(first posted 6/7/2016) While General Motors has launched a new Buick Verano in China, the line is being withdrawn from the North American lineup. It had been the first compact Buick since this, the 1992-98 Skylark, which had also been discontinued without a direct replacement. But while the conclusion of each car’s story is the same, the narrative is quite different.
The Verano has put the good fight to premium compacts like the Acura ILX, offering capable dynamics, impressive levels of refinement, an attractive and high-quality interior, a wealth of luxury features, and an optional 250-hp turbocharged engine. All of this is wrapped in handsome if somewhat anonymous styling.
The final Skylark sedan and coupe, conversely, had quite radical styling. Designed by Wayne Kady, the 1992 Skylark initially debuted with one of the most prominent automotive beaks since the 1970-71 Ford Thunderbird. This was a marked departure from the previous three generations of Skylark, which generally sought to ease traditional large-car consumers into a smaller package by applying traditional design cues, as seen on the larger LeSabre and Regal, like formal rooflines and large taillights.
The Skylark’s design may have polarized opinions, but GM had strongly recommitted to establishing discrete design languages for their brands. This was after receiving criticism during the 1980s for lineups full of seemingly identical vehicles. Nowhere was this effort to differentiate more apparent than in the N-Body compacts: Skylark, Oldsmobile Achieva and Pontiac Grand Am. The Pontiac was rounded and shovel-nosed with aggressive, squinting headlights; the Achieva was more upright, with echoes of the larger Ninety-Eight; and, rather bizarrely, the Buick was the boldest.
The Skylark looked little like other contemporary Buicks, something its designer acknowledged, although the grille was said to resemble that of the 1939 Buick. The Skylark’s body was described as a wedge shape enhanced with curves and had a drag coefficient of just 0.32; Kady bragged it didn’t have a single flat panel. This was echoed in the interior, with a center stack sharply angled to the driver but a plethora of curves and intriguing lines.
The division had long had a reputation for skewing older but the Skylark was marketed towards women in their 40s, perhaps a tacit acknowledgement the brand needed some younger blood and also that this distinctive new design might not appeal to Buick’s more traditional consumers.
It wasn’t just a bold new design that was new to the Skylark line. The 1992 also introduced the Skylark’s first electronically adjustable shock absorbers, controlled by buttons on the dash and allowing the driver to toggle between normal, firmer or “touring” settings. The technology was nothing new but it was quite a change from Skylarks of old.
Alas, the rest wasn’t. For all the drama about the interior and exterior and despite a 9-inch increase in length, the Skylark still rode an existing platform architecture with the same chassis dimensions as its predecessor: a 103.4-inch wheelbase with front/rear track of 55.6 and 55.2 inches, respectively. Suspension design was MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam at the rear. The new N-Body triplets now shared their floorpan, inner structure and suspension with the L-Body Chevrolet Corsica and Beretta, but the N-Body platform designation remained.
So, the new N-Body was simply using 5-year-old hand-me-downs. The same was true for its engines. The base engine was GM’s noisy 2.3 Quad 4, in this application producing 115 hp at 5200 rpm and 140 ft-lbs at 3200 rpm. For an extra few hundred dollars, you could opt for a 3.3 V6 with 160 hp at 5200 rpm and 185 ft-lbs at a much lower 2000 rpm. Unfortunately, the only transmission available was a three-speed automatic when most rivals now offered a four-speed.
Another example of cost-cutting was the absence of airbags. Unlike many rivals, the Skylark had standard anti-lock brakes – a laudable inclusion in a time when many rivals lacked this important safety feature – but with no airbags, Skylarks were instead saddled with frustrating passive safety belts. There were also some other deficiencies that may have turned off potential consumers, like doors that locked upon driving but didn’t automatically unlock when the car was put in park, rear cabin doors that didn’t open wide enough for easy access, and an oversize steering wheel which obscured some of the instruments. And despite its standard ABS, the rear brakes on Skylarks remained drums.
Handling was competent and in fact nicely buttoned down in the Gran Sport with its 16-inch Goodyear Eagle GAs and adjustable suspension. Unsurprisingly, the Skylarks sent to press fleets were generally Gran Sport models which came standard with the more powerful, refined V6, touring suspension and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. But these models cost a cool $2k more than lesser Skylarks and were not representative of how most Skylarks were specified.
With the 1992 redesign, Buick had missed the mark on what was really needed. The Skylark lacked the refinement and build quality of its Japanese rivals. It countered with outlandish styling – despite the conservative lines of top sellers like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry – but this proved to dog sales.
In 1991, the last year of the previous generation, Buick shifted 77,340 Skylarks. For 1992, sales slumped to 60,646. The hike in price was arguably the biggest factor in this decline, as base MSRP jumped by almost $3,000. But a reduced base price didn’t help for the Skylark’s sophomore season, sales staying flat. As the decade wore on, Skylark sales gradually declined. The most popular trim by far was the base sedan, which accounted for nearly 80% of total Skylark sales in some years. The flagship Gran Sport, in contrast, was lucky to sell 2,000 units a year. Meanwhile, Pontiac was building around 250,000 Grand Ams most years.
Although the Skylark had arrived somewhat overstyled and underdone, GM took steps to fix some of its failings. For 1993, a new base model was offered with an MSRP around $500 cheaper. The following year, a four-speed automatic transmission and a driver’s airbag belatedly arrived. The four-speed automatic was optional on the four-cylinder and standard with the V6, now a 3.1 mill which lost 5 horses but gained 2-3 mpg and more refinement. And the car would finally unlock when put in ‘park’.
To help coax shoppers away from imports, value-priced editions of the Skylark were offered that bundled niceties like air-conditioning and cruise control at a reduced price. At launch, the Skylark had been priced right against the Honda Accord. As the Japanese raised their MSRPs, however, the Skylark became a better value; a well-equipped Skylark cost roughly the same as a base Accord, Camry or 626.
The rear suspension was revised in 1995 with a new, tubular axle for a better ride. But the biggest changes would arrive in 1996, the year of the featured car. The beak was removed and a more conservative, LeSabre-esque fascia added. The wedgy lines aft of the nose remained, however.
The thrashy Quad 4 was also replaced with GM’s 16-valve Twin Cam four-cylinder with balance shafts, displacing 2.4 liters and producing 150 hp at 5,600 rpm and 155 ft-lbs of torque at 4,400 rpm. The V6 still had the edge in torque but the gulf in refinement and power had been dramatically reduced in one fell swoop. The antiquated three-speed was also finally put out to pasture.
Inside, there was a more conventional dashboard – shared with the Oldsmobile Achieva and very similar to a vast number of contemporary GM models – that featured dual airbags. Traction control was another new safety feature.
The Skylark was sadly another example of one of the old GM’s two preferred ways to inadvertently sabotage a product. With some of their lines, they would release a new model, deprive it of meaningful updates, strip it of features to cut costs and then drag out the product cycle for as long as possible. The Skylark, however, followed the Fiero Method of Product Mismanagement: release a car half-baked, slowly fix everything that was wrong with it, and then dump it before people even realize.
By the end of its run, Skylark sales had dwindled and many of those were to fleets. For 1998, the Skylark was sold only as a lone four-cylinder sedan and only to fleets. Although the new generation of N-Bodies finally arrived in 1998, three years after originally scheduled, there would be no Buick compact.
Buick had managed to fix almost everything wrong with its junior model but it was too little, too late. Their recently revealed plans to axe the Verano may seem like another ignominious withdrawal but it actually reveals three ways General Motors has improved. Firstly, the Verano has been on the market since only 2012, a much shorter product cycle than in the days of the Skylark. Secondly, the fabulously successful model that has been eating into the Verano’s market share is a trendy, fashionable crossover (the Encore) and not a decrepit, decade-old family sedan (the A-Body Century). Finally, and most importantly, although the Skylark had become a decent compact by the end of its run, GM managed with the Verano to do something it had so often struggled with in the past. It got the car right at launch.
Featured car photographed at the New York State Capitol in Albany on April 29, 2014.