Reatta ul­ti­mately dis­ap­pointed con­sumers

Waterloo Region Record - - Wheels - BILL VANCE

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.

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