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These are happy times in the automotive industry. A strong economy is keeping demand and sales at high levels. The hottest commodity in the auto business continues to be in the truck segment. Consumers still like big, heavy, gas-guzzling vehicles, and until there’s a fuel shortage (or the U.S. moves to a European-type tax structure on gas), they will continue to be in demand.
But there are government requirements on automakers to maintain a moderate level of fuel consumption. Through Corporate Average Fuel Economy, each company must sell a fair share of smaller and more economical vehicles to make up for the big ones. That means there are bargains at the smaller end of the scale, where companies must sell vehicles whether true consumer demand is there or not.
Still, there is a reason for the popularity of sport utility vehicles (SUVs). They’re practical for carrying lots of cargo and giving people a commanding view of the road. Of course, you can get all that for less money and far more comfort from a minivan. But minivans have fallen out of vogue, labeled “boring’ by the style cognoscenti. That also means good deals to those who care more about function than fashion.
With continuing improvements in every manufacturer’s products and hundreds of vehicles to choose from, marketing is changing. These days the idea is not to sell the product so much as the brand. That’s why each manufacturer is racing to offer a complete line, from small economy cars to luxury vehicles and SUVs. Companies like Lincoln and Mercedes- Benz, that just a few years ago denied they would ever sell trucks, are bringing out SUVs; and in coming years, expect longtime holdouts BMW and Buick to weigh in. Even Porsche tried to cut a deal with Mercedes to sell that company’s new M-class.
This bodes well for the studious consumer. As products proliferate, competition increases. Products will improve in performance and value. Not a bad deal. Once everybody has an SW to sell, even those will be available at more reasonable prices.
Buick Riviera www.buick.com
Still the largest coupe this side of a Bentley, the Riviera seems destined to be the last of a breed. Coupe sales in general have suffered recently, and large, luxurious ones like the Riviera are hurting the most. Its future is uncertain beyond the next couple of years. One advantage of the car’s large exterior is that it permits a huge interior. This is the lone six-passenger coupe on the market, although seating for five with comfortable buckets up front is more popular.
Inside, the design elements are rather disappointing. A long, flee dash rises too high, and the large gauges are set too far apart to provide quick information. Ergonomics have been set aside to mimic a look thought to have ended years ago.
Performance, though, is no throwback. This car can run. For 1998, the supercharged engine has been standardized, making this a potent machine. Ride quality leans toward the soft end, but the suspension is designed well enough