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Park Avenue Ultra is ultra-wonderful

"So, what do you think?" I asked the passenger sitting next to me in the "Majestic Teal Pearl" Buick Park Avenue Ultra as we headed south on I-15, the construction finally behind us.

"About what?" she muttered, fiddling with the personal temperature control adjuster on her side of the car - a Buick specialty."About the car," I said. "How do you like it?"

"Oh, it's fine," she said, her attention now diverted out the window as we passed the Utah State Prison, an edifice that would always motivate my dad to declare: "Son, that's a good place to stay out of."

I was somewhat taken aback by my passenger's lack of enthusiasm for the Ultra, Buick's top-of-the-line vehicle. After all, her father had been a Buick man through-and-through and this car was far superior to the long line of Roadmasters and Electras she'd grown up with.

I tried again. "Care to guess the price?" I asked. "Oh, I don't know," she responded. "Around $25,000 I suppose."

When I told her she was way off, that the Buick's bottom line was $37,260, I finally had her attention. "You're kidding," she said. "Well, no," I said. "Why, don't you think it's worth it?"

"Of course not," she said. "That's $40,000!"

Actually, not quite, but pretty close, when taxes are added in and if one had to pay full sticker. But I didn't press it. In fact, I decided to venture no more conversational gambits concerning the Buick Ultra.

The "passenger" was actually my wife, Karen, and I suppose she can be forgiven for being a bit jaded when it comes to fancy cars; she's ridden shotgun in a lot of them over the years that I've been reviewing automobiles for these pages.

But I can't help but think she should have been more impressed with the new Ultra, Buick's flagship that was given a complete makeover for '97. I sure am.

After all, how many conservative, full-size, made-in-the-USA sedans do you know of that come with a supercharger under the hood? Not a turbocharger, mind you, a SUPERcharger, the stuff of race cars and serious hot rods when I was growing up back in the '50s.

I think there's some interesting psychology going on here. If the car in question had been a luxury vehicle from Germany or Japan, I doubt Karen would have been shocked by a price tag just south of $40k. It's the idea of paying that much for an American car that struck her as out of the question.

If a lot of other people share that sentiment then Detroit, in general, and General Motors, in particular, have a problem: People think the Big Three can't make a car to compete in the same price range as Mercedes, Lexus, BMW and Infiniti, among others.

Still, Buick says sales of the '97 model have been the highest for Park Avenue in six years, so maybe all is well. Declares Katherine Benoit, Park Avenue brand manager for Buick: "It has led the way in the rediscovery of the large luxury automobile."

If so, it's deserved. I was impressed with the Ultra in my week behind its leather-clad wheel. If the target in building sedans these days is to make them as much like a BMW or Saab - the so-called "Eurosedan" with a firm ride, excellent handling and flat cornering - then Buick is on target.

Equally impressive is the drive train. The 3.8 liter V6 engine, a very reliable power plant that should give long and true service, delivers 18 mpg in city driving and 27 on the highway - very impressive mileage for a full-size sedan.

Most cars of this class are equipped with a V8, of course, upping the cost and the fuel consumption along with it. Buick's genius comes in adding the supercharger to the V6, giving it the leap off the line and great passing ability on the freeway of a big V8 with the economy of a V6. Why aren't more manufacturers doing this?

(Unlike the better-known turbocharging technology, there is no "turbo-lag" with a supercharger. The blower is ready for duty RIGHT NOW!)

The Ultra is also a fine-looking piece of machinery. No white walls, no hood ornament, no opera windows, no vinyl top, no continental kit . . . none of the stuff that GM once felt obliged to put on its top-line cars. The Ultra is smooth, sleek, understated and very tasteful. You know, like a BMW.

But it's still very much an American car in one respect: it has every luxury gizmo you can think of, including a few you might not even want.

I'm thinking here of the "head-up" display, called EyeCue that projects information onto the windshield, showing vehicle speed, high beam and turn-signal indicators and a "check gauge" reminder.

The concept is taken from jet fighter technology, but the requirements of a fighter jock making five-G turns in an F16 are not quite the same as Mr. Executive taking the offramp onto I-215.

Maybe over time I'd grow to like the head-up display, but for now it seems gimmicky.

Base price of the 97 Ultra is $34,995. My test car's options included $695 for the 16-inch chrome-plated wheels (very nice and worth the money), $275 for the EyeCue display, $185 for a "convenience console" between the front seats, $105 for the grand touring suspension (go for it), $100 for the CD/cassette sound system and $70 for the self-dimming rear view mirror.

With destination charges, the bottom line was $37,260.