(first posted 5/13/2015) When looking at this car, I’m reminded of the theme song from the long-forgotten ’90s sitcom, Step by Step. Basically a slightly less sugarcoated ’90s update of the Brady Bunch premise staring Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy, the last line from the show’s catchy theme song was “We’ll make it better, the second time around”. Now as often as that line applies to the automotive industry, in reality it’s not always the truth. One of those cars that comes to mind is the second generation Buick Park Avenue.
After sixteen years as the top trim level of Buick’s flagship Electra (1985-86 model pictured), in 1991 the Park Avenue became a full-fledged model of its own, effectively replacing the former altogether. And what a breath of fresh air it was.
Heavily borrowing its lines from the 1989 Park Avenue Essence concept car, the Park Avenue ditched the outdated straight edged and sharp lined “sheer look” for gracefully flowing curves and soft, elegant angles. Ten extra inches of length did wonders for its balanced proportions and silhouette.
The look was exciting enough to draw considerable praise, yet conservative enough to still please the average Buick buyer. With the supercharged version of Buick’s rock solid 3800-Series V6 available, the Park Avenue Ultra was also a capable performer as far as large American sedans went.
Additionally, interior quality and appearance were good, and unlike its mechanically related Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight sibling, exterior trim didn’t fall off after a few years.
After six years with relatively few changes, the Park Avenue received its first and only refresh. While the 1997 Park Avenue was undoubtedly new, was it a better car than the original?
On the positive side, Buick’s now largest vehicle continued to offer the copious amounts of room, comfort, and premium features buyers came to expect. Space was actually up, thanks to a three-inch longer wheelbase, and while seats offered more ergonomic support, they were still living room-chair cushy. The 1997 Park Avenue was also the first vehicle to feature GM’s odd seat-mounted shoulder belts that the automaker tried out for a few years before giving up on.
Moving to the Aurora and Riviera’s G-platform provided the new Park Avenue’s body with greater structural rigidity, and lighter-weight aluminum was used for the suspension and hood. Power was also up on both versions of the 3800 Series II engines. The base Park Avenue’s naturally aspirated V6 now made 205 horsepower and 230 lb.-ft. of torque and the Ultra’s supercharged V6 was up to 240 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque.
But whatever incremental improvements the 1997 Park Avenue may have presented seemed to be offset by any lack of development in the styling department. In what could only be described as evolutionary at best, the second generation Park Avenue retained the overall shape and design of the first, only adding slightly more curvature to the roof-line and hood.
An evolutionary approach is perfectly acceptable for a car like the Park Avenue, but overly numbing and generic, the 1997 Park Avenue was already looking quite outdated upon arrival, and failed to enhance the styling of the original in any way.
In fact, the handsome looks of its predecessor were largely diminished by its new face, where over-sized clear-lens headlights and a rounder waterfall grille seemed to emulate a goofy grin. This look was only enhanced by the Ultra’s updated grille in 2003. Maybe it was supposed to be some sort of tribute to Buick’s odd faces of the past?
Going beyond the front revealed rather cheap-looking plasticy lower body cladding that looked out of place on a car of the Park Avenue’s stature. More bulbous sheet metal and bumpers tended to give the car a fattened, out of shape appearance when compared to the original.
Things were a little better out back, where the very blunt, upright trunk was retained. Taillight design was also carryover, although they now exhibited an elegant “jeweled” look.
Moving inside, things were equally unexciting. Borrowing much of the ’95 Riviera’s hard surfaces and overall sterility, the interior was a parsimonious plastic palace that lacked the premium and stately look of its predecessor. Ultras did add real wood trim, though it didn’t appear that way to the untrained eye. Objectively speaking however, it’s likely most buyers weren’t as concerned with instrument panel fit and finish, as they were that the seats were comfy, the cabin was quiet, and the stereo buttons were big. In these areas, the Park Avenue delivered with gusto.
You may notice that I’ve blurred out the license plate number on this car, something I normally don’t bother to do. Despite several years at this now, I still do tend to get a bit uneasy photographing cars when there are a lot of people around, though I rarely ever get any trouble. This car was parked around the corner from my office, and I shot a few pictures on my way to get lunch, and then a few more on my way back. As I was taking a few more the second time, a woman who must have seen me before came up to me and rather bitchily said, “So you’re the weirdo who’s been taking pictures of that car!”.
Without even a pause I replied, “My grandfather used to own one exactly like it and I wanted to show him some pictures”. Obviously having someplace super important to be, Madame Judgmental kept on walking without even turning a head to acknowledge my response to her rude name calling. It honestly didn’t even phase me as much as when way friendlier people have approached me and asked what I was doing, but it nonetheless left an uncomfortable feeling with me. This car also had vanity plates, so just to put my own mind at ease I’ve blurred them out.
Of course as many of you know, my grandfather the Oldsmobile man never owned a Buick Park Avenue. He did actually drive one for a week circa-2000 as a loaner, and I remember him being very in love with it and sad when he had to give it back. Had he outlived Oldsmobile’s demise, I’m fairly certain that he would’ve have traded his ’97 Eighty-Eight in for some large Buick sedan. My great-aunt Mary owned a Park Avenue of this generation however, trading it in for one of the final Cadillac DeVilles back in 2005, a car she drives to this day.
Park Avenue sales remained steady for the first three years of this generation, but beginning with the year 2000, began falling off at a rapid rate. Part of the problem was the LeSabre. Nearly the same size, with the same powertrain as non-Ultra Park Avenues, and an interior that really wasn’t much different in appearance or levels of luxury, the LeSabre undercut the Park Avenue by anywhere from $6,000-$10,000 depending on year and model.
Of course, the Park Avenue was easily better looking than the frumpier LeSabre, and it could be had with supercharged V6 power. But by the time one moved up to the supercharged Park Avenue Ultra, they were dangerously close to Cadillac DeVille territory.
Larger, more luxurious, and with standard V8 power, the more prestigious Cadillac DeVille began at only several thousand dollars more than the Park Avenue Ultra, in some years as little as $1,140.
Also occupying this price field was the Oldsmobile Aurora. Although more of a sports sedan with better driving dynamics, firmer suspension, and bucket seats, even the slightly smaller second generation was arguably a much more attractive design with a higher-quality interior. With more powerful V6 and V8 engines, the Aurora also boasted a greater list of tech options including an in-dash navigation system.
That being said, there still was a definite niche for the Buick Park Avenue in GM’s full-size sedan lineup, and the Park Avenue certainly delivered on its promises as a large and comfortable, premium sedan. By no means was it sporty, and thankfully it didn’t claim to be so. Unfortunately, the demand for cars of this genre was rapidly dwindling. Aging boomers who began buying Accords and Camrys in the 1980s continued to buy Accords and Camrys (which were conveniently growing in size and comfort) even in their advancing years. They days of the big American comfy cruiser as the automatic choice of vehicle for retired life were over.
These traditional virtues were reflected in all Buicks of the late-1990s and early-2000s, but for Buick’s flagship, a better effort and continued investment should have been put forth. It may have been adequate to please the typical Buick senior citizen buyer, but despite advertisements featuring their grandchildren, the Park Avenue wasn’t bringing in any younger (and by “younger” I mean middle-aged) buyers to Buick showrooms. And by catering primarily to the Bengay-applying, walker-using, Life Alert-wearing crowd, Buick was faced with an ever diminishing clientele.
With the exception of the lackluster Rendezvous CUV and Rainier SUV, and a equally apathetic 2000 LeSabre, the entire Buick brand was largely frozen in time from the late-1990s to mid-2000s. If the Park Avenue already looked dated in 1997, it was archaic by 2005 when it quietly passed after a lengthy nine years of suffering from neglect. By that point, sales had gone from over 60,000 in 1997 to just a mere 9,000 units in 2005.
Both the Park Avenue and LeSabre would be succeeded by the 2006-2011 Lucerne. While it was not perfect, and received much of the same hate from critics as the Park Avenue, the Lucerne successfully retained those big Buick hallmarks of size, comfort, and elegance, while looking a hell of a lot better and relevant.