No question about it, Buicks tend to appeal to older buyers. But as a new generation of more fussy, style-conscious Boomer retirees replaces them, GM officials are wisely wondering, design-wise, just what makes a Buick. This year marks a new attempt by Buick to make its badge — along with those ‘heritage’ design cues — a little more prominent. In the case of the Park Avenue Ultra, they also serve to spice up the face of a vehicle that still serves its purpose well, perhaps picking up some younger or more affluent buyers along the way.
Also, a new grille reemphasizes a strong vertical-bar theme, also a design element from Buick’s past. The new monochromatic, see-through Buick badge, modeled after that on the 1938 Harley Earl Y-Job concept, holds a more prominent place in the front grille, and in the back on the trunk lid. Inside, new faux walnut trim is used throughout, along with aluminum brightwork for sill plates and special logo embroidering on the seats. Chrome-tipped exhaust rounds out the light facelift for 2003.
The Gran Touring package — which adds a slightly firmer suspension, a rear anti-sway bar, 17-inch chrome-plated aluminum wheels, and Goodyear Eagle LS touring tires — is now standard on the supercharged Ultra for 2003.
The Ultra’s 3.8-liter (231-cubic-inch), cast-iron pushrod V-6 dates back to the 1960s, but it has gone through some extensive changes through the years and it serves its purpose better than many of its modern aluminum, multi-valve, variable-valve-timing peers. Thanks to a counterbalancing system, the 90-degree V-6 is extremely smooth, too.
Supercharger makes it roar
The Ultra is primarily differentiated from the ordinary Park Avenue by a supercharger, which ups the output of the engine 35 hp, to 240 hp, and boosts the torque by 50 lb-ft, to 280 lb-ft. The engine is smooth and silent at idle and at cruising speed, but the supercharger creates an unusual induction roar when you stomp on the gas. Throttle response is prompt, and the torque is immediately available from just above idle. With the stereo turned up, you’d think it’s a V-8.
The Ultra now comes with the Stabilitrak stability control system — just a few years ago a feature exclusive to just a few Cadillac models — as standard. Stabilitrak uses a system of sensors to anticipate a skid and counter it by applying one or more of the brakes separately. Even though the Ultra doesn’t lend itself to being driven aggressively, the system would still be priceless in bad weather.
Though the Park Avenue Ultra has been technically kept up with the times, at first the experience behind the wheel seems like, in some ways, a trip back in time. The seating position is low and slightly reclined, and the steering column nearly horizontal. The big, slab-like dash sits rather high and doesn’t wrap into the center console. A brief but leisurely spin around the block shows fingertip light steering, lots of travel in the brake pedal, and a pillowy ride, with an uncanny lack of powertrain drag and the ability to idle for long distances at 20 or 30 mph.
Not the big-boat sedan of the past
But overall, after a longer, more spirited drive, some of those initial impressions prove themselves wrong. Body control is a surprising strong point for the Ultra. With such a soft ride, we expected handling to be marginal at best, becoming bouncy and difficult to control on rough surfaces, like the big, bouncy sedans of the past. But that’s not the case. Directly applauding GM’s chassis engineers, the Ultra has a smooth ride that absorbs all but the largest bumps while keeping the wheels in contact with the pavement. Body motions are remarkably under control. And despite the engine’s high output and front-wheel drive, the torque steer isn’t an issue.
The steering also proves to be better than initial impressions indicate. GM’s Magnasteer variable assist power steering is now standard on the Ultra. The system uses a unique magnetic fluid system to quickly and seamlessly vary the steering effort, depending on several variables including the vehicle’s speed and current steering-wheel angle. Essentially, this enables the fingertip-light steering that Buick buyers expect while at the same time allowing better safety, a more secure on-center feel at high speeds, and better responsiveness and feedback during sudden or aggressive maneuvers.
But some of those initial impressions do prove to be true. The Ultra’s brakes feel quite retro. The pedal travels an inch or two, then all the boost happens quite quickly. Smooth — rather than jerky — stops take some practice, though the system has powerful four-wheel discs. But with quite a lot of suspension travel, during rapid braking, there’s significant nosedive, and the whole body snaps back up after stopping quickly for traffic lights.
The front seats are soft, cushy, and comfortable like an easy chair at first, but after only an hour they betray themselves as quite unsupportive — a weakness for the Ultras long-haul abilities. You’ll probably find yourself fidgeting and moving around, trying to enhance back support, on all-day highway journeys.
The trunk is absolutely huge. It’s not as deep as some of the more modern designs, but its length and width would easily enable two moderate-size suitcases to fit side-by-side. There’s also a rear-seat pass-through, for long items like skis.
Sips fuel, premium that is
Another pleasant surprise pertaining to Ultra ownership is especially relevant now: fuel economy. The Ultra is rated 19 city/28 highway by the EPA, and these figures are, if anything, on the low side of actual. In several hundred miles of combined city and highway driving (where we didn’t hesitate to sample the supercharger’s added thrust), we saw an excellent 25 mpg average. Compare that to about 10 mpg less for most mid-size SUVs, which weigh in only a bit higher than the Ultra’s 3909-pound curb weight. The only negative for the Ultra is that its supercharged engine requires premium, versus regular unleaded for the regular Park Avenue.
Also unlike many SUVs, the Ultra is a relaxed, quiet, and comfortable highway cruiser, with very little wind noise, road wander, or twitchiness. It seems to be happiest cruising in the 70-to-85-mph range.
As if Buick knew the typical buyer for the Park Avenue, controls and switchgear seem to be oriented toward the geriatric crowd. Interior gauges are simple and round, with a large font that’s easy to read, and pretty much every other button on the dash is larger than fingertip-sized and clearly marked.
The Concert Sound III audio system, standard in the Ultra, is definitely oriented toward easy listening. Those who like to play complex music loud will find it inadequate. It sounds great at high volume when the music is simple, but it gets garbled and distorted with contemporary pop, rock, or electronic music.
Seats six, or five plus a center console
Six-passenger seating is standard on all Park Avenue models, but our Ultra had the optional five-passenger seating package, part of the $1875 Ultra Luxury Package. Along with that package, you get an electric sunroof, and a center console that includes rear-seat ventilation controls, extra cupholders and storage bins, a leather armrest, and two extra auxiliary power outlets.
Besides the supercharger, chrome wheels, and special suspension tweaks, the Ultra comes with a long list of standard luxury features and gizmos inside. A dual-range climate-control system, moisture-sending windshield wipers, and an easy-to-use trip computer are all standard, as is power everything, including ten-way power seats and a two-driver memory system.
The Ultrasonic Park Assist, a mere $295 option, uses a series of increasingly urgent tones to tell you how close you are to the vehicle behind during parallel parking. It’s definitely worth getting on such a long car.
Our test car also had the optional Eyecue heads-up display, which projects a digital output from the speedometer and warning lamps onto the windshield. Some drivers might find it useful, but we just found it distracting, even when dimmed.
Ultra pushes into Cadillac pricing
The Ultra doesn’t come cheap. The normal competition for this vehicle probably includes the similarly comfort-focused Chrysler Concorde, Toyota Avalon, Mercury Grand Marquis — all of which are priced thousands less — putting the Park Avenue Ultra in difficult territory. Our test car had a bottom-line sticker price of $41,385, about the same price as a V-8 Lincoln LS or Town Car, and nearing the base price of the Cadillac Seville SLS, Jaguar S-Type, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and Infiniti M45.
When it really comes down to it, the Ultra does what it does very well and carves a nice niche for Buick — design cues or not. It’s a tight, well assembled traditional American sedan that not only boasts the expected roominess, comfort-oriented ride, and creature comforts, but also is has an unexpected margin of safety and capability with an excellent chassis hidden inside. There’s no surprise why the Ultra is a top choice of ‘snowbird’ retirees who migrate south for the winter and businessmen who travel frequently.
If you buy an Ultra, you probably aren’t the type to take curvy ‘B roads’ for fun, but the Ultra is certainly capable of taking them on without embarrassment, and most of the time you’ll happily eat away the Interstate miles sprawled out in a lot more comfort than most other vehicles on the road.
2003 Buick Park Avenue Ultra
Price: $39,145 base, $41,385 as tested
Engine: 3.8-liter supercharged V-6, 240 hp / 280 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 113.8 in
Length x width x height: 206.8 x 74.7 x 57.4 in
Curb weight: 3909 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 18/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags, Stabilitrak stability control system, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Dual-zone climate control, OnStar communications system, magnetic variable steering, trip computer and gauge package, power windows, locks, and mirrors, leather seats and ten-way power driver’s seat with memory, moisture-sensing wipers, cruise control, ten-speaker CD/cassette sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles