My father in law was a devout Buick man. He favored the old Electra and Park Avenue sedans of the '60s and '70s. The ones with all the luxury goodies and pewlike bench seats that would accommodate six NFL linebackers with ease. No "Small Car Only" parking spots for him.

I was never that much of a fan, myself. Buicks were too big, too thirsty, too stodgy. Having said that, I must confess that I owned four B cars in the early '70s, partly because my wife liked them (if her dad liked them, they must be good) and partly because I fell into a couple of really good deals.My parting of the ways with Buick came in 1973 with a 1964 Riviera, a gorgeous car that I had coveted ever since I had seen Frank Sinatra drive one in "Come Blow Your Horn" a decade earlier.

Alas, I soon learned that looks weren't everything as I shelled out $1,100 in repairs over the 10 months I owned the car. When I was told the shop would have to remove the fender simply to replace a failed windshield wiper motor, my days as a Buick guy came to an end.

During the dozen years that I have been evaluating cars for this column, I have had occasion to drive a number of Buicks. While conceding they had improved on my old Riv, I have usually made it clear that the Europeans and Japanese needn't get nervous.

Now I'm not so sure. Having just spent a week with a 1991 Buick Park Avenue Ultra I can say that at least one General Motors Division is finally getting it right.

The new Ultra is, well, ultra. It is, in my opinion, GM's best-looking sedan, period. But GM has always excelled at sheet metal; it's interiors that have caused them problems. Not this time - the Ultra's insides are the best I've ever seen in an American car. Lavish and high tech while remaining tasteful and restrained - a fine line that Detroit has not often been able to walk.

True, the "burled walnut" on the dash and door panels began life as petroleum, not as a tree, but it's the most realistic plastic wood I've ever seen. If you simply must have the real thing, buy a Jaguar, but I promise the Ultra's interior won't offend your sensibilities.

One thing we should get out of the way right now is that the price of all this goodness does not come cheap. Total vehicle price, including options and destination charge, was a stunning $29,020. Before you start telling me that you bought a Buick in 1985 for only 12 grand, I would remind you that this car is intended to compete with some very pricey machinery, including the Lincoln Continental, Chrysler Imperial, Acura Legend, BMW 5 series and perhaps even the new Lexus LS499 and Infiniti Q45.

In that company, the Ultra's sticker starts to look downright friendly. When you throw in all the quality awards Buick has been winning lately, it looks even better.

Here are some nuts and bolts on the Ultra. The Park Avenue is completely redesigned for 1991. It's about 8 inches longer than its predecessor, much of which results in a larger trunk. It has flush-mounted solar glass and a tapered rear that melds nicely.

Inside, it has a wraparound dash that rolls right into the door panels, giving it a smooth, integrated look that its sister sedans, such as the Oldsmobile 98, don't share.

The Park Avenue's body structure has also been strengthened, making it smoother and quieter than any American car I've ridden in lately, and its updated 3.8 liter V6 engine and 4-speed electronically controlled transaxle move things along smartly but with no fuss. It's no Lexus, but it's good, very good.

Of course it has the entire compliment of luxury car amenities, including a driver-side air bag, adjustable-height shoulder belts, anti-lock brakes and anti-theft system, all standard. The Ultra version of the Park Avenue also includes leather seats and dual climate controls (the passenger can make his or her side of the car cooler or warmer than the driver's side.)

Incidentally, the Ultra is the first car I've ever seen come from the factory with a compact disc player for its stereo system but no tape player and not even a place to add one. Apparently, Buick feels upscale buyers have abandoned tapes in favor of the higher-fidelity CDs.

Handling is also vastly improved over Buicks of yore. No more turning the wheel hard right while the car plows straight ahead in terminal understeer. Don't misunderstand, this is not a car to bring out the Alain Proust in closet racers, but that's not the market for Buicks anyway.

What buyers of this car will appreciate is that the handling is more than adequate for routine driving and abrupt accident avoidance maneuvers. Combined with the ABS, the air bag, three-point seat belts and 3,600 pounds of weight, this is unquestionably one of the safest cars on the road today.

Gas mileage isn't all that bad, either. It's rated at 18 city and 27 highway.