Vintage Review: 1987 Buick LeSabre T-Type and Buick Riviera T-Type – Missing The Target

(first posted 4/26/2017)     During the 1980s, Consumer Guide’s Auto Test Series offered consistent, clear and comprehensive evaluations of new cars, testing a broad array of models and providing “real world” guidance to buyers.  For 1987, CG provided ample coverage of GM’s fwd E- and H-Body cars, including two coupes from Buick: a LeSabre and a Riviera.  Interestingly, both were equipped with the T-Type package, Buick’s attempt to appeal to “younger” and “sportier” buyers who might otherwise have been tempted by an import.  So, did CG feel that Buick succeeded in their mission?

Consumer Guide was certainly positioned to be a fair arbiter of strengths and weaknesses for typical buyers (as compared to car enthusiasts).  Based in Skokie, Illinois—a Chicago suburb—CG didn’t demonstrate much Detroit myopia nor the coastal import elitism.  Rather, they looked at the merits of the cars in everyday use.  Cars were subjected to city and highway driving in all weather conditions, including commuting, running errands, hauling people and cargo—not screaming around a test track on a sunny day.  Also, Consumer Guide typically acquired their test cars directly from dealers, not automaker PR fleets, so there was no special prepping involved—CG got exactly what a consumer would have, for better or worse.  Therefore, Consumer Guide’s assessments were often more grounded, if less sexy and dramatic, than conclusions from the enthusiast magazines.  Plus, unlike the buff books, CG accepted no advertising, so there was no way for any manufacturer to “buy” a more favorable review.

Thus, General Motor’s massive advertising budget would have been unable to sway the Consumer Guide’s editors as they tested the Buick T-Types.  Though GM had certainly spent marketing dollars on the T-Types through the years, trying once again to create a “performance” halo for the Buick brand, after earlier “Sport Coupe” and S-Type models had fallen flat.  The T-Type name first appeared on LeSabre and Riviera coupes in 1981, though the LeSabre T-Type initially lasted for only one model year.  In 1983, Buick went “big” with the T-Type sub-brand, offering it across a broad array of product lines, including the Skyhawk, Skylark, Century, Regal and Riviera—and in subsequent years the Somerset and Electra as well (plus the LeSabre again).

Unclear, however, was what exactly the “T” in “T-Type” represented.  It wasn’t necessarily “Turbo”—most years, “blown” engines were offered only on certain T-Types: Regal and the ’81 – ‘85 Riviera came with the 3.8 V6 Turbo standard, while ’84 – ’86 Skyhawk T-Types were available with an optional 1.8 4-cylinder Turbo.  Perhaps “T” was for “Touring,” since that term connotes a blend of ride and improved handling that could be realized (if done right) with enhanced suspension tuning.  Arguably, the most accurate use of “T” was for “Trim Package,” since that was the primary distinction of the T-Type cars—they featured blackout exterior moldings, upgraded wheels and tires, along with unique interior trim components.

Oddly, for 1987, Buick started offering a “Touring” option but dropped all of its smaller standalone T-Type models—the Skyhawk, Somerset and Century “Ts” had “Tanked.”  That didn’t prevent the brand from keeping the T-Type models for the larger Regal, Electra 4-door and (shrunken) Riviera, plus answering the question that no one was asking by reintroducing the T-Type for the LeSabre Coupe.

At least the Buick (and Olds) FWD H-Body coupes offered an attractive roofline—finally the tyranny of GM’s “formal look” with the vertical rear window had been broken.  But these were still seen as benign family cars, and the market for large 2-doors of this type was plunging, even if they were better looking than the sedans.  In addition to blackout trim and sport wheels and tires, adding the T-Type package brought a rear spoiler (!) and aggressive front air-dam (!) to the full-sized LeSabre Coupe (!!).  The net effect was akin to dressing formally for a black-tie wedding but then wearing a baseball cap and high tops—the look was jarringly incongruous.

In terms of the competitive set, Consumer Guide saw the LeSabre as targeting buyers of domestic family sedans.  Hardly a sporting bunch of cars.  So maybe that’s why the T-Type LeSabre tested offered “mushy” brakes and over-assisted power steering.  Granted, the handling was far better than the standard LeSabre fare, but was that what the market for big family coupes really wanted?  GM’s ubiquitous 3.8L V6 was praised for offering strong performance (though mileage was little better than the previous V8 B-Bodies), but the T-Type didn’t get any engine enhancements and the exact same powertrain could be had in any number of GM cars.  The fact that the test car’s motor “died” several times during CG’s evaluation period was hardly a ringing endorsement for Buick’s quality.

Inside, the LeSabre T-Type offered the same rectilinear instrument panel—seemingly inspired by the 1966 full-sized Buick design—as all other FWD LeSabre and Electra models.  “Sportiness” was provided by cramming full instrumentation into the thin horizontal opening designed for nothing more than an old-fashioned strip speedometer and gas gauge.  Oh, and there were “bucket” seats (really just a bench sliced in two) and a partial center console that did not fully extend under the dashboard.

Roominess in the LeSabre T-Type Coupe was good, but the large, awkward doors with difficult rear seat access were a drawback—little wonder full-size two door sales were dropping like a stone.  Workmanship and quality on the T-Type were nothing to brag about either—glitches and chintzy materials were noticeable, as was the aforementioned engine stalling.  Good paint couldn’t make up for the faults…  And nothing could make up for the ride quality, which was thoroughly criticized for harshness and lack of absorbency—ironic, given that the reason so many Americans loved full-sized cars was the comfort-oriented suspension tuning.

That, in a nutshell, was the problem with Buick’s LeSabre T-Type approach.  The package seemed like an afterthought add-on at odds with the fundamental characteristics of the car.  Buick simply couldn’t figure out a reasonable middle ground combining sharper handling with a compliant ride.  Pricing was also an issue, since at almost $17,000 as equipped ($36,455 adjusted), the LeSabre T-Type was pushed into competition with far more integrated, accomplished and fashionable cars.  Little wonder that the T-Type was the slowest selling of all LeSabre models—at 4,123 units it represented a mere 3% of the 154,331 LeSabres built for 1987 (137,432 sedans and just 16,899 coupes).

Surely for Buick’s flagship Riviera Coupe, all the niggling details would be sorted out on the T-Type package to create a world class Personal Luxury coupe.  Oh right, this was GM in the 1980s—we know how that turned out.  The stunted, cheap looking Riviera redesign that bowed for 1986, with the horrible Graphic Control Center that replaced most controls with a “Tron-like” computer screen, had been an unmitigated disaster.  1987 didn’t bring much in the way of improvements, but Consumer Guide tested a new Riviera T-Type anyway.

So was the T-Type package better in the Riviera?  Well, the 4-wheel disc brakes worked better than the LeSabre’s disc/drum set-up.  Like the LeSabre T-Type, the Riviera T-Type offered improved handling, but it wasn’t a refined experience (bumps could jar the car off course) and ride quality suffered.  The Riviera featured the same GM 3.8 V6 as the LeSabre, with the same propensity to die unexpectedly.  World class it wasn’t.

Inside the Riviera was a mess.  Seats were set low and were not especially comfortable.  The ride, with the T-Type package, was jarring.  The worst offender was the Graphic Control Center (GCC), which made simple operations complex, all in the name of technological “progress.”  Sadly, Buick was simply a very early pioneer in terrible electronic ergonomics that are inferior to traditional buttons.  The critique of Buick’s GCC—with listed faults including distracting, hard-to-activate “virtual” buttons and complicated menus—could easily be applied to many 2017 vehicles.

Ultimately, Consumer Guide damned the Riviera T-Type with faint praise, calling it “decent,” which was the kiss-of-death in the exclusive, expensive Personal Luxury category.  Plus, the Buick did not represent good value—the Riviera T-Type base price before options was $22,221 ($47,651 adjusted).  There were many other cars at those prices that were far better options for buyers seeking style, performance, handling and comfort.  Little wonder that only 15,233 Rivieras were sold for 1987 (a drop of 31% from the dismal 1986 results), including just 2,587 T-Types.

It was almost shocking how badly Buick lost touch with evolving buyer tastes in the 1980s.  For most of its offerings, the division clung to ultra-traditional buyers with square, old-school styling inside and out, festooned with chrome, vinyl and wire wheels, replete with soggy handling.  Perfect, perhaps, for older, conservative customers, but dangerous for an upscale brand seeking a desirable brand image with a broader cross section of affluent shoppers.  Then to compensate, in a lame attempt to attract “younger” buyers, Buick went overboard with the “sporty” T-Types, which were too firm and harsh riding, with a forced “performance” look at odds with the staid, old-fashioned interior and exterior designs.

What Buick really needed in the 1980s, but failed to deliver, was a blend of high quality style and cutting-edge engineering, combining traditional ride comfort with improved agility and handling feel—benefits increasingly on offer from imported brands.  Little wonder that by 1987 Buick had lost 7.5 percentage points market share compared to 1983–a stunning 53% drop that coincided with the T-Type years.  Plus, this came during a time when the American economy was recovering nicely from a brutal recession, car sales were up 11% and average transaction prices for new cars had increased 11% (even after being adjusted for inflation).  These were the years that conspicuous consumption came into vogue (Madonna released “Material Girl” in 1985)–in other words, this was a good time to be selling premium products.  Sadly, the brand that had once been a mainstay for affluent Americans seeking a “nice” car was losing ground fast as the 1980s wound to a close.  So perhaps the “T” in “T-Type” was for “Trouble.”

Additional Reading:

COAL: 1988 Buick LeSabre T-Type – A Young Man Buys An Old Man’s Car by Jim Klein