New Car/Review

The 1999 Oldsmobile Alero, How sweet it is

by Larry Weitzman

Oldsmobile

When designing a new car its nice to start with a clean sheet of paper. No restrictions or limitations from prior models with respect to chassis, suspension, interior or body design. Brand new. The Alero is more than a new name. It's brand new from that clean sheet of paper.

The Alero replaces the entry level Achieva, or as it was sometimes referred to "under Achieva". The head of the West Coast Zone Office several years ago told me the Achieva reminded him of a "fat lady on roller skates". It wasn't that the Achieva was a bad car, it just wasn't really up to the competition.

The new Alero now adds a new dimension to the compact car wars. The all-new body follows the theme of the beautiful Aurora and the stunning Intrigue. The design is so well executed it is instantly recognized as an Olds. It has a soft tapered wedge shape starting with the very clean front end, very aggressively flared wheel wells to the large gorgeous tail lights. This is one good-looking unit.

Underneath, it rides on an all new underpinnings that is as sophisticated as anything on the market. Besides the new hydroformed extra rigid chassis, the suspension is fully independent state of the art "tri-link" in the rear and McPhearson strut with lower arms in the front that are gorgeous aluminum castings. With gas charged shocks, coil springs all around and stabilizer bars, this is hardly a go to the market for milk automobile, although getting milk will be more fun.

There's more. With the GLS model (which was my test vehicle), the Alero is shod with great looking six spoke 16 inch cast alloys with 225/50 series Goodyear Eagle RS performance rubber. This is some serious stuff.

The steering is new variable assist power rack and pinion. It is quick and precise. Even the turning circle is only 35 feet. We are talking incredible maneuverability.

The size of the new Alero fits nicely above a sub compact and below a midsize. It rides on a long 107 wheelbase with an overall length of 186.7 inches. Width is a wide 70.1 inches. These dimensions allow for a roomy, airy interior.

The only carryover from GM is the motive force. The Alero shares with several other GM products the 3.4L OHV V-6, which pumps out a strong 170 hp at 4,800 rpm and 200 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. But the peak torque number is misleading. The engine from 2000 rpm all the way to 4,400 rpm produces an almost flat torque curve of 190 lb-ft or more. The base model comes with the venerable 2.4L DOHC four cylinder engine. It manufacturers 150 hp at a lofty 5.600 rpm and a respectable 155 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm.

The V-6 is connected to a silky electronically controlled four-speed automatic, the only shifter available for the V-6 and the DOHC 4. If you want to shift, you'll have to drive a different car. I don't want to shift that badly.

In terms of driveability, the V-6 adds significant additional thrust as well as smoothness. This provides a real sports car feel. How much thrust you ask? Lots. This Alero flat out gets down the road. 0-60 times averaged 7.89 seconds with two runs at 7.70 and 7.63 seconds. This puts the Alero in some very good high performance company. 50-70 passing times are also very quick with an average elapsed time of 4.5 seconds. Going up a steep grade will slow that time to 6.7 seconds. There is some torque steer during aggressive throttle application, but not during normal driving.

Fuel economy is rated at 20/28 mpg city/highway for the V-6. The four will give you a 2 mpg higher rating at 22/30 mpg. I averaged over 22 mpg during my test period and would estimate near 30 mpg a steady legal highway speeds. With its 15 gallon fuel tank, cruising range is in excess of 400 miles.

Standard switchable traction control is almost a necessity. Even with 66/34 percent front to rear weight bias, with the traction control switched off, a strong push of the go pedal will literally light up the front tires. All that smoke can be bad for the environment. But traction control is a nice feature when living in snow country.

Handling will also impress. The Alero simply feels like it's on rails in the twisties. It simply goes where you point it. Green Valley and Bass Lake Road became straight-aways. Nothing like having trick suspension, accurate steering and good rubber. I am sure those meaty Goodyear Eagles have a lot to do with it.

The washboard of Ponderosa Road was nicely controlled and in the bumpy 90 degree tight corners. The rear end stayed firmly planted to the road. The body was drum tight.

On the highway the Alero provides a supple well-controlled ride that is very smooth. Expansion joints and tar strips are non existent and there is no float or wallow. Olds has also done a great job in sound control. There is almost no wind, road or tire noise. At 70 mph the engine turns a lazy 2050 rpm and is inaudible.

Olds technological tour de force continues with generously sized four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated in front) with standard ABS. Stops are sure, short and straight. Pedal feel is solid and precise.

On the inside I was surrounded in soft creamy leather, on the seats, the extra meaty steering wheel and the gear shifter. The front seats are on the firm side but are comfortable. The driver's seat is power operated and has lumbar support. The rear seating area is roomy for two and will do in a pinch for three. Legroom is quite livable. I had a chance to sample the rear seating area of a coupe, and I found it unexpectedly roomy. The length and wheelbase of the sedan and coupe are the same.

The dash is well executed and tight. The nicely shaped pod in front of the driver contains a large tach and speedo left and right divided by a gear indicator. They are flanked by a smaller temp and fuel gauge. The center section contains the standard am/fm CD stereo. I really appreciated the size and feel of the volume knob. Nice not to see a rocker switch. The sound from the CD is clean and clear, ZZ Top never sounded better.

Under the radio are the three large, clearly marked rotary switches to control the powerful HVAC. One of the easier and simpler systems that I've used. The center console has the gearshift and well placed emergency brake with a storage console/armrest to the rear.

The entire dash and door paneling is done in a soft touch material. Olds chose to use a European two tone look and they outdid themselves. It's nice not to see the grainy hard plastic look. The whole package is very tasty. Although the trunk is a large 15 cubic feet, split fold down rear seats add to the total cargo capacity.

The best news is the pricing Olds has chosen. My fully loaded GLS Alero test vehicle came with everything standard, no options. Factory list is $20,875 plus $525 for shipping which totals $21,400. About the only options available worth looking at is a power moon roof (a bargain at $650) and an upgraded sound system for $150 (the standard set up is great). Besides a power drivers seat, power amenities include windows, locks and remote entry including trunk. If you don't want leather you can opt for GL model with a V-6 and the rest of the amenities for about $20,000.

A base model GX starts at $16,850 with destination. This is a small car that is reshaping the Olds image for the better and a worthy stable mate to the Intrigue. This is nothing like your father's Oldsmobile. The Alero's refinement will surprise you.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price                         $16,850 to about $22,000

Engines

DOHC, 16 valve inline 4       150 hp @ 5,600 rpm
                              155 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm

OHV V-6                       170 hp @ 4,800 rpm
                              200 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm

Configuration

Front transverse mounted
engine, front wheel drive

Transmission

4 speed electronically 
controlled automatic

Dimensions

Wheelbase                      107   inches
Length                         186.7 inches
Width                          70.1  inches
Height                         54.5  inches
Weight                         3077  pounds
Fuel Capacity                  15.0  gallons

Performance

0-60                           7.89  seconds
50-70                          4.5   seconds
50-70 uphill                   6.7   seconds
Top Speed                      112 electronically limited so there
                               is no need to find out for yourself.
                               If you have the need, Black Rock is
                               available for rent for a few thousand
                               a day. 
Fuel Economy                   EPA 20/28 mpg city/highway.  I
                               estimate 22-24 mpg in El Dorado
                               County and near 30 mpg on the
                               highway.

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