Reatta ultimately disappointed consumers
When Buick's chief engineer Lloyd Reuss was promoted to general manager of Buick in 1980 he wanted to add a two-passenger Buick to the line. He saw it as enhancing Buick's image, generating more showroom traffic and lowering the average age of Buick buyers.
That car became the Reatta, and when it was conceived Buick’s image was established as an upscale luxury family car, although it had also flirted with performance models like the Grand National and T-Type.
The Buick Reatta was to complement that sporty thrust while keeping a foot in each camp. It was not to be an out-andout sports car, but a true American Grand Touring car with the luxury touches Buick buyers expected. It was hoped that with good performance and attractive styling it would be perceived as a more affordable version of the Mercedes-Benz SL.
The original outline for the Reatta was established in 1982 and the design was pretty well finalized by '84. To save money, sell it to senior management and shorten development time it drew heavily on existing Buick Riviera hardware.
It had unit construction and was powered by Buick's 165horsepower 3.8-litre 3800, overhead valve V-6 transversely mounted and driving the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transaxle. While familiar and well proved technology, it hardly projected the high-tech, exotic image of a Mercedes.
A new platform was designed that reduced the wheelbase 241 mm (9.5 in.) to 2,502 mm (98.5 in.). Suspension, steering and brake systems came from the Riviera, with some modifications.
It had fully independent suspension, in front via MacPherson struts, while the rear had struts, control arms and a Corvette type transverse plastic leaf sprung. Anti-roll bars were fitted front and rear and brakes were four-wheel discs with antilock.
Since GM had no spare production capacity a former axle plant in Lansing, Michigan was converted into the "Reatta Craft Center." Replacing the traditional assembly line were automatically guided platforms that moved the car from one work station to the next. Platform advancement was controlled by the assemblers who had much longer than the typical 30 to 60 seconds to complete their tasks.
The Reatta’s styling was new and well executed but not exciting. The front end was smooth and clean with pop-up headlamps and an unobtrusive under-the-bumper grille. The galvanized steel body (except the plastic front fenders) was sleek and nicely proportioned with a black accent line/rub-rail running completely around the perimeter.
The short-tailed Reatta was a trim 4,643 mm (182.8 in.) long but still provided ample luggage space in a 10 cubic foot trunk and bins behind the seats.
The interior was quite luxurious, the only jarring note being the too-demanding touch screen cathode ray tube instrument panel. Lifted intact from the Riviera, its rectangular shape clashed with the Reatta's smooth interior curves.
The Reatta coupe was introduced as a 1988 model early in ’88, but by this time Buick's emphasis and philosophy had shifted somewhat. The division's aim now was to promote Buicks as "substantial, powerful and mature premium American motorcars." A sporty two-seater seemed a little out of synch with this target audience.
When tested by the motoring press the 1,533 kg (3,380 lb) the Reatta's performance proved quite adequate. Car and Driver (2/88) reported zero to 97 km/h (60 mph) in 9.1 seconds and top speed of 196 km/h (122 mph).
But testers complained that while the Reatta was smooth, comfortable and quiet, it lacked a sports car’s "soul." Soul is difficult and intangible to define, but stepping from a Reatta to a Mercedes makes it immediately obvious.
During its first model year Buick sold just over 4,700 Reattas, far below the hoped for 15,000. Sales climbed to 7,009 the following year.
Buick made some changes in the 1990 Reatta and added a convertible which, anachronistically, had a manually operated top. Instruments were now analog and a driver's air bag was added. These changes helped perk up sales to 8,515, better but still disappointing.
The Reatta was carried into 1991 with horsepower increased by five to 170, but alas its future was already sealed. After building only 1,618 ’91s, Buick discontinued it.
Although the Reatta was what it was conceived to be it never really caught on. It didn't attract enough traditional Buick buyers, and was hard pressed to entice customers away from the more established sporty or prestige marques. It was also bucking the reality that the two-seater market is always limited and specialized. Pontiac, for example, was discontinuing its Fiero, and Cadillac's Allante was selling slowly.
While not a commercial success the Reatta was a comfortable, good driving car with modern conveniences and very manageable size. It could become a popular collectible, particularly the convertible of which only 2,437 were built.