The Buick Riviera jumped ship for 1979, abandoning its rear-wheel-drive heritage on its way to becoming a more fuel-efficient and significantly shorter (but nearly as spacious) front-wheel-drive car, and joining forces mechanically, in many ways, with the Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado.
From its introduction, the star of this Riviera's lineup was a turbocharged V-6, which in combination with the front-wheel-drive layout, the comfortable interior, and a luxurious feature set, was revolutionary for personal-luxury coupe shoppers at the time. Although the move to front-wheel drive wasn't universally embraced at the time, this generation of the Riviera was the best-selling ever, with 370,000 manufactured over seven years.
For 1979 and 1980, a 5.7-liter V-8 was standard, while a 125-hp, 4.1-liter V-6 was standard starting in 1981, with a 140-hp, 5.0-liter (307-ci) Olds V-8 phased in as optional. Originally rated at 185 (or 180) hp, it far outpowered the 125-hp, 4.1-liter V-6 or the 140-hp, 5.0-liter (307-ci) Olds V-8. Turbo models could dash to 60 mph in well under ten seconds, which was fast for the time.
Through most of the model run (1980-85), Buick also offered the infamous 5.7-liter Oldsmobile diesel V-8. Essentially a gasoline V-8, marginally adapted for high-compression diesel duty, these engines make the Riviera dangerously slow. They were also prone to very early catastrophic failure, and they don't do much better after rebuilds.
From a performance standpoint, the models to have were those with the turbocharged V-6. In 1979 and 1980 the model with that engine was the S-Type, but from 1981 on the T-Type replaced it. The S-Type had flat-black trim around the windows, as well as brushed-black trim inside, for the instrument panel, while the T-Type offered a more comprehensive set of performance upgrades.
In 1980, the Riviera received side mirrors that were integrated into the A-pillar, while halogen headlamps were added as standard. The 1981 models then got a new eggcrate grille, available electronic climate control, and a Concert Sound six-speaker audio system, but the big change was the introduction of a new engine lineup. A memory driver's seat was first offered in 1982. The following year was the first for a Delco/GM/Bose music system, while in 1985, Buick began offered a CRT Computer Command Center, with a touch screen controlling audio and climate-control functions, but it was only installed in about 100 cars. That option is quite collectible today, as is the Astroroof, originally a substantial option costing up to $1,195.
The Buick Riviera celebrated its 20th anniversary with 502 hardtops badged as “XX Anniversary Edition” models, which got special wire wheels, gold-plated badging, and some serious upgrades like hand-made wool carpeting, English walnut wood veneer plates, and a wood steering wheel. Mechanically, these cars had the 4.1-liter V-6 (or optional 5.0-liter V-8), four-wheel disc brakes, and the Gran Touring suspension.
Initially, this generation of Riviera wasn't all that well-received by the critics, but later T-Type models perform reasonably well for 1980s luxury coupes. Enthusiasts typically gravitate towards 1984 and 1985 models since the turbocharged V-6 was thoroughly modernized in 1984 with electronic ignition, knock sensors, and sequential fuel injection. The 1984 T-Type models all added the Gran Touring Package, with stiffer settings and a larger sway bar. While Turbo models are far less problematic than most other such engines of the 1980s, turbocharger failures can be expected if the car wasn't religiously maintained.
GM introduced a convertible version of the Riviera late in the 1982 model year; it was the first GM convertible since the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado and it was actually a conversion done by ASC—starting with Riviera hardtops. Although there was wide interest in the Riviera convertible, it proved to be a slow seller in actuality—probably mainly due to its starting price of nearly $24,000. The Riviera Turbo convertible, at nearly $27,500 in 1985, was well into Cadillac territory. Turbo convertibles and diesel convertibles are the rarest Riviera models, while T-Type models were produced in lower numbers than other Rivieras. Only 900 Riviera convertibles were made (500 in 1984 and 400 in 1985).
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