Olds creates a winner.by Tony Swan
Base Price $22,100
As Tested $24,085
Like all car makers these days, General Motors is working to create chassis that can support a wide variety of products, and thus reduce the number of platforms in its manufacturing programs.
From the manufacturer's point of view, the obvious payoff is reduced cost. But what about you?
Judging by the new Olds Intrigue, we think you'll do just fine. This 1998 replacement for the Cutlass Supreme does have a lot in common with a number of other GM mid-size entries -- the Buick Century and Regal, Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevy Lumina, for example -- but it has its own character and, in fact, may be one of the best interpretations of GM's new W-car group.
It's a little more smooth and compliant than the Grand Prix on rough surfaces, it's more agile than the Century and it has enough punch to keep pace with the Japanese V-6 sedans Olds hopes to challenge -- notably, the Nissan Maxima and Toyota Camry. And, as you'd expect with its higher purchase price, it's far more luxurious than the Lumina.
This is a handsome interpretation of the W-car theme. There's a lot of Aurora in the Intrigue's quietly muscular exterior, and the twin openings below the reflector headlamps lend extra character to the front end.
The exterior is devoid of brightwork and badging, the 16-inch wheels fill the wheelwells and the car's proportions disguise its substantial size: 7.1 inches longer and 3.5 inches wider than the new Camry.
Although the front-drive chassis is an evolutionary development of the Cutlass Supreme GM-10 platform, it's been reworked from end to end to improve rigidity, a new--and significant -- engineering priority at GM. The Intrigue also seems to indicate that GM is learning how to increase rigidity without a corresponding increase in bulk. Its chassis registers 22.4 Hz on the bending scale, and nearly as high in torsional rigidity.
According to Olds, that's stiffer than either the Nissan Maxima -- the basic development target -- or the new Toyota Camry, and on a par with the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. At 3455 pounds, the Intrigue is no wraith, and it's substantially heavier than its Japanese rivals, but, significantly, doesn't feel as heavy as it is.
Beyond durability and noise isolation issues, chassis rigidity is the cornerstone of good vehicle dynamics. Since the suspension components don't have to compensate for chassis flex, it's easier to achieve the desired blend of ride and handling traits.
In the Intrigue, that blend seems to be right on the money, and distinctly European in character -- firm, but devoid of harshness. The Intrigue's all-strut suspension is typically American in design, and it yields a handling trait (progressive understeer) that's universal among U.S. mainstream front-drive sedans. Understeer describes a vehicle's resistance to turning into a corner, and it invariably increases as a function of speed. It's favored by handling engineers because it's wholly predictable, and easy for a driver to correct: you simply slow down.
But Olds has added some subtle tweaks that lend an extra measure of precision and pleasure to the Intrigue driving experience. The stuts, for example, have four-stage valving with integrated rebound springs and fade-resistant synthetic oil. As a result, the Intrigue's suspension is able to keep pace with pavement oscillations, which in turn keeps the tires in constant contact with the road.
Steering -- GM's new magnetic variable assist rack and pinion system -- is another pleasant surprise. Olds has added a splined intermediate shaft that eliminates the subtle play associated with U-joints, yielding good on-center feel and better-than-average precision.
Brakes are disc all-around, with bigger (by 25 mm) front rotors in our test car's optional Autobahn package, which also includes H-rated 225/60 tires and a top speed potential of 128 mph, versus 107 for the basic Intrigue. Like most GM cars, ABS is standard equipment, and pedal feel is firmer than previous examples of GM anti-lock systems.
The Inside Story
The Intrigue is big by mid-size standards, and there's corresponding roominess inside. Front leg room, augmented by extended seat travel, is abundant, and there's plenty of space for two adults in the rear, though the center position might not be quite as comfortable for a third. Rear seat space is disguised by the long seat cushions, which provide exceptional thigh support, but the Intrigue beats the Camry for rear seat legroom by 1.4 inches.
Trunk space is vast -- plenty of room for golf bags, or mass quantitites of luggage -- and it's easy to get at.
Driver sightlines from the nicely contoured -- and nicely adjustable -- front bucket seat are excellent, thanks to plenty of glass and the low height of the instrument cowling. The analog tachometer and speedometer are separated by an illuminated PRNDL repeater for the transmission, and the steering wheel hub has auxiliary switches for the cruise control and, on our test car, sound system, though not as attractively integrated as in the Aurora.
Like the new Chevy Malibu and Olds Cutlass, the Intrigue's ignition switch is on the dashboard, eliminating the neck-craning and fumbling associated with column locks. Similarly, the location of the emergency flasher and main cruise control switches, stacked to the right of the instrument nacelle, is ideal -- easy to find, easy to reach.
The inside color scheme of our test car -- a subdued contrast of taupe and cream, miraculously devoid of woodgrain -- looked like something from the cover of an interior design catalogue, and was very tasty indeed.
Intrigues come well equipped. The basic car includes air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette audio, and power windows, mirrors and locks for a base price of about $22,000. GL models, which will start at about $23,500, include leather, dual automatic climate controls and even more audio -- a Delco/Bose AM/FM/cassette system with an in-dash CD player.
Although Olds had not announced final pricing at press time, with the Autobahn package our test car added up to about $24,500. With a sunroof and other extras, the line will probably top out at about $26,000.
Ride & Drive
The sum of all the chassis and suspension work is handling that measures up very well against the development targets. The Intrigue has a bit more grip than a Camry LE or Maxima GXE, stops a bit shorter and changes directions without drama.
Inevitably, quick transitions produce a fair amount of body roll, and with the Intrigue's relatively high curb weight, that entails more weight transfer than you'll encounter in a Camry or Maxima. But these motions are nicely controlled; leave the dramamine at home.
Power is supplied by GM's ubiquitous 3800 Series II V-6 (a new 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6 is due next year), allied with a four-speed Hydramatic automatic. The supercharged version of this engine isn't offered, but unless you're in a real hurry, the normally aspirated edition gets the job done very nicely, and without much noise.
The pushrod 3800 V-6 lacks the top end zeal of overhead cam designs -- the Camry V-6 takes the prize in this department -- but with its extra displacement the 3800 generates torque that's close to tugboat territory, and torque is what most of us employ in most of our driving.
There's enough of it here to hustle the Intrigue to 60 mph a wink quicker than the Maxima and Camry automatics, and, like virtually all GM automatics, shift quality is close to seamless.
Olds intends to market the Intrigue GL as a "performance sedan," and we think that's a bit of a stretch. While it's reasonably agile for a car in its size class, the Intrigue's strengths are quiet comfort with a taste of elegance in a subdued but stylish package.
As a descriptor, Oldsmobile's "one great car" development philsophy is closer to the mark. In fact, we'd say it's right on target.
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