Classic CARmentary: 1998 Buick Park Avenue Ultra

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

This car was special to me.  The mother of my best friends growing up had a 1969 Buick Electra 225 that had been taken from their grandfather when his driving skills had deteriorated into “unsafe” territory.  Neither side of the family was wealthy, so purchasing this Buick must have meant a great deal to him.  I tried to put myself in his place during my week with the Park Avenue.

By the way, the photo above is the exact same photo that ran with the review on May 11, 1998.  Below is the version I submitted because I really liked that first part of the first paragraph, which my editor removed.

To corrupt an old Plymouth slogan, “Suddenly, it’s 1969!” Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. In 1969, Buicks were big, powerful, stylish and luxurious. Although the trend today is towards lean European sports sedans and SUVs, Buick has fortunately not forgotten what a Buick is. The 1998 Park Avenue Ultra is big, powerful, stylish and incredibly luxurious.

The Park Avenue was completely redesigned last year and is available in base form and the tested Ultra. The curvaceous styling of the previous generation is now even more dramatic. From the toothy grill to the V-shaped hood to the thick C-pillars to the shiny alloy wheels, the Park Avenue makes a dramatic statement while most cookie-cutter cars barely get out a whisper.

Slipping into the pillowy leather seats, I’m overcome with probably the same feeling my friend’s grandfather felt when he drove his brand-spanking new Electra 225 off the lot. It’s the classic middle-class “I’ve earned this!” The Ultra’s supercharged V6 does an excellent impression of the big-block Buick engines of yore and can still spin the tires from a standing start. But technology has come a long way in 30 years: traction control keeps you in check. The 4-speed automatic shifts flawlessly.

The Park Avenue Ultra oozes luxury. The list starts with all of the conveniences you’d expect, but then includes some items you may have thought were reserved for the “Grey Poupon” set: heated seats with position memory for two drivers, lighted mirrors for front AND rear passengers, moisture sense wipers that adjust their speed to conditions, front passenger climate control (to +/- five degrees) and a passenger outside mirror that tilts down when you shift into reverse so you can see the curb. GM’s On-Star road assist system is also available. Being Buick’s biggest sedan, the rear can comfortably fit three adults, and a handy pass-through is provided to the already enormous trunk.

Although the Ultra, with its tighter suspension and bigger tires, is the best-handling big-Buick thus far, it doesn’t take corners like a German sedan. But Buicks have always been straight line boulevard cruisers. The tachometer also seems out of place here.

There’s trendy, and there’s timeless. The Park Avenue falls into the latter. As their new slogan goes, “Isn’t it time for a real car?”

For more information contact 1-800-4-A-BUICK


Type:4-Door Sedan
Engine:240 horsepower, 3.8 liter V6
Transmission:4-Speed Automatic
EPA Mileage:18 city/27 highway
Tested Price:$37,965

In addition to the Electra, my friends’ parents also had a 1968 Mercury Cougar and a 1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.  Their house was a fun place to hang out.

One of my favorite aspects of this car was the MPH/KPH switch.  Instead of two sets of numbers on the speedometer, flicking the switch changes the needle to reflect one or the other.  For example, if I’m going 62 MPH and hit the switch to change to KPH, the needle will jump to 100.  So simple.  Why doesn’t every manufacturer do this?  Once I rented a Kia Sedona that came from Quebec, and, damn, that inner set of numbers is not easy to see.  I wished the Kia had a switch like the Buick.

The joke, of course, is that in the last 22 years, Buick has completely forgotten what a Buick is.  Since their best-selling car by a wide margin is the tiny Encore, so have most Americans.

Below is the Plymouth slogan to which I’m referring, which is from 1957.