1996 Buick Century Custom sedan
1996 Buick Century Custom sedan, Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

Forget the four-cylinder cars, and be wary of the automatic transmission. But with those caveats in mind, let me just say that if you’re looking for a cheap second-hand car, the Buick Century from 1990-96 can be a reasonable choice.

Now I mention those years because they represent the previous-generation car. That is, the Century got a complete re-make in 1997.

However, truth be told, the Century did receive only a minor facelift for 1990. Prior to that, the previous complete makeover came in 1982, when this stalwart General Motors model went from rear-wheel to front-wheel drive and shared mechanicals with the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, Chevrolet Celebrity and Pontiac 6000.

In any event, there’s nothing flashy about an older Century. Nothing at all. Bland and boxy, with plenty of chrome and the type of wheel covers that would make former Ford and Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca proud, the Century of this era was truly basic transportation. Still is. But there’s a place for that in many families.

If you’re one of them, I’d advice looking for a Century from 1992 or 1993 or… Well, up to 1996 (the 1997-and-newer Century was covered in a previous column). The early ’90s cars had quite a few problems, but most were worked out within a couple of years (see Buyer’s Alerts for details).

The engine of choice is probably the 3.1-litre V6. You shouldn’t have trouble finding cars with this engine; most were sold with it. If not the 3.1-litre, consider yourself lucky if you find a Century with the 3.3-litre V6. Powerful at all speeds, the 3.3-litre is responsive and smooth. It was replaced in ’94 by the 3.1-litre.

On the other hand, the 2.5-litre four-cylinder is rough and does not have adequate power, especially in the heavier station wagon Century. Fuel economy hasn’t been good either and this engine has had more than its fair share of problems. In 1993, the 2.5-litre was replaced with a 2.2-litre four, but it’s not a tempting choice – even in 1994 when the 2.2-litre got an extra 10 horsepower.

Whichever Century you drive, the suspension will deliver a soft, plush ride – even with the then-optional Dynaride suspension. The base suspension and narrow tires on the starter car put a strict limit on racy driving. But, the tires are relatively cheap to replace. The best choice is the Century with Gran Touring Suspension.

The cabin? Generally, roomy enough for six adults, though three across either front or back will be a squeeze. The trunk has lots of luggage space. Wagons were sold with an optional rear-facing seat for eight-passenger capacity. The instruments and controls are usable, but not terribly user-friendly. A driver’s side air bag was available in ’93 and made standard in ’94.

If you’re looking at an older Century, note the Buyer’s Alerts and recall notices, and make sure you insist on a thorough mechanical inspection.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Jeremy Cato is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist. He is a columnist and feature writer for the Globe & Mail newspaper and his articles are syndicated to a variety of other publications.

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