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The lap of luxury needn’t mean a pricey $60,000-plus Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, or BMW. How about a Buick? No sniggering, please, and read on.
Back when Buick was the largest automaker in the U.S. after its Scottish founder, lawn sprinkler and other plumbing discoveries genius David Dunbar Buick, sold it, its cars were as sumptuous and as quick as they came. In 1909 Buicks ran successfully at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other racetracks. In the capable hands of Billy Durant, the father of General Motors whose patriarchy was temporarily interrupted while he went off to work with Louis Chevrolet, Buicks won hill-climbs in Africa and a tug-of-war with an elephant in the 1920s, eventually selling more than 35 million vehicles.
These days, Buick’s flagship, the posh and supercharged Park Avenue Ultra, can parade with the best. Well, up front somewhere, anyway.
Elegant and spacious, with a trunk large enough to swallow several suitcases, this classic, full-sized front-wheel drive sedan’s refined, graceful lines are as far removed from racy and flamboyant as Donald Rumsfeld is from Mario Andretti. The narrow, horizontal grille with vertical bars is no in-your-face bravado design, the headlamps fit smoothly into the body, and the conservatively raked windshield leaves no huge dashboard shelf inside to collect dust. Chrome accents add discreet glamour.
After just over a decade on the market, the Park Avenue Ultra is still a serious, executive sedan for successful boomers and businesspeople. Nevertheless, this version sports a neat little hot rod-type touch carried over from last year: three small air ducts along each front side fender. Designed to allow additional air to flow through the engine compartment, they provide a clue to the high performance available under the hood: a cast iron, supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 spigoting 240 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3600 rpm that can haul the Park Avenue Ultra’s 3800-lb torso down the road fast but mannerly, thanks to a grand touring, specially-tuned suspension and rear stabilizer bar. The engine responds efficiently and quietly when required to cruise consistently and only the heaviest of lead feet demanding sudden acceleration evokes a noisy surge, which soon settles down. At least you know it’s working.
Most impressive is the cushy ride that effortlessly soaks up road bumps and potholes like cars that cost double the Ultra’s $5-less-than-$40,000 price tag. Much of the reason for the limo-like ride is its long, 113.8-inch wheelbase. When front and rear axles are far apart it gives the vehicle time to rebound and settle the suspension before the rear wheels travel over the same bump or hole, providing a smooth, even ride. Large 17-inch wheels and tires help, too. While it’s doubtful you’ll throw this sedan around corners unless you’re being chased, the car’s stability system brings independent control to all four corners of the car during evasive maneuvers, as well as helping to prevent slipping on wet and icy roads, along with the traction control and a Magnasteer system that endeavors to keep the car glued to the asphalt..
The Ultra’s transmission is a heavy-duty Hydramatic four-speed automatic with overdrive. While this may take the fun away for enthusiasts, it’s a perfectly fine for the more sober among us whose lengthy early morning commute is usually bumper-to-bumper and who need at least one free hand with which to eat breakfast instead of having to deal with a manual clutch (which isn’t offered in either the Park Avenue or the Park Avenue Ultra).
Now with ambience!
Inside, the furnishings are plush. Embroidered, fancy leather seats receive you in the deepest comfort. Wide and soft, they have ten different memory settings including lumbar and heat. The interior design itself is standard with no surprises. Most of the dash and center console are routine late 1990s, with controls and buttons in the usual places. The gauges with a timeless classic look, however, help lift the design into this century. Faux polished burled walnut trim dresses up doors and dash and other places and the air of opulence is undeniable. The greatest flaw is a long shifter arm on the steering wheel column that extends too far. Although it is less conspicuous in the Drive position, the driver must reach over, under, or around it to change radio channels and various controls if you don’t use the steering-wheel radio and temperature buttons.
OnStar, that brilliant innovation that brings a real, live concierge’s voice into your vehicle to tell you traffic, weather, stocks and sports scores, is included on the Park Avenue Ultra as a standard feature, with its small control buttons tucked neatly beneath the rearview mirror. Other bells and whistles include a concert-quality nine-speaker sound system, dual climate-controls, heated outside mirrors, tire pressure monitor, and heated ten-way split-front bench seats. Optional is a luxury package that includes a five-person instead of six seating arrangement with front buckets, a power sunroof, and a center console with thoughtful accoutrements for the traveling CEO or secretary: a writing pad, cell phone tray, two 12-volt outlets, roomy storage, and rubber-lined cupholders for two. A head-up display that projects your speed, fuel, and other data onto the windshield, with an on/off switch, costs an extra $325. If you’re a nervous Nellie and need a warning signal that beeps when you back up and approach obstacles, increasing in frequency as you get closer and threaten to hit them, chalk up an additional $295.
Backseat space is exceptional. Rear passengers can sprawl in comfort unless the pass-through from the trunk is occupied by skis, surfboards or, perish the thought, planks of plywood. With interior headroom 37 inches in back and 39 inches in front, legroom for every occupant around 42 inches, and hip room for the broadest of beams at around 56 inches, there should be no complaints of fit. Stepping into the car is painless, with the floor sill neither too low or high, at 15 inches from the ground.
Safety features include front and side airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and battery run-down protection. Particularly useful are a large, flashing red arrow that appears on both sideview mirrors when you use the turn indicator and moisture-sensing windshield wipers. Fuel economy isn’t too bad: Buick’s official figures are 18/28 city/highway, but the Park Avenue Ultra drinks premium quality, so filling the 18.5-gallon tank ain’t cheap.
There are no significant changes on the 2004 model from its predecessor, the 2003 version, which means that buyers have been pretty satisfied with the car. Detroit follows customer feedback closely and this year merely improved the cluster graphics, added aluminum and chrome-plated wheels, offered more interior colors and choices of woodgrains, and threw in a hood ornament. The price has increased by around $800. If you like a comfortable journey in a car that provides lots of room, has plenty of power, is easy to drive in spite of its size, and tells everyone you’re a success, then test-drive the Park Avenue Ultra. It’s seductive.
2004 Buick Park Avenue Ultra
Base Price: $39,925; as tested, $42,260
Engine: supercharged 3.8-liter V-6, 240 hp/280 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed electronic automatic with overdrive
Wheelbase: 113.8 in
Length x width x height: 206.8/74.7/57.4 in
Weight: 3909 lb
EPA city/hwy (mpg): 18/28
Standard safety equipment: Four-wheel disc antilock brakes, traction control, Stabilitrak chassis control system, front and side airbags, rear child seat latch system
Major Standard Features: OnStar, ten-way power seats, radio/CD/cassette with steering-wheel controls, dual climate controls, nine speakers, power doors, windows and trunk, remote entry, heated sideview mirrors, 17-inch wheels and tires, grand touring suspension, battery rundown protection, chrome tipped exhausts, moisture-sensing wiper
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles