THE 1988 BUICK Century Limited rekindles certain memories: of vanilla ice cream, of a suit bought at Sears & Roebuck, of a plastic backyard swimming pool.

This car is so aggressively ordinary, it oughtta be sold by Zayre or K mart. Goodness knows, it has "blue-light special" written all over it.

Elitist thinking? Yep. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Elitist to the max. Why not?

Anyone who is asked to spend over $12,000 for new wheels should be uppity. That buyer should expect more than a tired rendition of linear design, a car of pedestrian aspiration and inspiration.

General Motors left the poetry out of the Century, and that's too bad. It's supposed to be a family car, and families deserve better. Something with a little personality, a little grace, a touch of style and class.

Sure, the front-wheel-drive Century seats six in reasonable comfort. Yes, it gets you from here to there in relative safety. But driving this car is like having a family discussion in front of the TV.

No one really says or listens to anything. There are just blank expressions, nodding heads, unintelligible responses.

In the Century, that conversation might go like this:

"Some kinda car, huh?"

A head nods.

"Whatcha think?"

"About what?"

"The Century?"

"The car?"

"Yeah."

"It's a car . . . ."

Complaints: The unrelieved boredom of it all, aggravated by the maker's attempt to spiff up the package by adding touches of "luxury," such as thick velour. It's the equivalent of pink flamingos on a lawn in Levittown.

GM would've done better to have let this one live as a Chevrolet Celebrity, which is what it is anyway.

I like the Celebrity. It's a good, honest, basic, unpretentious, reliable family car. There's a certain pride in that, a certain beauty. The Century, by comparison, is a twit.

Praise: Fortunately, the test model's shortcomings in design do not affect its fit and finish. There were no rattles, no loose plastic, no bad seams. The paint job was world-class. And the velour, though it tends to evoke a funereal mood, is top grade.

Head-turning quotient: Zip.

Ride, acceleration, handling: The test model would be better in all three areas if it were equipped with the optional 3.8-liter, V-6 engine, the four-speed automatic transmission and GM's top-line FE-3 suspension.

Instead, what we have here is a lackluster, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder, fuel-injected engine kicking out 98 horsepower at 4,800 rpm. The base-line suspension is mediocre, soft as a soap opera. Economy parts in an "upscale" car amount to built-in disappointment.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio, by Delco. Works okay.

Mileage: About 27 to the gallon (15.7- gallon tank, estimated 414-mile range on usable volume), combined city-highway (Detroit and environs), running with one or two occupants and with the heater on most of the time.

Price: $13,038, including $425 destination charge. Dealer's invoice price is $10,885.02, according to Automobile Invoice Service of San Jose, Calif.

Recommendation: The Century shares mechanicals and basic body structure with the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, which has more of a quality feel; the Pontiac 6000, which is more attractively designed than the Century; and the Celebrity, a straightforward car that makes more sense than its three stablemates. Value-conscious shoppers should consider the Celebrity first.

Recall: My column on the 1987 Audi 5000 CS Turbo Quattro, for correction of a typographical defect. I said the car had a 1.2-liter engine. I meant 2.2 liters.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.