I remember driving my parents '73 Caddy in the snow and having a pretty good time fishtailing around corners and doing donuts in empty parking lots. Needless to say my parents weren't with me. A weeklong test drive of the 2000 Buick Park Avenue Ultra in some wintry Cleveland weather gave me a chance to relive my wild teenage driving days. But it's not as fun as it used to be. It seems GM engineers have figured out how to wrap luxury and pavement-grabbing handling in the same package.
The vehicle features StabiliTrak for its surprising control. In addition to a conventional traction-control system, there are three sensors detecting yaw, lateral acceleration, and steering-wheel angle. The sensors compare what the driver wants the car to do with how accurately the vehicle is responding. A computer controls antilock brakes and traction control to keep the car under control.
During understeer conditions, when cars have difficulty making turns on slippery roads, the system activates the inside front brake, which corrects understeer. During oversteer, when cars tend to fishtail, the system actuates the outside front brake.
I read up on the system and admit I was skeptical about how the car would handle when traction control was really necessary. One evening, however, I found an empty, snow-covered parking lot to give it a try. I was surprised. I initially took it easy with a gradual turn and, sure enough, felt the traction control kick in to keep the car on course. I gradually built up to some pretty hard turns but couldn't make the car lose control. As an added bonus, the traction control and ABS also helped the vehicle accelerate and brake surprisingly well on the slippery terrain.
Under more normal driving conditions I appreciated the Gran Touring Package, also standard on the Ultra. The package carries a firmer suspension, rear antiroll bar, 16-in. aluminum wheels with touring tires, and variable-effort power steering.
The power steering continuously adjusts the resistance drivers feel as vehicle speed changes. An engine-driven hydraulic pump assists a power rack-and-pinion gear in the steering system while a magnetic resistance unit continuously varies the level of hydraulic assist. This makes the vehicle easier to steer during low-speed maneuvers, such as parking, and makes steering more stable at highway speeds.
The vehicle included some pretty handy extras. For instance, a "Personal Choice" feature, standard on the Ultra, lets two drivers tailor various settings to their preferences. The car adjusts settings based on which key fob is used. Unlock the car and the driver-seat cushions, lumbar support, and mirrors adjust to the way you set them previously. If you and your partner have different tastes in music, that's no problem either. Both drivers can store their own settings for volume, tone, audio source, and preset and last-tuned stations. And if you like cooler temperatures, but a second driver cranks the heat, you can each store your own preferences for temperature, fan speed, and passenger climate control.
The Park Avenue also gave me my first chance to try a head-up display, a $275 option. It projects the vehicle's current speed and other information, such as turn-signal indictors and engine warnings, onto the windshield just above the dashboard. I quickly became attached to the display and found myself rarely looking at the instrument panel. Although $275 may sound costly to some people, the added safety and convenience of the option seem well worth the price.
As if luxury options and high-tech road handling weren't enough, the vehicle has a supercharged engine. Superchargers boost engine power by pushing additional air into the cylinders. The 3.8-liter supercharged V6, coupled with a four-speed electronically controlled transmission, delivers 240 hp at 5,200 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. In layman's terms that translates into a pretty quick ride for a luxury car. And it doesn't burn as much fuel as one might expect. The vehicle is rated at 18/27 mpg.
So what's the damage for a loaded luxury vehicle? In the case of the Park Avenue Ultra, the sticker's not too shocking. Base price is $36,800. Add a $670 destination fee and $2,365 in options, such as the head-up display, a $1,095 sunroof, and $695 chrome-plated wheels and it brings the total to $39,835.
Sure, a good chunk of that goes for advanced technology like StabiliTrak, but consider the alternative. Toss your kids the keys in winter, and (take it from me) a little snow and a lot of oversteer could cost you a lot more than the traction control.