1995 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight
The royal yacht in transition
For decades, the Ninety Eight has been the top of the line at Olds-mobile - the divisional royal yacht.
But the arrival of the Olds Aurora marks the end of that status. Yacht it may still be, and with very good cruising credentials, yet it's no longer queen of the fleet. With the Aurora establishing a fresh, contemporary new direction for General Motors' old rocket division, it's clear that the current Ninety Eight belongs to Oldsmobile's past. Clearer still that major changes are in store for this big sedan.
In the meantime, though, some of the good old Ninety Eight virtues still have plenty of appeal. Like the Buick Park Avenue, which shares the same basic chassis, this is a big car with lots of room inside.
And with its hedonistic list of standard features, it's also a very good buy: a luxury car priced below the $30,000 luxury-car threshold.
Though the Ninety Eight has the same platform as the Park Avenue, there is no visual similarity between the two cars. For that matter, with its straight lines and hard angles, the Ninety Eight doesn't look like anything else, either.
As we noted, this is a big sedan - about the same size as a Lincoln Continental or Cadillac Seville, and only a bit smaller than the Chrysler New Yorker and Cadillac DeVille. And even though the Ninety Eight's external dimensions are very similar to the Aurora's, it's more than 400 pounds lighter.
Aside from some content juggling to bring the Ninety Eight into line with Oldsmobile's value-pricing program, there's only one significant change to this car for 1995.
A glance at the specifications table will show you that the engine options are the same as last year's: two versions of GM's corporate 3.8-liter V6, one supercharged, one not. However, the normally aspirated version, called the 3800 Series II, has been completely reengineered for '95, and it's a brilliant job - more compact, lighter, smoother and, with an increase of 35 hp, far more potent.
Because it's a traditional overhead valve design, with two valves per cylinder, this may seem like yestertech compared with the overhead camshafts and multivalve cylinder heads dominating the powertrain scene today.
Don't you believe it. Overhead cam-shafts and 4-valve cylinder heads are advantageous in engines that do a lot of their work at high rpm. But overhead valve designs, with the camshaft down inside the engine block, are far less bulky, lending themselves to easier packaging.
And they're also very good at producing torque at low engine speeds - the basic grunt we employ every time the light turns green, or when we want to hurry safely into some rapidly closing hole in the traffic stream.
Beyond that, the 3800 Series II em-ploys up-to-the-minute engine/automatic transmission control electronics.
For '95, the Ninety Eight comes in two editions: Series I, which qualifies as loaded by any reckoning; and Series II, which adds extras such as traction control, an automatic trunk pull-down, cornering lamps, a memory feature for the driver's seat, a heated driver-side mirror, and a Twilight Sentinel to save you from the fatigue of turning on your headlights at dusk.
The bottom line of the Series I window sticker is $26,695, including destination charge. The Series II costs $27,795. About the only significant options you can add are the supercharged V6 (225 hp, 275 lb.-ft.) and a sunroof (called Astroroof, in Oldsmobile-ese).
As much as we love self-indulgence, the Ninety Eight Regency Elite Series I (a mouthful of name if ever there was one) seemed luxurious enough, and that's what we drove.
Redesigned for the 1994 model year, the Ninety Eight's interior looks far more contemporary than its exterior, with a sweeping one-piece upper dashboard that embraces all the instruments and controls under one broad cowling that stretches two-thirds of the way across.
Controls for the power-window switches, set into the armrests, are softly backlit when the headlights are on, making night location easy. So are the auxiliary climate and audio controls, which are beautifully integrated into the steering wheel hub.
The Ninety Eight has dual airbags, of course, as well as side-impact protection that meets 1997 federal standards.
It also has acres of room inside, front and rear. This car is rated for six passengers, and it's wide enough up front for 3-across seating. However, the center passenger would have his or her legs perched on the center tunnel - that near-universal hump that was supposed to have disappeared from all front-drive cars.
It's interesting to note here that the Ninety Eight's rear-seat legroom beats the Aurora's by a couple of inches.
The seats are broad and comfortable, though they provide almost no lateral support. Our car's seats were leather clad, and we were intrigued to find that leather upholstery is a delete option. If you want good old crushed velour, you'll have to check a box on the order blank.
This brings us to the Ninety Eight's sensual catalogue of standard features.
Besides leather, the Series I suggested retail price includes anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, an 8-speaker AM/FM/cassette sound system, power windows, power mirrors, re-mote keyless entry, front power seats, power lumbar support, cruise control, tilt steering, lighted vanity mirrors, passenger-assist grips, remote fuel-filler door release, rear-window defogger, solar-control tinted glass, automatic load leveling and 15-in. aluminum wheels.
Hurrying around corners is an alien concept to the Ninety Eight. With a suspension system designed to offer ultimate ride quality, its behavior in switchbacks and abrupt maneuvers is sluggish. Push it hard enough and it'll wallow, even with the stiffer suspension tuning that comes with the optional supercharged engine.
The steering was light at all speeds. This is a variable-assist power-steering unit that lowers the assist as speed increases. Excess assist limits steering feel, which isn't a problem when maneuvering around a parking lot, but it helps to have a stronger sense of where the wheels are pointed when you're at freeway speeds.
Well, the Ninety Eight may not be a threat to BMW's Ultimate Driving Machine title, but it's certainly a pleasant place to be if you find yourself commuting regularly between, say, Detroit and Denver. This is one smooth cruiser. It takes a pretty serious bump or pothole to intrude on the driver's consciousness, and it's exceptionally quiet in the bargain.
Beyond its sluggish handling, our only operational criticism is about the outside mirrors: They are too small and are set too far back on the doors for easy use.
The 3.8-liter engine performed very well in all phases of our test drive - plenty of grunt around town, plenty of mid-range response for passing. It's a smooth operator, and also delivers surprisingly good fuel economy, considering its size. We averaged 23 mpg in all-around driving, and during one freeway cruise we hit 30 mpg.
There are a several cars in this size and price class with better handling credentials than the Ninety Eight - the Pontiac Bonneville, for example.
But if you prioritize comfortable luxury above performance and image, the Ninety Eight is an exceptional buy.
It's velvet-smooth, reasonably powerful, roomy and exceptionally well appointed.
It may be difficult to crunch value and a $27,000 price tag into the same thought, but that's what this Oldsmobile represents.
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