Curbside Classic: 1991 to 1996 Buick Park Avenue – The C Gets An A+

My 1994 Park Ave Ultra with the Gran Touring Suspension

We’ve had a few articles over the years touching on this generation of full size Buick, but nothing taking a deep dive on it from soup to nuts. Somewhat surprisingly given how automotive journalists (and owners) kvelled over it when first introduced given what a quantum leap it was over the 1985 to 1990 Buick Electra, inside and out. So with a 1996 Park Avenue Ultra added to the fleet, and having owned a 1994 Park Avenue Ultra (it was my college graduation gift back in 2011), I figured why not write it up?

1989 Buick Essence Park Avenue

Taking design cues from the 1989 Essence Park Avenue show car, the new Park Avenue (no longer an Electra) was 8 inches longer, two inches wider, and one inch taller. Wheelbase remained the same at 110 inches. With the new dimensions, Buick designers discovered flowing curves transforming the formerly formal (and somewhat stubby) style into a vehicle that looked to be in motion even when standing still. Yeah, it cribbed from the Jaguar XJ – but did it in a way that doesn’t look like a complete rip off. The front fenders switched to composite plastic to save weight – however as the slings and arrows of time were flung, the fenders would have chunks missing from them.

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Inside, Buick gave the dash a flowing look that had it merging into the doors. Optional was a new analog gauge cluster with full instrumentation and tachometer – standard was a horizontal speedo with fuel gauge in true GM fashion. A standard drivers side airbag helped with safety, along with standard Anti-Lock Brakes. Controls for the lights moved to the drivers side door with the passenger side sporting controls for the new Dual Zone Comfortemp Climate Control if equipped. Rear seat passengers gained ventilation ducts for heating and air conditioning. The Ultra trim level returned, but not the 20 way power front seats from 1990.

Jaguar-esque front end with the Buick “dollar grin” grille

Ultra owners got standard variable ratio power steering, along with limousine style rear passenger vanity mirrors and headrests. Outside, Ultra models had lower body cladding with a choice of colors to match the exterior paint. Audiophiles could choose from several restyled Delco sound systems with “Concert Sound II” available with a in dash cassette or CD player, 5 band graphic EQ, and C-QUAM AMAX AM Stereo. Touches like memory seats, Twilight Sentinel, traction control, and lamp monitors pushed the Park Ave into Cadillac Sedan deVille territory equipment wise.

Something modern, something Brougham

Under the hood, the new L27 Series 1 3800 V6 gained 5 HP for a total of 170 and torque was up 10 to 220 ft-lbs. Connected to it was a new electronically controlled 4T60E, with the new PCM coordinating shifts between the engine and transaxle. This powertrain combo gave the Park Avenue smooth V8 like power and crisp almost undetectable shifts. Fuel economy was up to 18 city/25 highway under the old EPA estimates, better than the outgoing Electra. For those who wanted the Park Ave to handle the curves a bit better, an optional Gran Touring Suspension replaced the standard Dynaride deflected disc setup and included 16 inch cast aluminum wheels.

Series II Supercharged 3800

MotorWeek tested a 1991 Park Avenue Ultra, and the only criticism was the tail lights and somewhat confusing climate control buttons. Of course Mr. Davis was digging the complete instrumentation – but the rest of the restyle received a thumbs up as well. 117,075 Park Avenues found homes for the inaugural year, more than double the outgoing Electra.

Other automotive journalists were just as effusive with praise, as this 1991 commercial shows.

1992 brought only slight tweaks to the interior & exterior – but a big boost under the hood of Ultra models. A 1 liter Eaton supercharger was strapped to the intake of the 3800 to create the L67 Supercharged 3800. Putting out 205 HP (slightly more than the 4.9 V8 in sister deVille), this engine helped give the Park Avenue some real grunt. A few 1991 Park Avenue Ultras were equipped with this motor, but most got the NA 3800. 0-60 time with the L67 dropped to 8.4 seconds from an already decent 9.0. Sales dropped to 63,390 with the introduction of the similarly styled but cheaper LeSabre – the restyled LeSabre found 161,736 buyers that year, up from 90,756.

My 1994 Park Ave Ultra with the Gran Touring Suspension and 16 inch wheels

1993 was more of the same, with only the optional instrument cluster getting a tweak with change in the scale of the tach (going from x10 to x100). Automatic Ride Control was available as an option – it came with computer controlled shocks that had a three position orifice to adjust damping. It was unavailable on Gran Touring equipped cars, or if you opted for the trailer towing package. The Series 1 3800 received some improvements the increased torque and overall efficiency…but also was the debut of the composite intake manifold that could be troublesome at times. Sales slipped to 55,210, with the LeSabre selling 143,466. The competition kept getting stronger, both domestically and foreign. Chrysler released the new Concorde with the striking “cab forward” design and Lexus’s redesigned ES300 was gaining steam in its second year taking square aim at Buick & Oldsmobiles upper middle class target market.

A rear end treatment befitting a Buick

For 1994, the interior gained a passenger airbag that moved the glove box to the lower half of the dash, as well as a redesigned steering wheel that allowed for remote control of the radio and temperature. Ultra models gained 20 HP for a total of 225 thanks to using epoxy coated supercharger rotors to improve efficiency, a larger supercharger inlet and throttle body, and a different pully. Ultra models also had revised taillights that kept the smoked look, but deleted the chrome strip in the middle. Air conditioning was now CFC free thanks to R-134A refrigerant. Sales rebounded to 64,665, even with sister division Cadillac releasing an all new Sedan Deville. Assembly moved from Wentzville MO back to Buick City in Flint Michigan alongside the LeSabre.

Instead of Vigilight, this panel monitored the circuit for blown bulbs

1995 brought simpler climate controls for the optional ComforTemp electronic system, and the new Buick radios that had larger display, buttons, and knobs – but ditched the 5 band EQ and AM Stereo in favor of EQ presets on higher end models, and for the first time an optional all in one CD & cassette unit was available in the dash. Under the hood, the Series II 3800 made its debut with 205 HP and 230 lb⋅ft, better fuel economy, and it was 26 lb lighter overall in the process. Sales slipped only slightly to 62,994.

Optional full instrumentation – standard on Ultra

The swan song year for this generation finally came in 1996 – but not before the Ultra received the updated Series II Supercharged 3800 pumping out 240 HP and 280 lb⋅ft of torque. Changes from the Series I included a larger throttle body and different fuel injectors, different cylinder heads, different lower intake manifold and pistons, and a lower compression ratio (8.5:1 vs 9.4:1). Inside, the chrome trim for the gas and brake pedals was removed. OBD2 came along for the ride, but sales slipped further to 46,953. For 1997, the styling evolved with a switch to the G Body – but the LeSabre would continue on with more of the same until 1999.

Ultra Park Avenue’s came with rear headrests and the lighted vanity mirrors

Which makes this 1996 Park Avenue Ultra even more of a unicorn – I was looking for a 97-05 Regal, but couldn’t find anything in Western PA that wasn’t a pile of rust. One evening the Craigslist ad for this came up in a GM FWD Facebook group, and I reached out to the seller to take a look. The car isn’t perfect, but it had 59k miles on the odometer – and wasn’t a rustbucket! The tires needed to be replaced, but the seller said he did some work on the car – replaced two of the 3 coil packs, and new front pads. Unfortunately, there was water leaking into the trunk from a shoddy aftermarket power antenna install, the taillights were collecting water due to flakey seals, the power trunk pulldown was inoperable, and it was missing the remote keyless entry fob. But the analytical side of my brain once again went on vacation, and I paid the guy his asking price of $4,995. But before I took delivery, I had the tires replaced – I’m not a fan of blackwalls on a GM luxoboat, but they kind of work given the paint treatment and lower body cladding, and the price was right.

Another reminder you shelled out the big bucks for a Big Buick

The interior isn’t in mint shape with the headliner coming down in spots, but the leather is in great shape, the dash isn’t cracked, and the plastichrome hasn’t peeled off the switches. And the heated seats still work (my wife’s favorite feature). I wish GM had put full instrumentation in more of their upper crust vehicles, as the gauge cluster in this car is one of the best. Not a fan of the spread out warning lights on the upper dash, but they work.

A bit more work to swap the radio on this C body than the Cadillac, but worth it

For a big guy like me (6 foot, 300 lbs), these cars are great for road trips – no big center console to block spreading out on the highway. Even the back seat isn’t uncomfortable! Repairs haven’t been too bad, aside from replacing the gas tank (it rusted and was leaking when full), new brake rotors, OEM power antenna, trunk pulldown motor, and I swapped out the head unit myself for an aftermarket one.

Subtle badging only on the Ultra

Despite the reputation for having a floaty boaty ride, even the Dynaride equipped Park Avenue’s handled decently given their mission – it’s not a BMW, but it won’t embarrass itself either. The Gran Touring Suspension in my 1994 with the bigger tires handled better without much sacrifice in ride quality. In 1995, Popular Mechanics published an owners report – not surprisingly, the ownership base was over 65 and had mostly been Buick owners before.

This unfortunately was not the image that Buick wanted to portray – they believed the Park Avenue was for young successful entrepreneurs considering the imports…not the Early Bird Special set that had been motoring in Electras since the Nixon years.

Straight line performance is wonderful – mash the skinny pedal and that Supercharged 3800 will have you going at whatever speed you desire in no time. Passing is a breeze – and despite having less HP and torque than the LT1 in the Fleetwood, the lighter weight makes it scoot quicker. Driving this car never fails to put a smile on my face, and I find myself taking the long way home just to enjoy the ride. My Grandma Zelpha and Pappy Ron had a early 80’s LeSabre coupe, and Grandma Z always remarked that it was an “easy driving car” – I guess that taste runs in the family, as I do love these cars. They later traded a late 80’s Cutlass Ciera on a 1993 Olds 88 Royale – so I would like to think Gram would have enjoyed this car as she did the Olds. Sadly she passed away before getting to go for a ride, but I hear her voice when I get behind the wheel, or anytime a Tom Jones song comes on the radio.

The little badge with the big horsepower boost

While no hybrid, on a road trip from Pittsburgh to NJ and back we averaged 25 MPG, and that was with the haul from ShopRite in the trunk doing 80 most of the way. Filling it up, even with premium, is way less painful on the wallet than the Fleetwood. There is a cutout where if you don’t have your foot in it, the supercharger is bypassed to help with economy.

Long, flowing lines translate to aerodynamics – and a much nice look

Buick aimed these cars at Baby Boomers, while trying to keep the Greatest Generation buyers satisfied. They ended up only succeeding on the latter point, I think these cars are still the best C cars from the GM middle trio…and in some ways, better than the C Sedan/Coupe deVille. As for why sales weren’t stronger, I think that Buick had too many similar sedans chasing the same consumers – to say nothing of the other GM divisions. Traditionalists would go for the cheaper, less technologically advanced (but physically larger) Roadmaster sedan – that was good for 22k-59k sales per year from 1992 to 1996. Those who wanted full size comfort but not the glitz would get the LeSabre – and given how it was the best selling full size sedan for a time, I’m sure that some of those sales came at the expense of the Park Avenue.

But that doesn’t diminish how much I love this car, and the values it stands for. For a time, “The Great American Road Belongs to Buick” slogan had a car to back it up – and this was it.