2001 Buick Bengal concept

Beauty and brains

Historically, Buick was known, and seemingly content to be known, as the brand that people in their twilight years would instinctively immigrate to. Apart from aberrations like the Grand National and some of their smaller models, Buick’s were mild-mannered machines with hard exterior edges and double-stuffed cushions.

By 2001, things were a little different.



Looks can be deceiving
It appears Buick had started to recalibrate its interpretation of near-luxury in the late 1990s, exhibited first in some of their concepts. Implementing the interpretation into the designs of production vehicles seemed a slow but focused exercise in refinement.

2001 Buick Bengal profile left rearBy 2001, the tri-shield company was selling cars that had shed much of the appearance that they were exclusively trying to appeal to the elderly.

One way they communicated their then-future design intentions to the world was with this well-proportioned Buick Bengal concept. It allowed the Buick brand to be expressed in a modern way and was aimed at people that enjoyed the drive as much as they enjoyed driving.

This 2001 concept incorporates a svelte body with a simplistically elegant interior, resulting in a four-seat drop-top that the grand kids would probably have been thrilled to inherit.

Bengal’s proportions make it look well-planted on the road; it rides on a 110-inch wheelbase but is only 175 inches long. For comparison, the wheelbase is only two inches shorter than a 2001 LeSabre but the body is more than two feet shorter than that same LeSabre.

2001 Buick Bengal profile left frontI was surprised when I read which end of the car did the motivating and it is directly related to those proportions. Thanks to a first-of-its-kind concept powertrain, the SC 3400/Hydra-Matic XT6, Buick executed a front “wheels forward” design on a front-wheel-drive car.

The net gain? The front wheels were moved forward eight inches compared to GM’s conventional fwd layout. How did they do it?

Bengal is powered by a supercharged 3.4-liter V-6 good for 250 hp. The engine is mounted transversely, meaning the cylinders line up left to right, as in most fwd vehicles. What’s done differently here–the first time ever, according to the press release–is where the transmission is located.

In a fwd vehicle, the transmission is usually installed behind the motor. The motor is heavier than the transmission which means more weight is moved ahead of the front wheels, something that’s bad for spirited driving.

On Bengal, the transmission (a six-speed automatic unit) is mounted on the front side of the engine moving not only the wheels forward but the center of gravity closer to the middle of the car, where it belongs.

Check out those taillights. Pure eye candy. Oh, that little door behind the driver’s door is an access point for up to two rear passengers or–get this–custom golf bags.

2001 Buick Bengal concept left rear

This is the description that accompanied a photo (in the gallery) of Bengal with Tiger Woods, then celebrity spokesman for the brand, “Bengal is the first car designed with a major sports figure in mind–Tiger Woods. Tiger’s influence is evident in Bengal’s cutting-edge sound system, golf door and custom golf bags.”

What they mean by “cutting-edge” sound system is that it has some really unique speakers because of the really unique dashboard.

I didn’t get any pictures of the actual interior, only this rendering shown below. There is a larger, more complete version in the gallery.

2001 Buick Bengal concept interior rendering

Buick reintroduced a feature called “Quiet Servant” which included a color head-up display and voice-activated controls.

All I will say is that, if today’s voice controlled systems are as trouble prone as I’ve read, I cannot imaging interacting with a system that was designed more than a decade ago.

Quite Servant was designed by Visteon Corporation, an interesting company that is still around today. The interface was purportedly capable of understanding “more than 118 commands” in six languages, including regional accents, with the top down. Some examples were the headlights, wipers, heating system, sound system, convertible top, on-board navigation, cruise control, and even seat adjustments.

No denigration meant towards Buick or Visteon but, I am skeptical on how successful it worked in real world conditions. An “A” for innovation and effort though. To Buick’s credit, they installed a four-position joystick on the steering wheel to supplement vehicular interaction.

Remember I had mentioned something about speakers? According to the press release, “the entire dashboard is in fact one large flat-panel speaker from NXT Audio. […] Altogether, there are five of these unobtrusive speakers, which envelop the interior in audiophile-quality sound.” That description makes me real curious.

Buick didn’t focus group this concept at the local old folks home. No this was designed to appeal to a much broader audience: young, affluent families. In fact, at the time Buick’s then General Manager, Roger Adams, said, “Bengal is a car with beautiful proportions and advanced design and engineering. It’s a dramatic vehicle to drive–and to be seen in–and it doesn’t forget the family.”

It’s a shame that Buick never produced a vehicle anywhere close to the Bengal. I think it would serve them well even today, with a nip and a tuck for a modern edge.


Continue below to the photo gallery.

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