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How Buick Works


Buick Skyhawk and Buick Somerset
The 1983 Buick Skyhawk faced stiff competition from Chevy and Pontiac.

Buick still peddled a subcompact Skyhawk in the '80s, though quite different from the same-named late-'70s hatch coupe. Bowing for '82, this was one of GM's five front-drive J-body models, riding a 101.2-inch-wheelbase chassis with all-coil suspension via front MacPherson struts and a rear beam axle on trailing arms. Buick wouldn't get a convertible version like Chevy and Pontiac, but did offer their two- and four-door notchback styles plus 5-door wagons from '83 and a "fasthatch" coupe from '86.

Engines were the same four-cylinder fare used by sister Js: Chevy-built overhead-valve 2.0-liter (abandoned after '87) and a Brazilian-built overhead-cam unit. The latter, initially a 1.8, was also offered as a more-potent turbocharged version from 1984; both grew to 2.0 liters for '87, after which the blown engine was cancelled. Custom and plusher Limited trim was cataloged all along.

The inevitable T Types arrived for '83 -- notchback two-doors first, then fasthatch coupes too. Styling changed little through the final '89 models save an optional hidden-headlamp nose from 1986. Coupes, turbos, and T Types were all dropped after '87 due to dwindling sales and the division's return to its more-traditional "Premium American Motorcars" thrust.

In sales, Skyhawk typically ran in the middle of the J-car pack -- behind Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac's 2000/Sunbird but ahead of Olds Firenza and Cadillac Cimarron. While none of these cars matched certain Japanese rivals for refinement, workmanship, and economy, they were at least competent and sometimes pleasant.

Skyhawk probably benefited as much from the Buick corporate badge as any design feature, but would surely have sold better without so much intramural competition. As it was, production peaked with the '84 models -- over 145,000 built. After dropping for '85, volume recovered to some 91,500 for industry banner-year '86. But that spurt was a fluke. By '89, Skyhawk sales were down below 30,000.

Much of the J-car's basic engineering appeared in the 1985 Somerset Regal, a notchback two-door heralding the arrival of GM's new N-body. Buick wasn't able to trade on the popular Regal name the way Olds did with Cutlass, so this car soon became just Somerset. Companion N-body four-doors arrived for '86 under the Skylark, finishing off the last X-body models; Somersets became Skylarks two years later.

Through 1987, Somerset/Skylark engines comprised the familiar 2.5 four (updated to "Generation II" specs that season) and extra-cost Buick 3.0 V-6. An added option for '88 was Oldsmobile's new "Quad 4," a dual-overhead-cam 2.3-liter four with four valves per cylinder, an aluminum head, and a cast-iron block. With a healthy 150 bhp even in mild initial tune, the Quad-4 promised much. But it wasn't in the same league with similar Japanese engines for smoothness, quietness, and lugging power. Buick was thus wise to retain the V-6 (unlike Pontiac, which dropped it for the '88 Grand Am).

The N-body Buick got off to a good start. Some 86,000 were built for the abbreviated debut model year, followed by nearly 138,000 of the '86s. Like Skyhawk, this was not a state-of-the-art competitor, but it kept getting better. Among the more-notable improvements was the 1989 exchange of 3.0 V-6 for the torquier 160-bhp "3300" unit. The following year brought more logical ergonomics to all Skylarks, plus a new Luxury Edition four-door and a Gran Sport coupe.

Having learned with the J-cars that too many corporate clones spoil the sales broth, GM returned to more individual styling for a trio of 1988 midsize coupes. At Buick, this new front-drive GM10 or W-body design replaced the rear-drive Regal, but retained make appearance "cues" to stand apart more clearly from the related Pontiac Grand Prix and Olds Cutlass Supreme. Significantly, wheelbase was cut just 0.6-inch from the previous Regal's, to the benefit of passenger space; base curb weight slimmed some 250 pounds and overall length by 8.4 inches, to the benefit of economy and handling.

The usual Custom and Limited versions were on hand, and a Gran Sport appearance/handling package offered front "bib" spoiler, rocker-panel skirts, black grille, aluminum road wheels, and other "Euro" touches.

All models initially carried a transverse, port-injected 2.8 Chevy V-6 of 125 bhp and four-speed overdrive automatic trans­axle, plus all-disc brakes -- uncommon in mass-market Detroiters. Equally laudable was the all-independent suspension with the expected front struts and coil springs, plus rear struts on single trailing links and dual lateral links connected by a single transverse plastic leaf spring, as on the big C/H-bodies.

Despite such technical finesse, Regal finished well-down on the midsize sales chart for 1988. The reason, said many pundits, was GM's delay in introducing planned four-door models, a style far preferred in this class.

GM remedied its mistake for 1991, and Buick added Regal sedans with the same trim levels and wheelbase as its W-body coupes. By that point, the 2.8 V-6 had been enlarged to a 3.1 with 10 more bhp, and a praise-worthy antilock braking system (ABS) was offered optionally on Limited and GS models. Despite all this, Regal sales continued to disappoint.

For more on the amazing Buick, old and new, see:

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