THE 1991 BUICK Park Avenue Ultra is a car for triumphant underdogs, a motorized symbol for all of those people who have risen above failure and put-downs to win. As such, it's a splendid comeback machine -- proof that Americans can build fine automobiles, and that many of those Americans work at General Motors Corp.
Flag-waving? You betcha. If the Ultra had come from Japan or Germany, I'd be waving Japanese or German flags in celebration, as I've done so often for excellent cars from those countries. But the Ultra is Detroit metal all the way -- well-shaped, well-assembled, attractive metal, some of the best metal to ever come out of GM or anywhere else; and well, heck, that gives me goosebumps.
Unlike previous GM cars, the Ultra was the product of teamwork rather than committee work. The difference is in the details.
Committees tend to shop for the lowest common denominator in putting together a new car -- a suspension part from here, a door handle from there, a locking mechanism from somewhere else. If all of the parts don't fit together quite well, or don't make much sense, committees don't give a hoot. Their thing is finishing "projects" for the lowest possible cost; when that's done, they're outta there and on to the next disaster.
Teams want to win. They have pride. They work on cars, not projects. They strive for consistency -- such as the way the Ultra's dashboard flows left and right from the center of the car and blends into the front doors.
Teams care about getting little things right -- such as taking the remote trunk-release button out of the glove compartment and putting it on the left side of the dash, where it can be easily reached. The Ultra's team also put the car's headlight switch in the upper righthand corner of the front door, making the button a cinch to reach under almost any circumstance.
There are myriad other touches and refinements, all of which add up to a terrific car, a winner -- a reason for GM's people and for Americans in general to hold their heads up and smile.
Background: The new Buick Park Avenue sedans -- the top-line Ultra and less-expensive Park Avenue -- went on sale in July. Both are front-wheel-drive, six-passenger cars. They are eight inches longer than their predecessors and they have bigger trunks, 20.3 cubic feet. Air bags on the driver's side and anti-lock brakes are standard equipment in both cars. The Buick Electra, which had been part of the Park Avenue lineup, is discontinued for 1991.
Complaints: Nitpick. Though the interior is wonderfully consistent in design, the little rectangular gauge panel behind the steering wheel seems ill-conceived and out of place -- sort of like a discount throw-rug in the middle of a hand-finished mahogany floor.
Praise: Overall design and engineering excellence, right down to the dual, lighted vanity mirrors for rear-seat passengers.
Head-turning quotient: Egads! Teenagers liked this one. Teenagers! Don't-give-me-nothin'-but-a-Honda-Porsche-BMW American teenagers! In that regard, the 1991 Ultra has to be the automotive shocker of the year.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Straight aces. Comfortable as all get out without any wobbly stuff. Perfect long-drive car. Both the Ultra and "regular" Park Avenue are equipped with super-smooth electronic automatic transmissions, and are powered by a 3.8-liter V-6 engine rated 170-horsepower at 4,800 rpm.
Sound system: Electronic AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, four speakers, GM/Delco Gold Series. Boss boogie.
Mileage: An average 23 mpg (18-gallon tank, estimated 404-mile range on usable volume of 87-octane unleaded), combined city-highway, carrying one to four occupants and several loads of groceries.
Price: Base price on the 1991 Ultra is $27,420. Dealer's invoice price is $23,389. Price as tested is $29,208, including $1,208 in options and a $580 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: Compare with any passenger sedan in Ultra's price category. Examine all of the standard equipment and the quality of assembly. Are you really getting your money's worth in buying the competitor?
Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.