Pros: Cruising comfort, size
Cons: Handling, power, wind noise, seat comfort, interior quality, apparent reliability issues
Subtitle: A car for the last Century
This car is not for everyone. If you're looking for an exciting, cool, powerful, good-handling and braking car, look somewhere else. If you want a car that is reliable (at least, according to Consumer's Reports), inoffensive looking, and that rides well for long distance driving while getting tolerable mileage, it may be just what you're looking for.
A little background on me, since explaining where I'm coming from in my evaluation is important. I'm a 25 year old male, a car-nut, I like well balanced vehicles that can do everything well. I bought this vehicle with ~72,000 miles on it, and have put ~3,000 miles on it in the last month. This is my secondary car- I use it for commuting to keep the miles off of my 2005 Outback XT Ltd. When I bought it I expected significant cost savings in fuel- after all, my Outback was getting ~22 mpg during my 140 mile round-trip commute (mostly expressway, 80 mph), burning premium. In this I was somewhat disappointed. I average ~26 mpg in a car that is rated for 29 mpg highway (my Outback is rated for 25 mpg highway). This is not entirely the car's fault- but really, who goes speed limit? The most I have gotten out of a full tank is 330 miles; 26 mpg is a more realistic estimate for me; your mileage may vary.
On my long daily commute, the car performs- adequately. It is not offensive in any way, but it isn't exciting either. The ride motions are poorly controlled- I expected body roll on such a softly-sprung car, but there is also a weird nausea-inducing back-and-forth head bobbing motion after bumps. I initially suspected that this was due to worn struts, but several new and used reviews have mentioned this, so it appears to be a Century trait. The all-season radials certainly don't help, but very little grip is available; tire squealing is easily provoked during any semi-aggressive cornering. Not that any other aspect of the car's handling inspires confidence; it understeers horribly, and is easily unsettled by mid-corner bumps (important on Michigan's horribly maintained roads). The car certainly feels "floaty" at speed, like its about to lift off the road; there is not much steering feel, and yet bumps seem to have a strong influence on the car, with very little communication to let you know where the car is at on the road. The lack of steering feel and poor tracking characteristics also means that drifting out of your lane is a constant problem. The suspension does do an admirable job of soaking up small bumps on gravel roads, and is fine on long stretches of straight highway.
The engine and transmission are, once again, adequate. The Century shares its platform with the Regal; I was therefore somewhat disappointed to find GM's 3.1 liter 60 degree v6 under the hood instead of their much more appropriate 3.8 liter 90 degree v6. The 3.1 liter makes 160 hp / 185 lb-ft of torque; the 3.8 liter develops 200 hp / 225 lb-ft of torque. When moving a car that weighs 3300 pounds, the extra grunt is vital; especially when the transmission is a 4-speed automatic; the 3.8 liter Regal does 0-60 in 7.8 seconds, while the Century makes the run in 9.4. This though does not fully reflect the performance difference; the Regal apparently does not suffer from the same number of downshifts, cruising at higher speeds more comfortably. My commute is over quite flat ground; driving in hilly or mountainous terrain would make this difference even greater. To add insult to injury, the Regal with the 3.8 liter gets 19 mpg city, 30 highway, while the 3.1 liter Century is 20 city, 29 highway- making the benefits derived from the smaller engine difficult to see (the supercharged, 240 hp / 280 lb-ft Regal gets 17 city, 27 highway and goes 0-60 in 6.6 seconds). The transmission does shift smoothly at part-throttle, but at wide open throttle the shifts are quite abrupt. Hills and passing seem to inspire downshifts, which although smooth and fairly quiet, get annoying.
Although the engine and transmission are not very audible, and the tire noise is suppressed, the wind noise makes any speed over 70 quite irritating. You are certainly aware of the rushing sounds. This may be a problem with my particular car; some of the window rubber is missing or torn.
The driver's seat is quite uncomfortable. I am aware that this is at odds with what many people write, both professionals and amateurs. After a great deal of thought (while trying to figure out why my back hurt and trying to get comfortable on a 70 mile drive), I have reached some conclusions about why this is. Both this Century and my parent's Lumina were driven by somewhat overweight women for their first 70,000 miles. I believe that GM used cushioning that was initially excellent, but failed to hold up well, becoming compressed and flat. The Lumina is much worse; when you sit in it, you can feel the steel bracket that holds the seat in place under your left buttock. But even the Century, once I sit my 210 pound, 6 foot frame into it, is compressed and becomes very uncomfortable. So, make sure you drive it for a while before you buy it.
The interior is, well, adequate. There is quite a bit of interior room, although I have not spent enough time in the back seat to pass judgement on it. I like the interior styling; the dashboard is not offensive to look at. The gauges are boring (hey, my Outback has electroluminescent gauges, I'm spoiled now), but that is to be expected. Radio and climate controls are simple, and not difficult to figure out, even while driving (I have the tape deck, not the CD player). Seat material is ok (I don't have the leather), but there is a rip in the driver's seat, so durability may be an issue. There is also some rubber channeling for the drivers-side rear door window that is separating from the body, probably contributing to wind noise. The interior plastic is cheap and hard, and the sunvisors have a chintzy, flimsy feel. I was worred that the cupholder- which folds out of the center counsel- would not be strong and would break rapidly; so far it has not been a problem, but I am at a bit of a loss as to what kind of container it is designed to hold. 20 oz bottles slip out, as do 12 oz cans; the big Gatorade bottles (as well as my Nalgene water bottles) are too big to fit. I assume that the portable coffee cups fit, and maybe fountain drinks. The trunk is big; the transition from my station wagon to this sedan was not quite as difficult as I expected.
Exterior styling is desinged to be as inoffensive as possible. Although this probably works well for the target demographic, it means that the car will blend in to the background; not a good thing if you're trying to stand out. I am rather fond of it; the grille and hood give the car a good road prescence, while the rear end is better looking than that of the LaCrosse, the Century's replacement. The LaCrosse has two taillights that end at the trunk, while the Century has wrap-around glass that continues on to the trunk lid, a more visually consistent effect. However, these cars are ubiquitous, especially in the area around Lansing Michigan, so if you're trying to stand out, another vehicle will be better.
In summary, this is essentially the definitive "pretty good car". Nothing offensive, but nothing breathtaking either. Honestly, if I hadn't bought it from a relative for $3000, I wouldn't have picked it; I certainly would not have paid the $4000-$5000 that they seem to trade hands for. But, I knew its history, and the price was right, so... It should also be noted that these cars were essentially unchanged from 1997-2005, an eight year production run. In that time Honda and Toyota had two generations of Accord and Camry; no surprise then that these cars are much more modern than the Buick. Overall, I really do think that there are better cars out there; unless you get an exceptionally good deal, check out your alternatives first.
Well, I must say GM has found yet another way to disappoint me. Honestly, I can tolerate little problems; interior being composed of rather hard plastics, weather gasket over the rear driver's side door window falling off, rather soggy handling- but this has just gone too far. Here's my story:
I bought this car in July, and have since put a little over 7,000 miles on it, mostly in expressway commuting to and from work (140 mile round trip). I noticed a bit of a transmission leak; nothing too horrible, it lost a pint over those 7,000 miles. Disappointing, but not threatening. As I was beginning a trip to Baltimore (from Grand Rapids, Michigan, 650 miles each way), the "Low Coolant" light came on. Huh. Well, no problem, I stopped at a gas station and bought some antifreeze, topping off the overflow reserve. The light had turned off as I was slowing down to get off of the expressway, so I thought maybe it was a false alarm. Back on the expressway, I made it 15 miles before the light came back on. I pulled over at the next exit and checked the coolant level- fine. Hmmmm. At this point I was getting worried. With a heavy heart, I called and cancelled my visit to my friends in Baltimore, then turned around and went home. I successfully reached home, with the light coming back on intermittently.
The next day, I had my brother (Honda / Suzuki motorcycle mechanic) call one of his friend Chris, who owns an automotive shop. Without any hesitation, Chris said "intake manifold gasket". Ok. Well, I must say I was a little disapointed by that, especially when he indicated it would be an $800 job to fix (we probably will do it ourselves instead). But what really worried me is that he was able to determine the origin of the problem so easily. A little bit of research on the internet revealed that this was a far from isolated problem. According to items others have posted (http://www.msnusers.com/GMConsumers) this engine and others from the same family have a ridiculous failure rate- multiple people are posting failures within 2 years and 45,000 miles! That is unacceptable (more on the hard details of this below). The problem really isn't with the leak itself- if it just trickled down the outside of the engine, the only harm would be a puddle where I parked and the risk of destroying the kidneys of a passing animal. No, the problem is that the leak is internal, dumping coolant INTO the engine oil! So there is no choice but to perform the repair, in a hurry, before the oil is contaminated by antifreeze (which quickly degrades bearings, leading to catastrophic engine failure). I bought this car in the belief that it would soldier on through at least another 50,000 miles without incident- 125,000 miles is not that many for a modern car. I can't help but think back to our '86 Civic CRX Si's- one made it to 215,000 miles, one to 240,000 miles, the last 50,000 miles of which were subjected to the tender mercy of three teenage boys with their first manual transmission car (our trucks and Jeeps were quite different). There is no excuse for failure rates being elevated in an erstwhile "modern" vehicle like this.
Specifics on affected engines are a bit hard to determine. It looks like all GM v6s with plastic intake manifolds; maybe the L36 Series II 3.8 liter v6 (90 degree); Generation III 60 degree v6s including the 3.1 liter LG8, 3.4 liter LA1, and maybe others as well (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GM_60-Degree_V6_engine#Generation_III). So far, GM has apparently released some "Technical Service Bulletins" (like a recall, but not repaired free after warranty and not required to be performed); however I was not able to find one relevant to my vehicle. Here is an excerpt from the L36 recall:
"We have learned that your vehicle may develop an engine coolant leak at the upper intake manifold to throttle body gasket, or at the lower intake to upper intake gasket. This condition may result in a low engine coolant level and higher engine temperature. To prevent this condition from occuring, your Chevrolet dealer will replace the engine throttle body fasteners with redesigned fasteners, and add cooling system sealant to radiator tank. This service will be performed for you at no charge through July 31, 2005."
To say the least, this is a horrible solution; realistically it is not a solution at all, merely a bandaid to carry the vehicle beyond its warranty window; this way if the engine fails outside of warranty, they have no need to pay for it, versus a within warranty failure that they would have an obligation to repair. If this were a high-tech, cutting edge, overhead cam, high compression / supercharged / turbocharged, or high-revving engine, I would be able to accept problems. Reduced reliability is often the price you pay for pushing the automotive envelope. But this is a rather boring work horse of a motor, with no pretensions of high performance. Furthermore, it is part of a series of engines that has been in production since 1980! If GM cannot get this right after 20 years of manufacturing, I doubt they can ever get it right. This failure has severely shaken my faith in GM, and will make my future purchase of a domestic vehicle difficult to justify.