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How Buick Works

1997, 1998, 1999 Buicks
Updated styling and a wealth of new features contributed to the 1998 Buick Park Avenue's success.

Losing Riviera and Skylark did not seriously affect Buick business in the late '90s, which stayed fairly steady with some 400,000 or more sales each calendar year through 2000.

Timely redesigns were a big help, with 1997 a pivotal model year. Century and Regal were recast on a new corporate W-body platform shared with Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile's new midsize '98 Intrigue. Coupes were forgotten, but sedans got smooth, handsome lines on longer wheelbases that made for roomier interiors.

Century targeted the family market with six-passenger Custom and Limited models using a 3.1-liter V-6. Regal catered to luxury seekers with LS and bucket-seat GS sedans using 3.8-liter V-6s -- a 195-bhp version for LS, a hot 240-bhp supercharged version for GS, which also boasted leather upholstery, sporty styling accents, and handling-oriented Gran Touring suspension.

Centurys base-priced some $2000-$3000 less than Regals and, perhaps as a result, were far more popular, drawing well over 100,000 calendar-year sales in 1998-2000 versus 65,000-75,000 for Regal.

To its credit, Buick generally held the price line while adding features most every season. The '99 Centurys, for example, got standard traction control and a useful tire-pressure monitor, while GM's new OnStar communications system moved from optional to standard for 2001 GS Regals and Limited Centurys.

Century and Regal were good values for traditional sedan buyers. Despite few changes to an aging design, sales remained strong for the first few years of the twenty-first century. However, volume fell rapidly preceding their demise during the 2004 season.

The admirable G-platform was the basis for redesigned big Buicks, starting with 1997's Park Avenue and Park Avenue Ultra. Here, too, styling was more curvaceous, though still Buick-conservative, and interiors became more spacious thanks to a longer wheelbase (by three inches), though overall length was little changed.

Predictably, Flint's flagships offered a pile of new features, including front shoulder belts conveniently integrated with the seat, an aircraft-style head-up display projecting speed and other data onto the windshield at driver eye level, and "rain-sensing" wipers that varied intermittent sweeps according to moisture detected on the windshield.

Arriving a bit later was Cadillac's praiseworthy "StabiliTrak" electronic antiskid system, which throttled back power and/or applied brakes to individual wheels to keep you on course.

With all this, plus reasonable prices of $30,000-$35,000, Park Avenue calendar-year sales improved a healthy 44 percent in '97 and held in the 58,000-62,000 range for '98 and '99.

Buick revived a tradition with the addition of portholes to the front fenders of the 2003 Park Avenue Ultra. Last seen on '83 Electras, the portholes returned as part of Buick's 100th anniversary celebration. For its last year in 2005, all Park Avenues (not just Ultras) proudly displayed portholes. Model-year sales dwindled to just 9,363 for that final year.

LeSabre got a mild cosmetic freshening for 1997 before it, too, became a G-car. The introduction of the new LeSabre transferred production to Detroit and marked the end of Buick production in Flint, where most Buicks had been built since 1904. Buick moved its headquarters from Flint to Detroit's Renaissance Center the previous year. Thus ended nearly a century of association between Buick and Flint.

Appropriately, the redesigned 2000 models bowed in early 1999, the 40th anniversary of the LeSabre nameplate -- on production Buicks, that is. Interior room improved via a longer wheelbase, plus a little extra width and even height, yet overall length and weight were again little changed. Styling was more closely aligned with Park Avenue's, and many of the flagship's features were on hand.

Even the sophisticated StabiliTrak system was available in a new "Driver Confidence" package that also included the head-up display and self-sealing tires, though it required the Gran Touring suspension option.

Yet for all the changes -- including more nimble handling, a bene­fit of the stout G-car structure -- LeSabre remained a resolutely conservative, upper-middle-class Buick with a family-friendly character and value pricing in low-$20,000 territory. Trouble was, many families had long since preferred minivans and SUVs over full-size sedans, which partly explains why LeSabre calendar-year sales remained essentially flat at just under 150,000 per year through 2000.

To mark Buick's 100th year in 2003, LeSabre added a Celebration Edition which featured StabilTrak antiskid control, head-up instrument display, and unique trim. The G-car LeSabre went out of production after the 2005 season.

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