(first posted 12/15/2015) All cars carry with them a message that describes their stereotypical owners. Toyota Corolla – “I need an affordable, dependable car to get from point A to point B”. Volvo XC70 – “I’m an upper-middle class parent with too much class for an SUV or minivan”. Nissan Maxima – “I think this car is sporty and drive like a complete, utter maniac.”
But the Buick Century?
Well for starters, it should also be noted that these messages tend to change over time, as the vehicles age and leave their original owners. When new, the Buick Century’s message was clearly and simply, “I’m a senior citizen”. From personal observation, nearly every Century I saw while this generation was still being produced was driven by someone over the age of 65. And I don’t mean that in any negative light, it’s just a fact.
Of course, over time these messages are subject to change as cars take on new owners. With this generation Century becoming ever cheap wheels, it’s taken on a new group of owners who are predominately under the age of 25. Due to this, the Century’s message is slowly developing into “This to be my grandma’s car”. But that’s irrelevant to the scope of this article.
Despite it becoming a common car in high school parking lots, the large majority of Centurys I see on the road today are still indeed driven by senior citizens. In many cases they are likely the original owners too. So what is/was it about the Century that’s made it so popular with those in their golden years?
Well, for starters just look at it. Its styling is an innocuous blend of gentle curves, soft ovals, and a single beltline flowing from stem to stern. Simple lower bodyside moldings and thin strips of chrome were the vehicle’s only ornamentation, with plain looking wheel covers standard. Inoffensive and unexciting was the name of the game, and the Century was successfully as inoffensive and unexciting as a standard 8.5 x 11-inch piece of white copy paper, just the way its buyers liked it.
Just as its boxy predecessor was highly generic among ’80s cars, the 1997 Century was supremely generic among late-’90s sedans. Quite frankly, the 1997 Century broke such little ground, if any, that it easily could’ve passed as a 1992.
This was probably for the best however, as anything too radical might have given cardiac episodes to owners so used to the old Century, which had changed little in 15 years. I’ll bet they weren’t at all troubled by the fact that the last 2005 to roll of the assembly line looked just the same as it did almost a decade earlier.
Inside, things were just as bland. A straightforward and simple dash featured soft curves much like the exterior. Along with monotonous colored plastic somewhat unusually devoid of any wood-tone accent trim, it ensured that nothing would jump out and startle any drivers or passengers.
A large speedometer was placed in the very center of the instrument cluster, flanked by fuel and oil temperature gauges. A signal of the Century’s positioning, no tachometer was included. Controls for the radio and climate control were clear and straightforward, even if they were a bit of a reach.
Wide, flat bottomed seats made for easy entry/exit and offered plenty of cushioning for around town motoring. Power window buttons were extra large and the controls for the available power seats were placed on the door for easy view and access. And yes, an all-burgundy interior was still offered for the first several years of production, though most Centurys typically came in this car’s sterilizing taupe.
Equipped quite reasonably even in base Custom form, the list of standard features and safety equipment included air conditioning, power windows, power locks, remote keyless entry, lighted vanity mirrors, dual front airbags, daytime running lights, and anti-lock brakes. Add to that a soft suspension, triple door seals, variable-assisted power steering for easier parking lot maneuvers, large buttons for radio and climate controls, a bench seat with column shifter, a not particularly lively V6, and the Century was the perfect match for the stereotypical driver eligible for Medicare.
As I’m describing this car, one word keeps ringing in my ear that overwhelming sums up the 1997-2005 Buick Century: Numb. The fact that this one is painted that all too common late-90s/early-00s GM light beige makes that word even more fitting. No lie, I saw four more beige Centurys the same day I photographed this car.
But for this car is numb necessarily a bad thing? After all, Buick was giving its demographic what they wanted. Over its 9-year run, Buick sold over 1 million examples of this generation Century, and with a majority of them going to private customers, there was clearly a market. But just like strong ticket sales reveal nothing about how good a movie actually is (i.e. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), looking exclusively at unit sales tells nothing about a car’s actual merits. Plenty of people eat at Taco Bell, not because it’s good but because it’s cheap and familiar to them.
Additionally, selling a car like the Century and keeping it around for so long did no favors for Buick in terms of brand image and enticing new, younger buyers. As evidenced by many cars today, even Buicks, vehicles can indeed be geared towards older folks without being duller than watching paint dry.
In any event, the more alarming issue at the time of the Century’s launch was sitting just a few feet away from it on showroom floors. The only AA-body nameplate kept around by 1997, the Century now rode on the Regal’s W-body. But the 1997 Century and Regal shared more than just their chassis, they now shared the entirely same sheet metal and interior.
Apart from less exterior chrome, a more aggressive front fascia, and cheesy fake wood trim and bucket seats with a console shifter on the inside, there was little to visually distinguish the two from one another. The Regal did feature a firmer suspension, greater content, and choice of two more powerful engines, but with the same cheap interior materials and identical looks inside and out, it was hard to justify the Regal’s price premium. Sales of the Regal were expectedly far lower.
Regardless of their identicalness, the fact the GM gave each of these cars virtually no attention in almost a decade soon became the more troubling issue. Given how well the Century was selling, yielding substantial returns on its investment, it would’ve been prudent of GM to give it some meaningful updates. Instead, GM did just the opposite and eliminated trim levels and certain features to allow for fewer possible configurations. They even started charging customers $600 extra if they wanted anti-lock brakes.
With Century owners getting on in their years, driving less, and thus not needing to buy a new car, the Century was doing nothing to gain any new conquest buyers. Those who were looking to replace their Century either continued holding out hope for a new model or got sick of waiting and bought a more competitive, more modern car elsewhere. From 2002 to 2009 Buick sales continuously decreased from over 430,000 in 2002 to under 103,000 by 2009, despite the addition of an SUV, crossover, and minivan. Long ago, many may have aspired to own a Buick, but with cars like this, that was no longer.
In GM’s defense, maybe management even forgot they were still making the Century. Personally, I know by 2005 I did. The 1997-2005 Century was, and continues to be one of those cars that just blends in with the scenery. There are still plenty around, but you’d never know unless you’re actively looking out for one. They’re just kind of “there”. The fact that it’s near impossible to distinguish a ’97 model from an ’05 makes this numbness and ambiguity even stronger.
Buick would finally get around to replacing the Century and Regal (which would live on for even longer in China), with this. A car that once again looked and felt like it had already come out five years earlier. The less said about the 2005 LaCrosse though, the better.