From the August 1994 issue of Car and Driver.
“Image is everything.” So says media magnet and tennis star Andre Agassi, and so it is with luxury coupes. Were it not for the need to convince your peers that you are still vital and stylish despite the arrival of middle-aged affluence, there would be little reason to drive a Riviera, Eldorado, Mark VIII, BMW 8-series, or Lexus SC instead of the sedan equivalents of those cars. With a full understanding of this automotive truism, Buick has given its new Riviera a shape that stands clearly apart from the hordes of conventional people movers.
It’s an adventurous design in both profile and detail. The overall shape is relentlessly curvaceous, with hardly a flat panel to be found. Both ends of the body are strongly tapered, particularly in front where you can see just as much of the nose of the car from the side as you can from head on. The rear end also tucks in, though somewhat more modestly, to firmly grasp the full-width taillight assembly.
From the side, the Riviera looks to have a touch of cab-forward design, with the greenhouse set substantially forward on the body. It also has the downward curving trunk line that Buick employs on the LeSabre/Park Avenue and that appears in more exaggerated form on the Infiniti J30 and several other models.
The long, smooth curves of the Riviera’s body are unusually free of cut lines and extraneous chrome trim. There’s some brightwork around the grille, the taillights, and the side windows, but otherwise, there’s only a neat body-colored rubstrip set into the sides. The full length character line that runs atop the fender breaks up the smooth flanks nicely.
The editorial eye certainly admires the boldness and coherence of the Riviera’s design, but the shape somehow doesn’t make our hearts flutter instantly. But neither did we tire of it quickly, for there’s a wealth of visual detail that was gradually revealed to us as we spent time with the car.
Buick designers continued on the same adventurous path when they styled the Riviera’s interior. The only traditional touch is the large cowl that extends from door to door and overhangs the entire instrument panel.
On the other hand, the new-look dashboard is flat, simple, and decorated far less than any other Buick’s. Visual interest centers on the large, round, white-on-black instrument dials, the round warning-light clusters, and the round air vents. In fact, the theme uses 16 such circular elements.
Except for a slight offset between the steering column and the main instrument cluster, the layout is symmetrical and coherent. The climate controls and the stereo system are easily reached in the center of the dash and everything is nicely accessible and easy to see.
Some of the vast, plastic surfaces may seem uninviting in a premium car, but Buick has applied plush materials judiciously where they work to the best effect. For example, as the dashboard wraps into the doors, the facing material switches from hard to soft plastic, and the panels near your elbows are luxuriously padded.
The seats offer similar evidence of intelligent design. Their padding and shape were developed after extensive research into seating-pressure distribution, the goal being to avoid the pressure points that can cause discomfort during long drives. The leather-covered buckets (a fabric-upholstered split bench is standard) don’t offer much lateral support, but the wide range of physiques in our office found them very comfortable.
The back seat is comfortable and decently roomy for a two-door car. Two adults will find ample legroom and adequate headroom in the outboard seating positions, while the center position is best reserved for small fry. This rear seat is easily as good as any offered by its competitors.
A spacious interior shouldn’t be surprising, however, because the Riviera is not a small car. It’s 207.2 inches long and 75 inches wide, and it weighs 3762 pounds—matching the class heavyweights, the Lincoln Mark VIII and the Cadillac Eldorado.
That’s not unexpected since the Riviera shares GM’s new G-body front-drive platform with the new Olds Aurora, another full-sized package. This platform comes with several advantages. It is very rigid, with a claimed 25 hz natural frequency of vibration, and that puts it in Mercedes E-class territory. The suspension uses struts in front, and semi-trailing arms enhanced with toe-control links in the rear. Both setups are coil-sprung and mounted to rubber-isolated subframes. The power steering uses the same innovative electromagnetic variable power-assist design.
Buick has chosen shock absorbers and suspension bushings to provide a softer, more supple feel than Olds did with the Aurora. The Riviera nicely smothers small, harsh cracks and ridges in the pavement, yet it remains composed over severe bumps and clips. You have to be hustling seriously over undulating two-lanes before the Riv begins to feel loose.
We find much to like in its steering, too. With the calibration in the Riviera, effort increases nicely with speed and cornering pace. It never gets too heavy and it has a decent sense of on-center.
Absolute cornering grip is an unremarkable 0.78 g, but you can use all of it without feeling as if you are whipping the Riv within an inch of its life. Body roll stays moderate, and the Riv never feels—or sounds—like it’s grinding up its 225/60R-16 Goodyear Eagle GA front tires.
Achieving this combination of ride and handling is no small feat, because the Riviera is a rather powerful front-drive car. With the latest version of Buick’s supercharged 3800 V-6 developing 225 horsepower, this big coupe can blast to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and cover the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds at 90 mph. Those times put it within a half-second of the rear-drive Lexus SC400 and the Lincoln Mark VIII, which cost from 10 to 20 grand more than a supercharged Riviera.
The blown V-6 doesn’t generate the delightfully refined snarl of those 32-valve V-8s when wound out, but its note is suitably distant and unobtrusive. Thanks to the supercharger, there’s also plenty of grunt away from rest, and the four-speed automatic’s shift schedule and the smoothness with which shifts are accomplished seem beyond reproach. In fact, the only driveline abruptness we found occurred at 109 mph, when the governor shut off the thrust. We doubt many owners will be inclined to discover this nonlinearity.
Some may object, however, to the somewhat inconvenient trunk. Capacity is an excellent 17 cubic feet, but the opening is narrow and the liftover is quite high. We noticed the same problems with the Aurora, which suggests that GM’s platform engineers were unwilling to sacrifice stiffness by cutting large openings in the body. Owners will notice this compromise if they spend much time hefting golf clubs in and out of the trunk.
On the other hand, they will also enjoy the benefits of the rigid structure. While the Riviera still doesn’t quite duplicate the carved-from-a-billet sensation of premium German iron, it feels very good. There are no quivers or shakes, even over the most vicious combinations that Michigan’s winter-ravaged pavement dishes out, and the various trim parts seem bolted solidly in place.
All of which makes for a luxury chariot that does a great many things very well, especially considering its $30,000 price. But the thing it does best is stand out in the automotive crowd. If you’re smitten by the Riviera’s head-turning new look; we’re sure you’ll like everything else about the car.
I stare at the Riviera the way many people stare at a passing fire truck or Sinead O’Connor’s head: not with approval or disapproval, but with curiosity. Maybe this is what Buick exterior design chief William Porter refers to when he claims the Riviera’s design “has some mystery to it.” Porter also hopes it is a design that “everyone would instantly like.” This car’s just too bold for that, but at the same time there’s enough right stuff in this car to make it a fine choice for the style-conscious iconoclast. Now excuse me while I go and stare at it some more. —Don Schroeder
Highs: The supercharged V-6 puts out enormous and instantaneous power. The NVH braintrust has eliminated most of the thrashing noise found in this sort of big car. The ride has been firmed up, and so have the seats. Back seats are roomy. The flat ride at freeway speeds is first-rate.
Lows: The styling problems center on the heel-like tail and the jut-jawed front bumper, both of which seem unfinished. Martha Stewart will view it as fat. The stereo system is undistinguished.
Judgment Day: A superior freeway cruiser that does not look like the result of GM committee-think. One thumb up. —Steve Spence
As styling becomes increasingly homogeneous, I more readily accept shapes that are different solely for the sake of being different. So I can overlook the 16 golfball-size gauges and vents and the six-inch gray ledge that hangs over the IP, never mind the world’s largest odo reset button. And we can argue all day about the Riv’s tail treatment. I don’t care. What zings me is one styling cue: that graceful crease erupting above the headlights, sweeping back to become a delicate ledge under the side glass, then gently fading at the lip of the trunk. Ever study the silhouette of a Jaguar’s spine? —John Phillips
Riding a Styling Roller Coaster
The Riviera name first appeared on a special 1949 Roadmaster that made the history books as the first hardtop coupe, providing an open greenhouse with no B-pillar. Still, most old-car fans consider the Riviera to have been born in 1963.
The all-new Riviera was designed to compete in the hot new “personal luxury” segment launched by the 1958 Ford Thunderbird four-seater. These powerful, intimate, well-appointed cars were selling well—92,798 T-Birds in 1960, a big jump over the 21,380 two-seaters sold in 1957. Style and flair sold cars in this market, so Buick design chief Bill Mitchell specified a “Ferrari-Rolls-Royce” look with a long hood and a short deck-aggressive, yet elegant.
The resulting 1963-65 Riviera design became an instant classic, with crisp lines accenting sensuous shapes. The low center of gravity and well-developed chassis (for its day) combined with a choice of 401- or 425-cubic-inch V-8s to give the new Riv a level of performance and handling unmatched in other luxurious cars.
The 1966-70 Rivieras were redesigned to share a platform with the new front-drive Olds Toronado but remained rear-drive. The Riv grew longer and heavier in the process and traded its four bucket seats for five- or six-passenger seating. Power was increased, but the Riviera had clearly begun to metamorphose from a grand tourer into a luxo barge. A vinyl top was optional, and 1970 models even offered fender skirts.
The most controversial Riviera was the 1971-73 boattail, penned by none other than Jerry Hirshberg (now of Infiniti J30 fame). The design reused the roofline of the 1963-67 Corvette at the encouragement of Bill Mitchell. Bumper and emissions regs bloated curb weight to 4500 pounds and choked the 455-cubic-inch V-8 to just 225 to 260 hp. This power-to-weight handicap conspired with the radical looks to slash sales.
From 1974 to ’78, the Riviera became a conservatively restyled, shortened LeSabre two-door—and still sold poorly. The front-drive 1979-85 Rivs revived a distinctive, hippish look that helped set the all-time Riviera sales record of 65,305 cars in 1985. Then a 1986 redesign (remember the TV-screen dash?) sent sales into another tailspin that the rounded rear-end redo of 1989 barely reversed. —Frank Markus
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