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Second-Hand: Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, Buick Century

Once upon a time, 1982 to be precise, GM stretched out its front-drive X-car platform (Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, et al) to beget a family of affordably priced mid-sized sedans and wagons.

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Once upon a time, 1982 to be precise, GM stretched out its front-drive X-car platform (Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, et al) to beget a family of affordably priced mid-sized sedans and wagons.

As the years passed, the Chevrolet Celebrity expired first, at the end of the 1990 model year. The Pontiac 6000 followed a year later.

The Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, like a pair of sensible shoes that have never been in fashion, have dutifully soldiered on.

But their time has come. An all-new Century’ has already been introduced.

The Ciera passes into history in a couple of months.

The engineers at GM had 15 years to get these cars right, and owners report good reliability for cars made in the 1990s.

Although late-model Centurys and Cieras are decently priced used cars, one turn behind the wheel is enough to remind us that their basic design was conceived in the late 1970s.

Family cars have come a long way since then.

There are still many late-’80s models on the road, but take the time for a thorough mechanical check before you decide to snap one up.

Despite their unexciting road performance, newer Buicks and Oldsmobiles should be on the mid-size used car shopper’s list.

Old-fashioned performance aside, you get quite a lot of car for the money.

BODY STYLES

Two-door coupe (until ’89) Four-door sedan Four-door wagon (until ’96)

POWERTRAINS

Lowest priced sedans had a standard 2.5L four until 1992. The next year’s models picked up the Chevrolet Cavalier’s 2.2L engine instead. Since 1994, all Canadian models have been sold with a 3.1L V6.

The 3.3L V6 was the sole V6 engine available from 1989 to 1993.

Pre-1989 V6s included the 2.8L unit or — from 1986 to 1988 — an optional 3.8L.

OVERALL ROAD BEHAVIOUR

Soft suspension settings provide little wheel control on frost-heaved roads or in bumpy corners. The power steering is quite numb. It’s hard to get a good grip on the thin, slippery steering wheel rim.

By far the most satisfying engine is the powerful and smooth 3.8L V6. The smaller sixes aren’t bad either.

The three-speed automatic transaxle fitted to four-cylinder engines (and older V6s) doesn’t shift smoothly and tends to engage the torque converter lockup feature too soon in city driving.

There’s noticeable torque steer (the front wheels are pulled to one side while accelerating hard), so the driver needs to be attentive on slippery roads.

The rear brakes tend to lock up too easily on cars that don’t have ABS (standard since ‘94).

ACCOMMODATIONS

The driving position is ‘early American,’ with the steering wheel placed a bit too close to the driver’s chest.

The front seats provide lumpy, uneven support.

Each A-body car used to have its distinctive dashboard design — with Olds using a multi-dial version, while Buick went for the horizontal strip look.

Although the designs have been updated, the instrument lenses catch too many reflections and GM’s trademark wiper/turn signal/cruise control stalk is clunky.

The boxy body leaves enough room for three adults in the back seat.

Wagons have a very large, well-proportioned cargo area. The sedan’s rear seatback doesn’t fold down.

WHAT OWNERS SAY

Most responses came in from owners of older models, many who bought these cars used as affordable transportation.

A case in point is Trevor Anderson of Whitby who drives a 1986 four-cylinder Ciera bought in 1991. “The only parts we replaced are the starter and exhaust manifold. Other than that we have had no problems with this car. It’s no performance car, but it

has proved to be dependable in its 198,000 km.”

Russ Patterson of Scarborough bought a 1991 Ciera with a 3.3L V6 in late 1992. The car has now travelled over 172,000 km. He writes that both he and his wife “have been pleased with this car. We have spent a lot of time in it, especially on the 401 in

all kinds of weather.” Patterson notes some electrical problems with the dashboard, and the first appearance of rust.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

Newer models (1992 and newer) have been reliable, with no major problems to report.

Older cars suffered from a number of maladies — some of which may still show up on later models as they age.

The most common problem is worn power steering rack seals.

The symptoms are only obvious when the car is started up from cold. Flick the steering wheel one way and then the other. If the wheel seems to ‘stick,’ it’s a sign the seals are worn.

Fortunately, there is a wide network of affordably-priced aftermarket or remanufactured steering parts out there.

Pre-1990 automatic transaxles could get troublesome after 100,000 km.

The best way to check this out is to pull out the dipstick and assess the condition of the transaxle fluid.

Many owners have noted quick front brake disc wear. Also noted are malfunctioning power window and lock mechanisms.

The 2.8L V6 has a history of intake manifold gasket leaks and worn camshafts.

Look out for rust around the front suspension attachment points and the bottom seams of doors.

REPLACEMENT PARTS COST

The six commonly replaced parts listed below are for a 1993 Buick Century with a 3.3L V6. Retail prices were supplied by Meadow Mills Pontiac-Buick. Front brake rotors: $129.68 ea.; radiator $530.50; exhaust system (aft of converter): $298.21; water pump: $136.78; fuel pump: $163.28; engine control module: $216.83.

RESALE VALUE

The values quoted below are average retail prices from the Canadian Red Book, which is used by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to calculate sales tax on private transactions.

The Red Book assumes that the vehicle has been driven approximately 20,000 km per year, and is not in need of any major repairs.

These prices are for a base-model Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera four-door sedan with the smallest V6 engine. 1996: $16,975; 1995: $14,225; 1994: $11,775; 1993: $9,650; 1992: $7,600; 1991: $6,400; 1990: $5,250.

Buick Century models cost about the same.

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