A few years ago, Oldsmobile was in serious trouble. Its customer base was aging, and younger buyers were not at all interested in the company's offerings. Oldsmobiles had little distinction from cars of other General Motors divisions, let alone from those of other manufacturers. Many industry pundits believed the company, founded in 1897, would never reach its 100th anniversary. Clearly, drastic changes were necessary.
And so drastic changes were made. With changes in management and changes in direction, Oldsmobile was reinvented as GM's import-fighting division. The flagship Aurora luxury sedan, introduced in the 1995 model year, was the first indication of the new direction at Oldsmobile. The futuristically-styled Aurora was joined by the mid-sized, near-luxury Intrigue in 1998. The compact Alero completes the new Olds lineup this year, and is expected to be the company's highest-volume car.
The Alero inherits its character from both the Aurora and Intrigue. Its radical styling is obviously related to that of the larger Oldsmobiles, and is every bit as distinctive. Three trim levels are offered in both coupe and sedan body styles. Both share a common look, so style is not the prime consideration in choosing between two or four doors. As with the larger Oldsmobiles, all Alero models are very well-equipped. An automatic transmission, air conditioning, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes are just some of the standard features on every Alero. Engine choices are a 2.4-liter four-cylinder in GX and GL models, and a 3.4-liter V6 in the GLS.
I had the opportunity to sample both a GL coupe and GLS sedan in recent weeks. Each has the design, appointments, and ride and handling qualities that should appeal to long-time import buyers as well as American shoppers. The GL coupe is sporty but practical; the GLS sedan is a junior edition of the upscale Intrigue. Oldsmobile's second century is off to a great start.
APPEARANCE: The Alero is most definitely a contemporary Oldsmobile. In a class where bland styling is the norm, it turns heads. Oldsmobile's goal in styling was to have a car with expressive, rather than excessive styling. It has succeeded. The grille-less front end with its low, wide elliptical headlamps, twin air intakes integrated into the bumper fascia, and subtle bulge in the sloping hood builds on styling cues first introduced in the Aurora and elaborated in the Intrigue. A close look is needed to discern the coupe and sedan as the passenger cabin of both body styles is nearly identical in shape. The B-pillar is further forward in the sedan, making room for four shorter doors. Discreet chrome trim surrounds the side windows. A high tail gives a noticeable sporty wedge profile and increases luggage space. Large oval taillights help the Alero stand out day or night.
COMFORT: The Alero's bright, contemporary interior shares design elements with that of the larger Oldsmobile Intrigue. A two-tone, dark- over-light color scheme and tasteful lack of artificial wood trim gives it a European flavor. The instrument panel has a modern, flowing design, with instruments and controls placed for easy visibility and use. The center console melds into the middle of the instrument panel, which is angled toward the driver for easier use of the audio and climate control systems. Cloth upholstery is standard on the GL; the GLS comes with leather. Both grades have plenty of interior storage spaces, including a large locking glove box. The coupe's front passenger seat is spring-loaded for automatic forward movement to ease rear passenger access. As expected, rear seat access is even better with the sedan's four doors. In either, the rear seat is contoured for two, with good head and leg room for the class. A third passenger can be accommodated for short distances in the center position. In both the coupe and sedan, the rear seat folds with a 70/30 split, and the trunk is usefully large with a low liftover height.
SAFETY: All 1999 Olds Aleros have safety-cage chassis construction with side-impact protection, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, dual next-generation air bags, all-speed traction control, and daytime running lights.
ROADABILITY: A rigid chassis structure and well-designed and calibrated fully-independent suspension give the Alero ride and handling characteristics that put it at the head of its class. It feels much like a smaller Intrigue, with a good balance between sporty firmness and supple comfort. The variable-assist rack and pinion steering standard on the GL and GLS is light around town and firmer on the highway for improved control. Both versions are quiet, with little mechanical or wind noise. A sport suspension package is offered on GLS models.
PERFORMANCE: GX and GL models, including my test coupe, have the 2.4-liter "Twin Cam" dual overhead cam 4-cylinder engine as standard equipment. With dual balance shafts for smoothness, 150 maximum horsepower, and a flat torque curve producing 155 lb-ft between 2400 and 4400 rpm, it is well-suited to its four-speed automatic transmission. The four-cylinder Alero has responsive, energetic performance. The well-developed 3.4-liter pushrod V6 standard in the GLS and optional in the GL has 170 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. It is smoother then the four-cylinder engine and gives noticeably better acceleration with little penalty in gas mileage.
CONCLUSIONS: The 1999 Alero gets Oldsmobile's second century off to a good start with a package that should appeal to import buyers as well as those looking for an American car.
SPECIFICATIONS 1999 Oldsmobile Alero GL Coupe (GLS Sedan in parentheses) Base Price $ 18,655 (20,875) Price As Tested $ 19,835 (21,400) ngine Type dual overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-cylinder (12-valve pushrod overhead valve V6) Engine Size 2.4 liters / Horsepower 150 @ 5600 rpm (170 @ 4800 rpm) Torque (lb-ft) 155 @ 2400 to 4400 rpm (200 @ 4000 rpm) Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 107.0 in. / 186.7 in. Curb Weight 3026 lbs. (est 3200 lbs.) Pounds Per Horsepower 20.2 (18.8) Fuel Capacity 15.0 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P215 / 60 SR15 B.F. Goodrich Touring T/A (P225 / 50 SR15 Goodyear Eagle LS) Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent tri-link strut with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 21 / 29 / 24 (20 / 28 / 23) 0 to 60 mph 8.0 sec (7.8) 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.5 sec (16.0) Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.321 OPTIONS AND CHARGES GL Coupe: (GLS sedan had no optional equipment) 6-way power driver's seat $ 305 AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo $ 200 Remote keyless entry $ 150 Destination charge (for both) $ 525