(first posted 12/20/2015) Brendan’s recent post on the second generation of the FWD Buick Century generated a surprising amount of spirited discussion for such a sleepy car. So how does our perspective today on this Buick, as well as our assessment of its competitors, compare with the reviews these cars received when they were first introduced? Let’s take a look at the Consumer Guide Auto Series from 1997 to see what they had to say.
Consumer Guide offered straightforward, relatively unbiased feedback on new cars to assist normal consumers with their everyday transportation needs. The Consumer Guide staff road tested most of the new cars available on the market, and also looked at relevant real world data on reliability, durability and total cost of ownership in developing their rankings. They did not accept advertising and for the most part sourced their cars from dealers rather than using manufacturer-prepped vehicles. Also, unlike the car enthusiast magazines who emphasized performance and handling more highly than the average consumer would, Consumer guide focused more on how the cars would meet the buyer’s requirements for mundane daily use.
Consumer Guide also put together lists of cars that would likely be crossed-shopped for each model, helping consumers to compare competing products. They rated cars based on 16 criteria including performance, accommodations, workmanship and value. In their Auto Test Annual 1997 Edition, they drove the new Century at a press preview, and based their preliminary rankings on that car.
The editors felt the car was well updated (finally, after 15 model years!), though not class leading. Performance was adequate, but the overall feel of the car was very, very soft. For an all-new car, it was very old-school. CG noted that it came across as a less expensive LeSabre competitor. With a base price of $17,845 ($26,388 adjusted for today’s prices), the Century Custom handily undercut the LeSabre Custom, which was priced at $22,015 ($32,554 adjusted). That $4,170 ($6,166 adjusted) savings was a boon for the buyer, but bad for GM’s bottom line.
So then, how did the new Century stack up against some of the key competitors listed by CG. Let’s look to their extensive Auto Test results to see the reviews, starting with the bargain-priced mid sized car from sister division Chevrolet, which was also newly updated that year.
The Malibu was based on the tried-and-true N-body platform, compared with the circa-1988 model year W-body platform used by the updated Century. Dimensionally, however, they were pretty close, with the Buick being a bit longer, wider and heavier, though both cars received the same rankings for interior accommodations. According to the CG test scores compiled by the editors, the Malibu topped the Century by two points, and the write-up on the Malibu was pretty positive. Also in the Malibu’s favor was aggressively low pricing for a mid size car, with the base Malibu going out the door for $15,470 ($22,875 adjusted), while the V6 equipped LS model, running the same GM corporate 3.1 OHV V6 as the Century, cost $18,190 ($26,898 adjusted). So, two different-but-the-same mid size sedans from two different divisions, targeting the same mid size value shoppers for essentially the same V6 price. Way to go GM!
Over at the rejuvenated Chrysler Corporation, the Cirrus was entering its 4th model year but was still receiving accolades. The Chrysler sedan was noted for its striking cab forward design and roomy interior, and got some points knocked off for lack of refinement is some areas. Still, it was a Recommended Buy and well priced at $18,160 ($26,854 adjusted), and an additional $800 ($1,183 adjusted) got you a 2.5L V6.
Perhaps in response to the dramatically styled Chrysler LH cars introduced for model year 1992, Ford felt they needed to do something really wild for their Taurus redesign. The “ovoid wonder,” aka the 1996 generation Ford Taurus, was the result.
The 1997 Taurus was unchanged for its second year on the market, and was well liked by Consumer Guide (they made no mention of the controversial styling). It earned the coveted Best Buy rating, and was generally seen to be a modern, fun-to-drive sedan. The 3.0L OHV V6 didn’t do the Ford any favors, as it was seen as coarse and unrefined, but ranked on par with GM’s similarly old-school 3.1L OVH V6. The Taurus G model stickered for $17,995 ($26,609 adjusted), before discounts, and Ford was pushing aggressively in 1997 to keep the Taurus at the top of the sales charts.
The 1997 Honda Accord was in the final year of its circa-1994 generation (note: Honda had offered 4 generations of Accord during the 15 years of unchanged Century production, and an all-new Accord was set to arrive for 1998). The Accord was awarded CG’s Best Buy, and was praised for its refinement, handling, efficiency and thoughtful design. Pricing was on the premium side for the segment, with 2.2L OHC 4-cylinder automatic LX sedans selling for $18,990 ($28,081 adjusted), while the 2.7L OHC V6 automatic LX was $22,500 ($33,271 adjusted). Still, given Honda’s traditionally strong resale value, the total cost of ownership was quite competitive.
Honda’s arch-rival, the Toyota Camry, was all-new for 1997 and in typical Toyota fashion was thoroughly updated and improved (Note: this was the 4th all-new Camry to hit the market since the FWD Century debuted in 1982). CG was impressed with the new design, calling it a model of refinement and awarding it a Best Buy rating. While the Accord tended to feel a bit sportier, the Camry seemed very much geared for traditional American tastes, with a soft ride, roomy interior and benign handling—just the ticket for converting domestic buyers. All this goodness didn’t come cheap, as the 2.2L OHC 4-cylinder automatic Camry LE cost $19,868 ($29,379 adjusted), while ordering the 3.0L OHC V6 automatic LE would set a buyer back $22,168 ($32,780 adjusted). However, like the Honda, the Toyota offered stellar resale value and rock solid reliability, making the ownership proposition pretty compelling over the longer-term.
As the 1997 mid size segment buyer moved up the price ladder into the range of the Camry V6, even more model choices became available, including from GM. While Consumer Guide did not conduct a road test of the Century’s more-expensive sister car, the Regal, it did evaluate the revamped W-body offering from Oldsmobile, the newly named Intrigue.
At this point, Oldsmobile had finally awakened to the massive exodus to the imports that the brand had endured (it only took them about 10 years to figure it out), so the updated Olds was tuned and positioned to attract import intenders. For the press preview where Consumer Guide tested the car, Olds even offered up the Nissan Maxima and Toyota Camry V6 for comparison purposes. CG’s editors were favorably impressed, as this was arguably the best of the updated W-body cars. While it carried the same corporate 3.8L OHV V6 that powered countless GM cars, the styling and driving feel were a positive step in a more contemporary and relevant direction.
The problem was, after a catastrophic decade for Oldsmobile, the brand had become pretty toxic for anyone who wasn’t an extremely loyal GM fan. The other challenge for the Intrigue was the plethora of similar sedans in Oldsmobile showrooms. For midsize cars, the buyer had to pick between the new V6 Intrigue for $20,700 ($30,610 adjusted) and the new V6 Cutlass for $17,325 (S25,619 adjusted). Alternately, there were full size cars, the 88 and the Aurora, which were dimensionally very close to the Intrigue. An 88 was $22,595 ($33,412 adjusted) with the same 3.8 V6 as the Intrigue. The luxury-class Aurora, which set the styling tone for the Intrigue, cost a whopping $35,735 ($52,842 adjusted). Sure, the Aurora had a V8, but less room inside than the “smaller” Intrigue. Which one would a befuddled Olds buyer pick—”old-school” Cutlass and 88, or “newfangled” Intrigue and Aurora? The answer, “none of the above,” would come a mere 3 years later in December 2000, when GM announced that it was shuttering the Oldsmobile Division.
Plus, by this time, the import competition was quite fierce and well established, both in the volume segments as well as in the booming near-luxury segment. The Nissan Maxima, like the car Olds had used in its press preview as a comparison for the Intrigue, was more than halfway through its 4th generation, yet Consumer Guide was still a fan.
CG’s editors labeled the Maxima a Budget Buy, as it offered the performance and amenities of more expensive cars for a very fair price. A Maxima GXE with the 3.0L DOHC V6 and automatic stickered for $23,249 ($34,379 adjusted). So for a bit more money than a mainstream sedan like the Toyota Camry, Nissan offered a desirable step up in luxury and performance. Funny, wasn’t that the strategy that the upper-middle domestic nameplates (Oldsmobile, Mercury, Buick) had deployed so successfully and profitably for so many years?
Therein lies my biggest issue with the 1997 Buick Century. By the 1990s, it was clear that the heart of the car buying market—the Baby Boomers—was moving upmarket and readily paying for more comfort and luxury, which of course had been Buick’s traditional sweet spot. But where was Buick? Offering the blandtastic Century to Ma and Pa Kettle for a bargain basement price. To this day, the lunacy of that move haunts GM, and we’re still seeing weak U.S. sales and lame, defensive brand advertising (“this isn’t your grandma’s Buick”) as a result. Plus, with cars like the 1997 Malibu, GM had more than enough offerings to appeal to the value conscious “Buy American” crowd.
But never fear, a company did take advantage of the trend for premium mid sized cars from an upscale brand and fielded a real winner. Priced at $29,900 ($44,214 adjusted) and both profitable and popular, there was a sedan that effectively cloaked corporate components from a lower priced sibling into a smooth, luxurious package. Had GM been smart, it would have been a Buick Century, but instead it was this car:
So there you have it: the perfect Best Buy for prosperous middle-aged Americans with “quiet” tastes seeking a step up in luxury and brand image. This type of car buyer had existed for decades (Baby Boomers being no different, despite their protests to the contrary) and represented a rich, long-term market well worth tapping into, which made gobs of money through the years for General Motors. But for 1997, the conservative, quick, comfortable premium-priced cars that used to be personified by Buick were instead on offer from the GM of Japan. Why, then, would you rather have a Buick, when the relentless pursuit of perfection beckoned?