Sunday, December 20, 2009

Buick Century

My fascination with mundane automobiles rages on. The most recent target of my lust is the late-model Buick Century, that is, the final series produced from 1997 until 2005. That year range right there has the alarm bells going off already. When a single generation lingers for that long without change you know the car has become a mediocre Hertz-mobile by its final few years. Though in the Century’s case, it was a mediocre Hertz-mobile from the day of conception.

Perhaps it is telling that the Century’s chief exterior designer said at the time of the new model’s release, “We purposely avoided anything that could be considered trendy”, in an effort to keep the styling looking fresh for years to come. Fair enough, the Century doesn’t look quite as dated as some more avant-garde designs from the late-90s, but…. Really? I’ve jested before about car manufacturers setting out from the get go with the intention of creating the most bland design on the market, but, no… they really did set out from the get go to make the most generic car on the market.

And that genericism is of course, why the car appeals to me at all. Leaving any sporting intentions, not to mention interestingness, to its monochromatic-supercharged-bucket-seated twin sister Regal, the Century came with a single engine, a single transmission, and a single seating configuration; 3.1 liter, 4-speed auto, six-passenger split bench. Already sounds like a bucket of thrills, huh? Or shall I say… bench of thrills? (hardy har har).

But the fun doesn’t stop there, oh no. The Century is a Buick of course, and Buick is GM’s premium luxury car division one notch below Cadillac. So then why GM, did you give steel wheels with bolt-on wheel covers to your beloved gem Century? Why did you also give them cloth seats as standard? But most of all GM, why oh why did you make this “premium” Buick sedan come with cruise control as an OPTION?? If I didn’t know better, I’d begin to think that a subcompact Honda Civic was better equipped. Oh wait… it was.

So now we know the Century was hopelessly (and purposely) overlooked in the styling department, and came with “luxury” features and equipment more in line with a Tercel than a Lexus. This poor car must have some redeeming quality mustn’t it? Maybe it has high resale value? Or composed, enviable road manners? No, no, and… hell no.

Given, the Century did have the potential to be a fine handler. It was after all, based on GM’s corporate-wide W-body which underpinned such models as the Oldsmobile Intrigue and “wide-track” Pontiac Grand Prix. Hardly Bimmers, but decent performers in their own right and far from the floaty vague-mobiles that characterized previous mid-size GMs. This competency somehow didn’t transfer over to the Century, whose retiree-tuned suspension and steering left little in the way of composure and stability when pushed much harder than its usual three block trips to the Country Kitchen Buffet. The Century is certainly no boat in terms of actual dimensions, but get behind the wheel and you’d be hard pressed to tell much of a difference between it and some of our favorite 20-foot-long disco-era staples like Electra and Thunderbird. Ok, I exaggerate… but the bottom line is the Century’s suspension was a pathetic excuse for such a modern car, especially when compared to its contemporaries.

So then why do I like the Century? Well, it’s simple, clean, inoffensive, roomy, cushy, comfortable, easy to pilot, and can get me from point A to point B with little fuss. It’s not the sportiest, not the sexiest, and certainly not the most luxurious… but it’s humble and keeps to itself. High production figures and general all-around mediocrity keeps resale values way down, so you can pick one up for a song practically anywhere. Of course there’s always the added benefit that no police officer will ever take a second glance at, let alone pull you over, in a Buick. Maybe it’s not such a bad sedan after all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dodge Dynasty

I posted this piece on flickr a while back, but I thought I'd put it on here as well.

This afternoon I test-drove a 1993 Dodge Dynasty. It turned out to be a real dog, which in retrospect I should have known by its 850-dollar asking price, so I left and didn’t look back. But it really got me thinking about this short-lived and often forgotten sedan.

I have always had an unexplainable thing for the Dynasty. I generally adore “traditional” cars, and this one is so over-the-top “traditional” and was such a huge anachronism for its time I find it absolutely fascinating. In an automotive era when sleek, smooth, modern, aerodynamic “jellybean” sedans were hitting the market left and right in wake of the groundbreaking 1986 Taurus, the all-new-for-1988 Dynasty (and its New Yorker sibling) displayed a silhouette not all that far off from a ‘67 Polara. It is widely rumored that the styling of the Dynasty/New Yorker, and the Spirit/Acclaim released a year later, was dictated by Lee Iacocca himself. A very conservative man in taste, Iacocca turned his nose up the slightest upsweep in a car’s beltline or any rear window that wasn’t at a complete right angle from the ground. At one of the first public unveilings of the Ford Taurus in 1985, Iacocca is quoted as telling a reporter that it “looked like a streamlined potato”. One can only imagine his reaction when Chrysler’s LH sedans were released a few years later… though he of course had been long gone from the company by that time.

The 70s-esque personality of the Dynasty goes beyond it looks alone. On paper, the Dynasty sounds like quite a contemporary car for its time: Front wheel drive, Fuel-injected V6 engine, 4-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, driver’s side air bag, anti-lock brakes. But when you slip into the overly soft bench seat, buckle up, yank the column mounted gear shifter into drive, and gaze down at the rectangular dashboard, with a rectangular instrument panel, complete with rectangular speedometer and rectangular fuel gauge, you’ll find a different story. As one reviewer put it in the early-90s, the Dynasty/New Yorker was, in regards to looks and driving feel, “about as modern in as a leisure suit”.

Like the traditional American autos of yore, there is little shortage of power in this comparatively lightweight 6-cylinder sedan. It’s not going to burn up the track, but passing on the freeway is not a problem. There is no denying that the Dynasty shines in straight-line highway cruising with its pillow-soft suspension and isolated fingertip steering. The Dynasty’s handling is adequate and even competent for what is it, but it is probably still best to save those twisty mountain roads for your 3-Series convertible (because if you own a Dynasty, obviously your other car is going to be a 3-Series convertible).

Despite its disco-era overall design, the Dynasty quickly became one of Chrysler Corp’s best selling car lines. I suppose it just goes to show that boring does sell, and while the LH Intrepid that replaced it was a refreshing break from the past and proved to be just as popular, there were still a fair amount of customers who wanted a comfortable no-nonsense American-style family sedan. Most of those customers turned out to be rental fleets and government motorpools… but hey, beggars can’t be choosers can they?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Toyota Echo

There are few car designs that I view as truly, truly ugly. Sure, there are plenty of cars that are somewhat unattractive, but to be "ugly" an automobile has to really hurt your eyes when you look at it.

The Toyota Echo is one of those cars.

Whenever I happen to gaze upon one of these little buggers in traffic (not often, thankfully) I can faintly hear the cries of my retinas begging for mercy. Why? The Echo is a small car. Certainly nothing wrong with in and of itself. The predecessor the Echo, the Toyota Tercel, was quite a small car too. Yet the Tercel was pleasant to look at. Boring yes, very boring in fact... but pleasant. Somehow Toyota managed to design a replacement that was the complete opposite.

The problem with the Echo is that it is a small car that wants to be a big car. The Echo is very short in length. Well duh... it's a subcompact. Thing is, it is also very tall. Very tall. This makes the Echo's appearance similar to that of a five-year-old clomping around in her mommy's high-heels. Sorry Toyota, that's not an attractive look. I'm sure the design affords scads of headroom and a better view of the road but... but... ugh. Adding insult to injury Toyota felt it necessary to tack on Pontiac Aztek-style gray plastic cladding along the rocker panels and wheel wells. I don't think anything more needs to be said about that detail. Then of course, there are the rear quarter panels. Larger cars can handle the now universal "low hood, high deck" profile with some amount of grace, but the Echo's abbreviated economy car dimensions cause the horizontal area to be too scrunched up. To be fair, this is an issue with all modern cars in Echo's size class, the Chevrolet Aveo being a good example. Another unfortunate effect of the gargantuan rear fenders is that it gives the impression that the rear wheels are six inches too small (maybe it just needs some DUBs?).

But there's something about the Echo that makes it far more offensive than the Aveo, or any other subcompact econocar. Maybe it's those comically over sized flower petal headlights. Maybe it's those inexplicably awkward teardrop points coming together in the center of the grille. Or maybe it's the fact that I can't see, but KNOW that there's that dreadful center-mounted instrument cluster sitting there in the middle of the dashboard. Whatever it is, I don't think my opinion of the Echo could get any lower than it is now. Generally, most economy cars become virtually extinct about 25 years or so after the final ones are produced. Here's hoping the Echo will not be an exception.