What I'm Driving At 

Ultra Vivid Scene

Ultra Vivid Scene

With apologies to an alternative rock trio that undoubtedly envisions itself much too hip to be caught anywhere near a mere Buick, there’s scarcely a better way to describe the new Park Avenue Ultra than to filch the band’s name: Ultra Vivid Scene. Buick has high hopes for its flagship sedan in 1997. Judging by the evidence on paper, and from my experience behind the wheel, the hopes are justified—a bit modest, even. But in a world where image can inhibit discovery of genuine substance, Buick needs more than a supercharger to surmount its granddaddy car reputation.

Supercharging is precisely the concept that needs to be mastered if one is to appreciate the Ultra’s ultimate charms. You see, like Buick’s plain-vanilla version of the Park Avenue, the upscale Ultra model features a 3.8-liter V6 engine underhood. It doesn’t take a grease-stained motorhead to appreciate that V6 power is skinless chicken breast in a world dominated by the T-bone slab of red meat known as the All-American V8. But by bolting a supercharger onto a mild-mannered V6—which has the effect of cramming several gulps of compressed fuel-and-air into every breath the engine takes—a reticent Dr. Jekyll emerges as a raging Mr. Hyde. Whether one is leaving from standstill or passing at highway speeds, it’s a testimony to the Ultra’s charms that its engineers have modulated the potential rage of its own supercharged V6 into thrilling but ever manageable acceleration.

For the ’97 model year, Buick has elected to acknowledge the obvious by marketing its Park Avenue models under the slogan, “The Power of Understatement.” The slogan is more than apt, but chances are slim that “understatement” can gainsay “hype” in today’s consumer climate, or that Park Avenue can outdazzle Rodeo Drive. The Ultra’s achievements in driving performance and overall design execution are likely to be diminished by Buick’s lackluster image as just one more ill-defined division within General Motors’ bloated business conglomeration. Ironically, though, it’s GM’s massive resources that make the Ultra’s success possible.

For all the obvious brio of the Ultra’s supercharged powerplant, it is not a hot rod. One effect of supercharging is to enhance the sensation of instantaneous acceleration. But the empirical rating of 240 horsepower is noteworthy mostly because a mere V6 is responsible for it. No matter: The illusion of high performance is secure, thanks to a heavy-duty, electronically actuated automatic transmission that shifts precisely and matches gear selection to engine speed to road conditions without the hide-and-seek indecision that plagues other luxury-style powertrains.

What Buick has accomplished with the Park Avenue Ultra, however, has less to do with the car’s git-up-and-go than with how you get there. A jaunt through the technical literature about the car reveals what an engineer would call a “systems approach” to the overall design.

Granted, terms like “multiplex wiring,” “metaphoric seating controls,” and “magnetic variable-effort steering” have no doubt been selected for their purposeful sense of obfuscation, but their underlying meanings attest true technological sophistication. It is noteworthy, if not especially sexy, that the Ultra’s wiring scheme saves valuable space by multiplying the functions of any one circuit. Adjusting your seating position electronically is easier when the adjusters mimic the shape and action of your seat. And power steering that uses magnetic induction to proportion turning effort to road speed not only safeguards a solid road feel; it also allows a dealer to customize steering effort according to the driver’s individual preference.

For all of its technical flourishes, the Ultra is not immune to the creeping gadgetitis that arises when so many “gee whiz” features crowd into a single package: There are moisture-sensitive windshield wipers that activate automatically when the drizzle drops. There is an optional, fighter-pilot-style “heads up” instrument display on the windshield for transforming a drive to the office into a Top Gun commuter sortie. There are seat heaters; rear-seat vanity mirrors with mood lights; split-control HVAC thermostats for driver and passenger; and programmable seat-position memories that are operable, no less, from the remote-control key fob. These are just a few of the designers’ favorite things that have been mustered onto the Ultra’s manifest of features.

Lest it appear that driving the Park Avenue might be as mind-boggling as a first cruise along the Internet, the layout and operation of the car’s myriad functions will put the mind at ease. Indeed, there is nothing distracting or overt about all the conveniences; they merely seem to be there when they’re needed, and they operate as intuition suggests they must. More conspicuous (and pleasingly visceral) is the car’s driving aplomb. The crisp delivery of power is the equal of the car’s notably rigid platform and luxuriously long wheelbase—in other words, the Ultra goes, man; it also corners like a sportster, and it rides like silk.

And for $36,000, it’s a genuine contender in the curiously named near-luxury class. That same money will buy a lot of competing models, most of which will showcase much more exotic pedigrees. But few, if any, will combine the roominess of the Ultra with its like-no-other driving characteristics and its almost militant understatement of exterior styling and brand identity. For those who know what they’re looking at, it’s arguably a para-Jaguar in terms of performance and amenities; in terms of price, however, you could buy a pair in place of just one Jag.

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