Sometimes—not that often, but sometimes—I’ll encounter a car I haven’t seen for years and suddenly see it in a new light, or, maybe more accurately, the light it was originally intended to be seen in, minus all the buildup of my own prejudices and ideas. This happened to me just the other day, when I saw a mid-to-late 1990s Buick Riviera, and was struck by just how weird that car was. Good weird, though.
I’m not sure the river-stone/jellybean smooth rounded look of most mid-to-late ‘90s cars has aged all that well, but in every generation of auto design, there’s a few standouts that manage to capture what the original appeal of the aesthetic was. And I think this Riviera—the eighth generation, 1995 to 1999 one— might be one of those cars.
When I saw it the other day, I was driving, and approached it from the rear, arguably the most interesting angle of this car. The rear of it is odd, in a way most American cars aren’t. The shape of the car tapers pretty dramatically at the rear, forming a subtle teardrop shape if you were to see one from above, and that narrow rear is capped with a full-width elongated oval taillamp unit that echoes the elongated oval fish-mouth grille up front.
From a quick glance at the rear, you can almost imagine it as a modernized Citroën DS. That seems strange, but maybe not as strange as you’d think; the design chief in charge of this eighth-and-last generation Riviera mentioned that at least one exotic non-Buick, the Jaguar E-Type, was an influence, along with the legendary ‘66 Riviera. You can definitely see the E-Type influence in the front grille.
The car has real presence, in a way that just doesn’t really exist in cars today, because this whole class of car has all but vanished. This was a very American class of car, the Personal Luxury car, and I suppose you could think of it as an American interpretation of the legendary Grand Touring class of car: a big, fast, comfortable coupe that could seat four but had only two doors. A sort of sports car for people who maybe just got older and outgrew true sports cars, people who still wanted to go fast, but just didn’t feel the need to work as hard for it, and maybe had less to prove.
Part of the Riviera’s presence is its size; it’s a coupé, sure, but it’s also , bigger than an Eldorado, and about as big as a four-door Lincoln Continental. This thing was 3800 pounds of smoothly sculpted class, moved along by Buick’s most powerful V6 since the Grand National.
The first couple years you could get the 3.8-liter V6 Supercharged as an option, good for 225 horsepower, about 20 more than without the forced induction. Later, the supercharger became standard, and the Riviera made 240 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque—those were no-joke numbers back in the ‘90s, and good enough to get it from inert to 60 MPH in about seven seconds.
Somehow, this thing also managed a respectable 18 city/27 highway MPG! That’s pretty damn good. They’re all decent numbers that paint a picture of a pretty capable car. Sure, it’s not a true sports car, with front wheel drive and a soft suspension, but it’s not supposed to be. It knows what it is.
I’m still a little surprised I’m feeling this strongly about a mid-’90s GM product, which I mostly only encounter while picking cars for Meh Car Monday. But I mean what I’m saying here: That sort of worn-looking mid-’90s Riviera that’s very likely only got about, what, five more years of working life, caught my attention and impressed me.
It impressed me with its presence and stance, its character, and it’s so very far removed from my usual tastes. It also made me a bit nostalgic for the entire category of personal luxury cars, a category stomped flat by the needlessly huge tires of massive, over-leather’d SUVs today.
So, I’m going to suggest to all of you out there to keep your eyes open for the few surviving last Rivieras out there, plying the highways, leaving wakes of classy classness behind them.