legend was a great deal compared to its German competitors, it was pricey by the standards of American cars, equating to a Lincoln Mark VII or Cadillac Eldorado.  My mother wanted an upper-middle brand, like what she had being driving for years, and she wasn’t interested in a full-on luxury car.

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Nor was she interested in a small coupe, like a Honda Accord, Honda Prelude or Mazda MX-6.  I was in the process of car shopping for myself at the same time, and the Prelude was my pick.  She thought the Honda was perfect for me, but she wasn’t ready for that sort of car.

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My Pop and I tried to steer her to the Mercury Sable, but it was out because it had too many doors.  The Cougar, with its unusual roofline and rear quarter window, was not to her liking at all.  My mom also tried the v8 Thunderbird, which I thought was a great choice, but she claimed she couldn’t get comfortable behind the wheel because she felt like she was sitting too low.  Though nicely styled, the LeBaron coupe also didn’t make the cut, both for its 4-cylinder-only engine options and the fact that the brand was still rather tarnished from near-bankruptcy and the plethora of tarted-up K-cars.

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So that left GM, and they had three all-new choices aimed right for her heart and pocketbook.  Naturally, we started at Oldsmobile, since she’d been very happy for years with that brand.  For some reason though, the new Cutlass Supreme just didn’t interest her.  She thought the outside was bland, and agreed with Road & Track’s assessment that the interior looked disjointed.

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Pontiac would surely be the pick then!  My Pop had a 1987 Bonneville SE company car at the time, and it was nice and somewhat sporty in a big American cruiser kind of way.  The new Grand Prix had sharp, aggressive styling, plus Pontiac had recaptured some of its performance credibility with cars like the 6000STE.  However, my mom wasn’t sold.  One thing she didn’t like was the instrument panel with the confusing and complicated pod controls.  Plus, she wanted to check out the Buick, since our family had enjoyed many tri-shields through the years and she’d always liked the brand.

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So off we went to Crown Buick on Clearview Parkway in Metairie, where right on the showroom floor was an Arctic White Regal Custom with a light gray bucket seat interior and the Gran Sport package, exactly like the one pictured in the sales catalog.  That car was the GM10 she liked best, and a test drive in a demonstrator sold her on the handling feel.  Literally, my parents bought the car off the showroom floor.

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Thus started my family’s final four years of Buick ownership.  I’d say that Road & Track’s judgment was pretty much right on.  The car did come across as a Buick, so it was on target in that respect.  The problem, at least for GM’s aspirations, was that the image represented by the Regal was appealing to a 54-year-old woman—not what the GM marketers envisioned when they sought to lower the median age of Regal buyers to 40.  Of course, most of Buick’s advertising for the Regal wouldn’t exactly tempt thirty somethings….

Nor could any GM10 lure buyers who had any sort of performance inclinations.  Under hood, the 2.8L V6 was simultaneously loud and slow.  As R&T noted, it was only adequate off the line, and then rapidly ran out of steam.  The noise never ceased, however.  My mother really missed the 307 V8 in her old Cutlass Supreme—while no powerhouse, it was robust enough and at least somewhat refined (ironically, she had viewed that engine as a step-down from her previous ’79 Ninety-Eight with the 403 V8).  GM just kept sliding down in the power department…

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With Road & Track rating the Regal’s Gran Sport suspension as offering the best ride of the GM10 bunch, then the suspension tuning on the Cutlass Supreme International Series or the Grand Prix SE must have been really bad.  Mom’s Regal crashed over bumps, often so hard that the car would make a huge BANG as it jolted occupants.  Keep in mind that this was in a car being driven by a middle-aged matron, not a boy racer.

Perhaps the jarring ride contributed to the rattles that the Regal soon developed.  Other issues, like the wind and water leaks, came courtesy of the factory.  The latter were so bad, both in the passenger-side door, which would fill with water, and in the trunk, which frequently sported a flooded spare tire well, that the car earned the nickname “Slosh.”

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Inside, both the ergonomics and material quality were an absolute mess.  The digital gages were ridiculously small and hard to decipher.  The glove box was miniscule, even the owner’s manual pouch was too big to fit inside—the console between the bucket seats (on cars so equipped) was necessary to hold basically anything.  The fake wood trim was so bad that it made cheap Formica look elegant by contrast.  The velour upholstery on the doors had a peculiar fuzzy texture, truly like mouse fur in the gray interior of my mother’s Regal.  Plus, as Road & Track pointed out, the door and dash trim didn’t line up—I don’t think GM got that right on any Regal.  The whole effect was simply sloppy and cheap, all in a car that was supposed to be “premium.”  It was especially ironic since GM had been spending large sums on advertising quality starting in the mid-1980s with the “Nobody Sweats The Details Like GM” ad campaign.

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Aside from lax quality control at the factory, GM obviously did not “sweat the details” on many day-to-day features of the Regal.  For example, the Gran Sport package came with fog lights, but they had covers on them.  So Regal owners would either leave the covers off permanently, or leave them on and never use the lights, like my mother.  No one, however, was getting out of the Regal Gran Sport in inclement weather and bending over under the front bumper to take off the stupid covers so they could use the fog lights…

Equally asinine was the functioning of the intermittent wipers.  GM10 coupes featured wipers that swept out from the center, and when the driver engaged the intermittent wipe function for light rain or mist, the left side wiper would jump up and rest on the windshield about 6 inches above the cowl, right in the driver’s line of sight.  Idiotic, and the only reason I can think of for this “feature” was to remind a driver that the intermittent wipers were activated.  Of course, when the wipers intermittently wiped, the driver might also realize they were on… doh!

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While Road & Track only had the test cars for a short period, time didn’t make anything better—age did the GM10s no favors.  Many issues cropped up within the first few years of Mom’s Regal ownership, all of which exemplified the poor build and material quality of the car.  For example, the driver’s door let out a horrible, loud creaking/groaning sound whenever it was opened or closed.  My mother likened it to the sound of some mortally wounded jungle animal shrieking in pain.  She’d have it rehung and lubricated frequently at the dealer, but to no avail: the sound was never gone for long.

But the exterior paint was gone too soon.  The issue started on the hood, when huge chunks just flaked off, leaving exposed metal.  The hood was repainted, but then the same thing started happening on the front fenders and the roof.  The whole car ultimately had to be repainted at just two years old.

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My mother was stoic about the Regal, and kept it, flaws and all, for four years (my father, by contrast, ditched his last GM car, a horrifically bad 1989 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, after 18 months).  Perhaps it’s because she’d picked the Regal herself and wanted to save face.  But she certainly wasn’t sorry to see it go.  One last telling element—the resale on the Regal was terrible, with my mother’s car garnering the lowest possible wholesale value (equating to a poor condition, high mileage car with a salvage title) even though hers was very well maintained, never wrecked and only had about 30,000 miles.  No new car dealer, not even Crown Buick, wanted a used 1988 Regal coupe in Fall 1992—“Slosh” undoubtedly wound up at a second- or third-tier used car lot.

My mother’s GM10 Regal resulted in a pathetic departure for the brand in a long-time loyal Buick family: my great great grandfather had bought his first Buick in the nineteen-teens, and family members had driven them ever since.  But this Regal earned the dubious distinction of being the last GM car anyone in my family has owned.  And the GM10s earned their reputation as one of the key factors leading to the decline and fall of GM.

Additional Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1988-96 GM-10 Buick Regal – Right Car, Wrong Time

CCCCC Part 13: 1992 Cutlass Supreme – How The Mighty Have Fallen

Cohort Capsule: 1990 Pontiac Grand Prix LE – I’ve A Feeling We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

Curbside Classic: 1991 Chevrolet Lumina Euro – GM’s Deadly Sin #18 – Where’s The Light?