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Buick cars have always measured up pretty well in the prestige arena, but it's been decades since this division has produced a noteworthy design.
That's one of the reasons the redesigned Riviera caused such a stir when it rolled into showrooms last year. This big, bold front-wheel-drive luxury coupe makes a striking contrast to the rest of the Buick lineup, including recent generations of the Riviera itself.
There's more. Not only does the Riviera break new ground in a very fancy field, it does so at a price that should make some of its competitors blush. Although this is clearly a luxury car, its price range straddles the $30,000 luxury frontier. Key rivals such as the Acura Legend, Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark VIII have manufacturer's suggested retail prices that start at about $38,000, and the cost of admission keeps climbing from there.
All of which makes the Riviera an especially attractive choice. It may not have the cachet that goes with Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Lexus, but it certainly has an appealing presence all its own, as well as all the amenities that take motoring beyond the realm of mere transportation.
Our test car came equipped with a supercharged 3800 V6 in the Riviera's signature color, Platinum Beige, and had an MSRP of $31,743.
Supercharged is a loaded word, because it tends to conjure up Ferrari-esque performance expectations. That's not what the Riviera's supercharged 3800 V6 is all about. It doesn't produce much more peak horsepower than the non-supercharged engine, but it does have a big edge in torque - the low-rpm thrust that gets you moving at stoplights and generates the extra hurry you need for passing.
Although we think the Riviera's standard engine provides enough power to satisfy most owners - remember, this isn't a sports car - the supercharged 3800 V6 does move this car's considerable bulk in a faster-than-ordinary hurry. We were also impressed by the smooth shifting of the 4-speed automatic transmission, an area where GM is one of the industry's leaders.
But even more impressive is the Riviera's blend of handling control and smooth ride quality. Although weight is the enemy of quick directional changes, the Riviera's mass is well-controlled. There's not much body roll in hard cornering, the steering is precise without being heavy and braking performance is excellent.
Getting that kind of control usually means sacrificing ride quality, but we think the chassis engineers have come up with a contemporary balance on this issue. The Riviera's ride is firmer than previous American luxury cars, but it still smooths out potholes and expansion joints without a trace of harshness.
We were also impressed by our test car's interior noise levels. The Lexus LS 400 is still the queen of diminished decibels, but the Riviera is definitely near the top of the chart.
Styling is always a key element in any car purchase, particularly among luxury cars. We can't say we're enthralled by the Buick Riviera's extended bustle, but it does have personality.
We also think its smooth power should be satisfying to most, and that its roominess is exceptional. Assembly quality proved to be flawless, as indicated in our test car.
The bottom line is that the Riviera is the American luxury coupe made modern - at an impressively affordable price.