Buick Reatta or Eagle Premier: Which Forgotten Failure Deserves A Second Chance?

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Welcome one and all to the Wednesday edition of Shitbox Showdown! We’ve got a couple names you haven’t heard in a while today, but before we get there, we need to figure out who you’re all going to be for Halloween:

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Break out the hubcap helmets, because it’s David by a landslide! Maybe the vote would have been closer if I’d been able to find a Nissan Pao, but I shudder to think what a $2500 Pao would look like. Probably full of spiders.

[Editor’s Note: I was robbed. DT going to hold this over my head forever. Crap. – JT ]

You know what probably isn’t full of spiders? The cubbyholes behind the seats of a Buick Reatta, or the center armrest of an Eagle Premier. (But can somebody check for me to make sure? Spiders freak me out.) Yes, that’s right – today we’re going to look at a two-seater Buick with a primitive touch-screen, and a Chrysler-ish product from the late ’80s that isn’t a K-car.

1990 Buick Reatta – $1,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.8 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Borrego Springs, CA

Odometer reading: 178,000 miles

Runs/drives? So they say

In the 1980s, every GM division had a cool 2-seater except for Oldsmobile and Buick. Chevrolet had the Corvette, Pontiac had the Fiero, and starting in 1987, Cadillac had the Allante. Buick got in on the action in 1988 with this car, a stubby little coupe (and later convertible) based on a shortened Riviera platform, and called it, in the grand GM tradition of making up words for car names, the Reatta.

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The Reatta was meant to be Buick’s halo car, and as such, was stuffed to the gills with modern technology, most of which worked: independent suspension all around, four wheel disc brakes, the ubiquitous ’80s digital dash, and in the center console, a primitive version of a touch screen – called the Electronic Control Center – which included the audio system, climate controls, a basic trip computer, and access to vehicle diagnostics, all at the owner’s fingertips. Customers hated it, and after a couple of years Buick abandoned the touch screen in the Reatta (and Riviera, which also used this system) in favor of a standard-issue Delco stereo and conventional climate controls. How times have changed.

[Editor’s Note: Mark is leaving out the most important part about that touch screen: it was a CRT! Yes, as in cathode ray tube, not the thing weirdos are freaking out about in schools even though there are probably more Trinitron CRTs in elementary schools than the other kind. Anyway, here’s an old commercial featuring one and when I went through an old Buick Apple II floppy disk, they had a full rundown of what that CRT setup did:

Hey! My first Editor’s Note with a video! – JT]

The fact that this Reatta has the old digital dash and touch screen leads me to believe it is listed incorrectly and is actually a 1989 model, since all the info I found says that 1990 was the first year of the conventional dash. An incorrect listing, you say? On Craigslist? Perish the thought.

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Overall, this car looks pretty good. There is some wear and tear in the interior, and a couple of dings outside, but it’s a good ten-footer. The seller says it runs and drives great, but the flat tire makes me wonder how out of date that information is. Being a California car, there is also that worry about non-op status and the possibility of back registration fees. This car has the same good old 3.8 liter V6 and overdrive automatic as a zillion LeSabres, Electras, Delta 88s, Bonnevilles, and half of the rest of GM’s lineup, so parts aren’t a problem, nor is reliability.

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I always thought these cars looked sharp in white. A Reatta De Blanc, if you will. Just don’t get pulled over by the Police. (I had to. It was right there.)

1989 Eagle Premier – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: engine not specified, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Greeley, CO

Odometer reading: 136,000 miles

Runs/drives? Presumably

First, I apologize for the tiny photos on this one. They were taken by a used car dealer in Greeley, Colorado, using their state-of-the-art digital camera. Two whole megapixels! The clerk at Circuit City said that’s all he’d ever need. But it’s not like I’m likely to find another Eagle Premier to feature instead, so it is what it is.

And what is it, exactly? It’s a French-engineered sedan, styled by an Italian, with an interior by an American, built in Canada, sold by Chrysler, alongside rebadged Mitsubishis. (Make sense?) There’s no indication in the ad of which engine is under the hood, but it’s either an AMC 2.5 liter inline 4, or a 3 liter version of the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6, infamous for underpowering the DeLorean. If I had to guess, this one has the 4 cylinder; it sure looks like a base model.

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Whichever engine it is, it’s backed by a column-shifted 4 speed automatic, even though there’s a perfectly good center console between its bucket seats with a massive expanse of gray plastic where a floor shifter could go (and does, in fancier versions). The Premier’s exterior styling was done by Giugiaro in Italy, but the interior is all Dick Teague of AMC fame, and I gotta say, it does look inviting and comfy in there. Too bad about those idiotic motorized seatbelts (they’re disconnected in these photos, but trust me – they’re there.)

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The ad is terse, to put it mildly. All we have to go on besides the photos is “good condition.” We have to assume it runs, I guess, if they’re offering test drives, but c’mon guys, throw us a bone here.

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Bizarrely, Chrysler also sold this car as the Dodge Monaco. Chrysler was under contract to use up those awful PRV lumps, so slapping a Dodge badge on the Premier and forcing it to compete against their own Dynasty sedan was one way to do that. Probably not the best way, but I can’t come up with a better answer, even with 30 years of hindsight. They managed to move nearly 140,000 of these over six model years, but I haven’t seen one in ages, and even when I worked at a service station in the mid-1990s, these were few and far between. You can take it to Radwood and be fairly certain you’ll have the only one there. (Probably not true of the Reatta, even though Buick only sold about 20,000 of those; they have a following, and the Premier… doesn’t.)

So those are our choices for Wednesday: a failed sporty halo car, and a family sedan flop. Which one deserves to be rescued from the scrap-heap of history?

Quiz Maker

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78 Responses

  1. Just wanted to appreciate this roller-coaster:

    “And what is it, exactly? It’s a French-engineered sedan,” aww, bummer

    “styled by an Italian,” oh? Nice!

    “with an interior by an American,” [sad trombone]

    “built in Canada,” cool, I guess?

    “sold by Chrysler,” darn. Buick it is.

  2. Since I live in North America and I haven’t driven one while abroad, I’m genuinely curious to know if Renaults are still the same shit boxes they were back in 80s. I knew someone with a Fuego and it was a pretty neat and interesting looking car, but there was nothing operationally worth recommending. Stuff just broke the moment you touched it and it was gutless and handled like a wet noodle.

    1. Well, depends on which 1980s Renaults you’re talking about. In Europe Renault was still making wonderful utilitarian cars as late as the mid 90s with engines originally designed in the 60s and 70s with durability in mind (I daily drive a 1991 Renault 4 and yes, stuff breaks, but it’s cheap and easy to fix). But I don’t think you can’t compare the experience of owning a Renault 5 in Europe to that of owning a LeCar in the USA back in the day.

      The Renault 5 has a cult following and is famous for being dead-reliable here in Europe, pretty much a polar opposite of what the LeCar stands for in the USA. The 9/11 models weren’t great, but they weren’t as bad as the Alliance/Encore seem to have been (and of course, they were cheap and easy to fix around here, which from what I understand wasn’t the case in the US). Cars like the first gen Twingo and Clio are still seen as dependable. So maybe the problem with cheaper Renaults in the US was that they were very poorly built, and servicing wasn’t nearly as easy.

      But once you get to high-end territory and stuff that was engineered in the 80s, oh my god! Yeah, those are pretty awful. Build quality is seemed ok when they were new, but the materials were pretty cheap and aged quickly. Cars like the Fuego, the 21, the 25 or the Espace were pretty cool-looking but they tended to be a never-ending source of problems.

      And then 90s engineering came by and said “hold my beer” and they became even less reliable across the board for quite a while (cars like the Laguna, the Mégane, the 3rd and 4th gen. Espace and the amazing VelSatis and Avantime are all famously unreliable even if the build quality got better). It appears that they got their shit together back in the early 2010s and started building more reliable engines to match the better build quality, so modern Renaults don’t seem so bad.

          1. Yeah, I can imagine parts becoming impossible to obtain, especially at a point in time when Chrysler was probably actively trying to get AMC Renault cars off the road. That probably wouldn’t be such a problem nowadays, parts for the Renault 5 are still pretty abundant and cheap here in Europe and you can order them online easily (just in case you ever come across a decent Le Car for sale). Of course, finding a mechanic that knows their way around these cars is probably next to impossible, but anyone who enjoys wrenching and DIY repairs can learn their way around these impossibly simple cars. I drive a 1991 Renault 4 which has a similar drivetrain to that of some Renault 5 models (the Cléon-Fonte C1E/688 engine) and I didn’t have any wrenching skills before. I’ve slowly started learning about the internals and at this point I feel like I could do a carb rebuild myself.

    2. My wife and I rented a Renault Clio in Ireland a few years back, and ot was brilliant. Excellent handling, very comfortable, and felt well put together. It wasn’t fast, with a 1.2 liter engine, but I really enjoyed driving it. Manual, of course.

  3. Random question- why are floor shifters considered an upgrade from column shifters?

    I think it is bizarre the base model Premier has a center console with a column shifter when fancier trim levels have an identical console with a floor shifter. I could understand if the base model didn’t come with a center console, but it seems strange to have different shifters with otherwise identical consoles. It makes sense if floor shifters are considered inherently “premium,” but I don’t know why that would be the case.

    I don’t understand the appeal of a floor shifter. Floor shifters take up space that can be used for something else, whereas column shifters use space that is otherwise unoccupied. If nothing else, it is hard to spill a Mountain Dew into a column shifter, but it is very easy to spill a Dew into a floor shifter. I’ve had a car or two where the floor shift lever was hard to move because of years of accumulated schmutz and spilled beverages. My column shifter vehicles, on the other hand, have been mostly trouble free. So why are floor shifters considered the premium shifting apparatus?

    1. Floor mounted shifters are sporty, column shifters are agricultural. Makes zero sense anymore in 2022. Like 2 door vs 4 door versions of cars – the 4 door was always less desirable.

  4. I’ve always liked the look of the Reatta… until I see the interior, and something inside of me screams and recoils in disgust! Something about those squared-off interiors with weird seat seams.

    The interior in my parents’ Bonneville SE was fine. Was Buick just catering to the angled-inclined?

  5. Only one comment about the Reatta: if you like them, and I’m kind of undecided myself, there are plenty more out there for not much more money than this one that are cleaner and less questionable. Reatta fans love them,

    Now, the Premier – this is a historically relevant rarity, and deserves to be preserved. It was never going to be a best-seller in North America, not with (gasp) French design roots and a name with very little recognition. But Chrysler gave it a chance, partly because the design was basically bought and paid for already via the AMC deal, but also because it had the potential to become something much greater.

    You see, the Premier’s longitudinal FWD platform was well-designed for balanced handling, and offered lots of space in a trim package that bordered on full-size. Meanwhile, Chrysler to this point had been continually stretching variants of their (originally well-designed) K platform for the last decade, and it was beginning to show – GM and Ford both had competitive front-drivers of a much higher grade by 1990.

    So when Chrysler needed to completely redesign their full-size cars for the 1990s, they – and the engineering team they inherited from AMC – went with an evolution of the more modern Premier/Monaco design. Sticking with the longitudinal layout, they stretched the wheelbase and gave it a bit more width, then engineered the more robust and reliable 3.5 SOHC V6 to replace the temperamental PRV design (and reduce further reliance on Mitsubishi’s 3.0 as well).

    So the forgotten, forsworn Eagle Premier became the successful and revered LH chassis – the car that saved Chrysler a second time and launched a design renaissance at the company that carried them for another decade.

    In short – the Eagle Premier is a historically significant rarity, underappreciated then and now. The Buick Reatta has always been an interesting curiosity, but never truly had any reason to exist in the first place.

    I’ll take the Eagle.

  6. While the Premier was itself a failure sales-wise, it’s effect on 1990’s-era Chrysler makes it an overall success. Chrysler was trying to make their next K-car-type platform (Project Liberty) when they purchased AMC. When Chrysler looked at the design of the Premier, they cancelled that project and chose the Premier as the basis of their new platform (known as LH). The three LH-based cars (Concorde, Intrepid, & Vision) were in Car & Driver’s 10 Best list in 1993 and 1994 and sold very well.

    The AMC purchase allowed François Castaing, AMC’s Vice President of product engineering and development, to become Chrysler’s Vice President of vehicle engineering. This brought the AMC theory of product lifecycle management (PLM) into Chrysler. The AMC purchase also brought CATIA into Chrysler, which replaced their internal CADCAM system, allowing every car to (eventually) be created entirely within a computer. These improvements meant that Chrysler was able to design cars more quickly and efficiently than their competitors (at least for a while).

    Finally, when Chrysler bought AMC it also got the brand-new Brampton Assembly plant in Ontario that was specifically built to construct the Premier. That plant transitioned over to LH production when that car was ready to go, and is still in operation today under Stellantis building 300s, Chargers and Challengers. It may soon be converted to BEV production.

    So maybe the Premier was actually a secret success.

    1. You can still see AMC’s product lifecycle thinking in today’s 300. Although it’s owed to the MB E-class.
      The Hornet is coming back. I wonder how much of the platform will be there from 50 years ago. /s

        1. That makes sense about pedestrian impact regulations. Now that you mention it, I think I also recall hearing something about hood heights that rendered pop up headlights obsolete?

          As for your second statement, I have to respectfully, but vehemently, disagree. They don’t look particularly nice (they look like an afterthought at best and a mechanical tumor at worst), and from my experience, the illumination provided is inferior. Good riddance to pop up headlights.

      1. I don’t like them either, but I also detest polycarbonate headlight lenses. Fuckin’ foggin’. Perhaps I keep my cars too long.

        I get it, weight, possibly tougher than glass and automakers can make all sorts of stupid angry shapes with them.

  7. Like the majority (who aren’t nuts this time) I’ll take the Buick. Hell, I’d take it if the prices were swapped. I just have no interest in hunting down Eagle parts, and besides which it’s just ugly as hell.

  8. It may not look it, but the Eagle is actually a really interesting car, and could have saved AMC if Georges Besse hadn’t been assassinated and Renault decided to abandon the American ship.

  9. I took my driver’s license test in my mom’s 1991 Premier. I drove it to work until I saved enough to buy my own car.
    It may have been a design flaw, but the turn signals made a beeping noise (as opposed to a clicking sound) whose tempo sped up as you slowed down. It may have been an electrical issue, but the beeping was standard and odd.

    I voted Premier for nostalgia’s sake. It was also the first car I was rear-ended in. Got out and pulled the plastic bumper back out, and seemed to be fine. Very comfy front seats (it was French after all).

  10. If I has stupid money, I could see the Reatta as an EV resto-mod. Completely restore the interior, replace the CRT with a modern touchscreen that looks exactly like the CRT, do the same with the digital dash.
    You end up with a pretty Reatta that wafts along.

  11. If I had stupid money, I could see the Reatta as an EV resto-mod. Completely restore the interior, replace the CRT with a modern touchscreen that looks exactly like the CRT, do the same with the digital dash.
    You end up with a pretty Reatta that wafts along.

  12. Gotta go with the Buick in this instance. I once owned this cars kissing cousin, an Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo coupe in bright red with a black interior. Mine was a 91. Phenomenal first car for teenaged me. No CRT driver diagnostic touchscreen in my car though(was still an option, even on top trim Trofeo)

  13. I had an ’89 Premier LX with the V6, great car, fun to drive, lots of room both in the passenger compartment and trunk. It had a sticker under the hood that said something like “Manufactured for Chrysler by American Motors”.

  14. I developed a soft spot for the Reatta when I worked in a little town a few years back where someone drove one of these around. So my vote is equal parts plus for the Reatta, as well as voting against the Eagle.

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