Worst Car Wednesday: 1988-91 Buick Reatta

We’ve always said GM works in mysterious ways and there is no better example than the Buick Reatta. With no logic to why Buick needed a hyper-expensive two-seater with a crapcan engine it came and went without hardly a memory of its existence. We could somewhat understand if it was a Cadillac, but Cad had its own expensive two-seat loser called the Allante. It didn’t need another. A worthy candidate for any Worst list, we present the 1988-91 Buick Reatta.

The historical record indicates Buick thought it needed a halo car but not as good as a Corvette nor as bad as the Pontiac Fiero. In other words: a low bar. Based on extensive consumer research what Buick came up with was the Allante. But as we said that went to Cadillac with equally dismal results. Back to the drawing board.

Now Buick needed something, not like the Allante, Corvette, or Fiero

Red Convertible 1990 Buick Reatta
1990 Buick Reatta Convertible on a riverbank | General Motors

Now it needed something, not like the Allante, Corvette, or Fiero. GM management said to develop something that could compete with the Mercedes SL. Really? That’s like asking to make a cardboard box like a steel safe. Never. Going. To. Happen. 

But Buick tried. It got GM’s new 3.8-liter V6 with port fuel injection and counter-rotating shafts to counter the V6’s inherent vibration. So 165 hp and a zero-60 time of nine seconds flat combined with fully independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes started things off. Now it needed something whiz-bang-like. 

How about a digital cathode-ray tube gauge panel? Great! And a CRT touchscreen? Golden! The problem was 1) the technology wasn’t quite up to the task and 2) the typical Buick buyer got scared away from blinking digital information blasting from the instrument panel. It was wasted tech Buick customers could care less about. 

“You can sell an old man a young man’s car, but you can’t sell a young man an old man’s car”

Headshot of a white 1990 Buick Reatta
1990 Buick Reatta | Mecum

Now, who is the customer if not a Buick buyer? Buick targeted “younger buyers on their way up that had the wherewithal to buy a $25,000-30,000 car but also older retired buyers who could be purchasing it as sort of a reward.” Buick forgot one of the main tenets of GM marketing: “You can sell an old man a young man’s car, but you can’t sell a young man an old man’s car.” What was Buick thinking?

As for the design Buick settled on a two-place coupe. Dave Rand was principally responsible for the design. It wasn’t a bad design but just imagine it with a lower top and wheels pulled out further at each end. And maybe a bit more mass through the midsection. That’s basically how it was designed, then it got “productionized” to fit its E/K platform and taking into account assembly line restrictions. 

Buick got dead serious about the Reatta and even built a special assembly line at its Lansing, Michigan, facility. It was christened the “Reatta Craft Center.” Built on computer-controlled platforms the assembly at each station was not rushed as with a typical assembly line. Workers could take their time. 

When the Reatta debuted in 1987 as a 1988 model it fell with a thud

Interior of a convertible 1990 Buick Reatta
1990 Buick Reatta Interior | Mecum

The Reatta Is The Coolest Affordable Buick You Forgot About

For all of the hoopla and marketing hype when it debuted in 1987 as a 1988 model it fell with a thud. By being a two-seater it had limited buyers. Then add to that the V6 and most customers added a few grand more and went with the Corvette. 

The peak sales year was in 1989 when Buick sold 7,000 of these turkeys. But Buick had a plan. By ditching the glitchy touchscreen and making it a convertible it would rise to its expectations. So, in 1990 the touchscreen was gone and you could now get your Reatta as a coupe or convertible. 

The result was a dismal 6,383 combined Reattas sold. Convertible Reattas were known for their cowl shake and flexi ride. After four underwhelming years, Buick compassionately pulled the plug on the Reatta in 1991. Over its four-year run, it sold barely 20,000 examples both coupe and convertible.

It was yet another case of GM going off on a tangent because some bonehead made the case for an expensive two-seat coupe for a GM division that had no plan, no image, and no sales. It wouldn’t be the last time. You didn’t already forget the Buick Cascada, did you?