The 1980s was a very dark period for design at General Motors. Building one virtually unchanged box after another, compact Chevrolets looked like fullsize Cadillacs and everything in between. The N-body Buick Skylark, despite some unique sheetmetal, shared its roofline and doors with its Pontiac and Oldsmobile siblings, and overall styling with other GM platforms such as the E-body and K-body. The 1986-1991 Skylark was boring and forgettable, which helped its sales given its primary elderly consumer base, yet hurt it in leaving little in the way of lasting impressions.
Pulling a complete 180, the 1992 redesign of the Buick Skylark was bold, daring, and distinctive, unlike any other Buick. And unlike its forgettable predecessor, it certainly did leave an impression.
By “bold, daring, and distinctive”, I am of course dancing around that fact that the 1992-1998 Buick Skylark was undeniably ugly, and one of the ugliest designs to come out of Detroit in the 1990s — not that its siblings, the Pontiac Grand Am and Oldsmobile Achieva were all that handsome either.
Alas, mere homeliness is one thing. Absolute bizarreness, akin to one who has had far too many botched augmentative cosmetic surgery procedures, is another. The Skylark clearly fell into the latter category. What’s more, is that while looks are subjective, and indeed still a very important determinant of a car’s success, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Unfortunately, from a more impartial standpoint, the Skylark’s objective qualities mostly came up short as well, making little in the way of advancement over its more stodgily-styled predecessor.
Despite all-new styling (by veteran GM stylist Wayne “Bustleback” Kady,) and sheetmetal, the Skylark was still based on the same N-body platform as its predecessor. In spite of its 9-inch increase in length, wheelbase was unchanged at 103.4 inches, making for a cabin and trunk that were no more spacious than the 1986-1991 version.
Powertrains, in the form of either the 2.3-liter Quad-4 or 3.3-liter V6, were also carryover, and most notably, the only available transmission was a 3-speed automatic, something rather antiquated next to the electronically-controlled 4-speeds in competitors. On the other hand, the Skylark GS gained standard electronic damper control, allowing the driver to adjust the suspension settings between “sport”, “auto”, or “soft” via the push of a button.
The Skylark’s one undisputed achieva-ment over its predecessor was its interior design and layout. Boasting a dramatic instrument panel design that was beautiful as well as highly functional, Skylark featured an elegant sweeping dash that blended into the door panels for the en-vogue “cockpit” look.
Analog gauges (full-instrumentation with GS models) were placed in the U-shaped cavity between the upper and lower dash, while radio and HVAC controls were placed high on a center stack angled towards the driver.
Depending on model, buyers were given the choice of either front buckets with an integrated floor console and sporty looking leather-wrapped gearshift, or a front “bench” seat with column shifter and a consolette in place of a front-center seat cushion. Unfortunately, in the name of safety and cost-cutting, the Skylark would lose its unique interior in 1996, when a plainer (and cheaper looking) dual-front airbag-equipped dashboard and door panels shared with the Oldsmobile Achieva came along.
Beyond that, changes were mostly limited over this final generation Skylark’s seven-year run. Engines were shuffled around a bit, though only the base four cylinder ever gained any power. A 4-speed automatic would be added in 1994 as standard equipment with the V6, and optional on the I4. 1996 would see stylists attempt to tone down the Skylark’s design with a softer front end, though it hardly looked any better.
The previous generation 1986-1991 Skylark, for all its boringness, anonymity, and laughable attempt at imitating the “Big Buick” look on a compact car, at least succeeded in its given mission in life as a conservative and affordable compact aimed at the extra mature, penny-pinching buyer still seeking understated Buick prestige.
The 1992-1998 Skylark, on the other hand, was a Pandora’s Box of confusion, lacking a clear mission in life. Was it trying to appeal to younger buyers? Probably. Was it also trying to retain its appeal to those old enough to remember the Roaring ’20s? Likely. Drawing attention and a new demographic of buyers typically requires something radical, and the 1992 Skylark was clearly that. Yet “radical” should not be something confused with “ugly”. While stylists had the right ideas, in execution, these ideas failed to integrate well into a design that successfully appealed to any demographic on a large scale.
1993 Skylark Custom photographed: August 2017 – Whitman, Massachusetts