Buick Century is a car you can count on, day after day, mile after mile. It's practical and comfortable, with a smooth ride, good performance, and predictable handling. It even offers a fair amount of luxury for a very practical price. As Buick's best-selling model, Century has established a large and satisfied following.
The Century provides the comfort of a traditional American sedan. The ride quality is soft and its V6 engine is strong but frugal. The interior design is straightforward. Everything is exactly where you think it should be, and everything works exactly how you expect it should work. Its broad bench seats provide plenty stretch-out room, but bucket seats are available.
Custom ($20,285); Limited ($23,285)
Some would call the styling bland. The Century was designed to perform its duties quietly and faithfully without drawing attention. And it does this well.
With its traditional grille and roomy interior, the Century is unmistakably a Buick. It shares the same smooth, organic form as the more expensive Buicks, but it's far less expressive. Many find this understated appearance appealing.
The Special Edition's blacked-out grille is a gesture in the direction of European panache, and the handsome painted aluminum wheels on Special Edition Limiteds are, for this car, almost startling. These attractive wheels make a bold styling statement against the backdrop of the car's otherwise neutral appearance.
Changes for 2002 are minimal. In addition to the new console for Touring models, child-seat attachments have been added to all models. Color choices now include Dark Bronze Mist. The cruise control has been re-engineered, and there's a new woodgrain pattern in Limiteds called Tortoise Burl.
Century's understated exterior styling theme continues inside. The dashboard is traditional American, and on the Spartan side by today's standards. Instrumentation is limited to a small analog speedometer, a water temperature gauge and a fuel gauge. On the lower left and right of the dash are two circular warning-light complexes, each split three ways in pie-chart fashion. The left three warning lights indicate problems with oil pressure, battery charge or anti-lock brake circuitry. The three indicators on the right warn that the seatbelts are not fastened, the parking brake is on or the air bags are not initialized to function properly. Century comes standard with dual air bags and, oddly, a driver's side-impact bag only on Limited.
The six-way power seats work well and provide a generous range of adjustment. A power driver's seat is standard on all Limiteds and on Special Edition Customs. Special Edition Limited models get a power passenger's seat as well. In standard trim, the Custom has manually operated seats; but power seats are available separately as a $350-per-seat option. In every case, both front seatbacks adjust manually.
Special Edition models have steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. Sprouting from the thin wheel's four spokes are buttons for Seek, Scan, AM/FM, Source, Mute and Volume. Generally, such remotes are useful, but we had some problems with this particular system. We consistently tapped Seek by accident while wheeling the Century in and out of parking spaces, losing our selected station. Also, the steering-wheel controls are illuminated whenever the lights are on, which is good, but after a while the lighted plastic buttons become hot to the touch.
Befitting a Buick, the front and rear seats are roomy and comfortable, and rear headroom is excellent. Our Century Limited Special Edition featured handsome leather upholstery. The trunk is generous, as is expected of a Buick. A useful cargo net is supplied with the Special Edition, but opening the trunk requires using a separate trunk key instead of the ignition key. This is a long-standing GM inconvenience that should have been corrected way back in the 20th Century.
The Century's V6 engine provides a crisp, authoritative response. What is even more impressive about this engine is that, in addition to providing plenty of power, it also achieves excellent fuel mileage, with 20 miles per gallon in the city and a whopping 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
A keynote of Buick's heritage is that the big cars from Flint delivered vigorous performance. The Century delivers this with a 3.1-liter V6 rated at 175 horsepower at 5200 rpm, and 195 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Called the 3100, it's a solid and conventional engine, with overhead valves and sequential-port fuel injection.
The 3100's power is delivered through an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. It shifts smoothly, but otherwise its performance is only adequate. Kick -down response is slow when compared with the latest transmissions used in higher-priced vehicles.
Electronic traction control, which comes standard, reduces wheel spin for improved control on slippery surfaces. Also standard is an antilock brake system (ABS), which allows the driver to maintain steering control of the car in a panic-braking situation.
Century's front suspension is a MacPherson strut design, while its rear suspension is a multi-link independent using a coil-over strut. This setup is tuned for a soft ride when cruising on smooth, straight highways at normal speeds. But while the boulevard ride is traditional for Buick, it results in undistinguished handling in any sort of vigorous maneuvering: The Century leans when driven quickly through corners and it floats and wallows at high speeds over wavy surfaces. The driver feels isolated from the road.
Buick Century is modest-looking yet generously equipped. As a utilitarian four-door sedan, it was designed to provide long, workmanlike service for those who appreciate the traditional Buick values, that is, a premium vehicle at an affordable price.
The Century's engine is very satisfying, and there is ample interior space to please traditional Buick buyers. Its soft ride should also feel familiar to longtime Buick owners, who are extremely loyal to the brand.
But the price of that soft ride is a somewhat old-fashioned personality on the road. In this way, the Century looks backward to the big American sedans of years gone by, not forward to a more international vision of an agile and balanced family car. For now, Century is still finding buyers whose values are rooted in that past, while Buick offers other models that look enthusiastically to the future.