A/C Compressor seals gone when purchased. This is a chronic problem for every GM car I've owned.
Noisy motor. I've been told it's the intake manifold gasket causing a ticking or minor knock. Better gas helps reduce this.
Very noisy transmission. Makes a very noticeable grinding noise when turning at low-moderate speeds. Noisy enough to cause people to look.
Disc brake calipers replaced at 90,000 & 125,000. The remanufactured ones are worse than the factory ones. Use GM replacement parts for these.
Water pump replaced at 95,000. Cheap fix and easy to do if you're so inclined.
Gas tank & sending unit replaced at 120,000.
Generally, I'm quite pleased with the car overall. For 1996, this was a 'fleet only' vehicle, so the options package is a bit wierd (power locks, but no power windows. A/C & auto, but no cruise).
In late 1995, GM made a change in the 3.1 V6 engine which causes them to be noisy (most cars that had these motors in 95 & 96 experienced this issue). Lifter tap, piston slap, rod knocks, whatever you want to call it. I've been told this is caused by a leaky intake manifold gasket. After 50,000 miles, I have yet to address the issue and the engine runs fine. It does rob the motor of some if it's performance, but gas mileage is still the same (24C/31H). We've just renamed the car the "Gutlass" and keep on driving it.
The transmission makes a grinding sound when turning. The sound will dissipate once you're going straight. Almost sounds as if the tranny is running dry, but my fluid levels are fine. Could be a faulty transmission pump or lousy torque converter. I haven't bothered to address it and the tranny is still working. Another issue is hard shifting from 1st to 2nd, but that's only a sticky solenoid which will be fixed when/if it fails.
I have not had any issues with door handles falling off on any 90's vintage GM car I've owned... (all high mileage when sold/traded/junked)
These cars do rust, especially here in the Northeast! Trunk lids & gas tanks are always the first to go. Fuel & brake lines are usually not far behind.
Changing of rear plugs on any V6 is a pain. For these cars, simply removing the bracket for the MAP sensor will give better access. I actually did my own plugs without removing anything, took about 2 hours.
This was my second Ciera (the first an '87 w/V6), and has met my expectations. Keep the engines tuned up, and go easy on the tranny and these cars will last until they rot away.