Smaller and maybe less stunning - but a better piece.

by Jim Kenzie

MONTEREY, Calif. - The '80s were not kind to Oldsmobile.

They started the decade with the best-selling car on the continent - the Cutlass Supreme. By the early Nineties, the very future of the division was in doubt. It's not a stretch to say that the Aurora, introduced in 1994, saved the division.

That first Aurora was a beautiful car, and remains so - you still turn to watch one go by, nearly six years after its debut. It was also General Motors' first effort, along with sister ship Buick Riviera, at a truly rigid chassis in the European tradition. The chassis was also European-inspired, offering taut handling and a firm - maybe a bit too firm - ride. The engine was a 4.0-liter version of Cadillac's brilliant all-aluminum twin-cam 32-valve Northstar V-8.

The Aurora was a critical smash hit, but only a modest success in the showrooms. For starters, it may have been a bit too intense for then-typical Olds shoppers, positioned among contemporary Achievas and Eighty Eights.

For 2001, Oldsmobile has an all-new Aurora. It is based on the "G-platform" which the original Aurora initiated, and which has evolved several times to form the basis of the Buick Park Avenue and Le Sabre, Pontiac Bonneville, and Cadillac Seville and DeVille. With the G-platform, the Aurora gets one-piece body-side stampings to ensure perfect door fit, front strut towers integrated into the cowl for improved structure and a magnesium cross-cowl beam to offer a strong support for the steering column and the air bags, plus a rattle-free dashboard. The Aurora also uses aluminum for the hood and, on V-8-equipped cars, the trunk lid too.

Several design elements that have been seen on other Oldsmobiles - the cat's-eye headlights, below-bumper air intakes, strong body-side sculpting and large, round wheel openings - originated with the first Aurora, and are continued on the second. That said, you may see a bit of the Chrysler 300M in here too, especially from the rear. The new car also boldly displays the divisional nameplate on the trunk lid - the original Aurora had the word "Oldsmobile" only on the radio face plate, and that could have been changed at the last moment if the decision had been made to scrap Oldsmobile and sell the car through another franchise.

Think not-so-small

The smaller look is no lie - the new car is about 6.1 inches shorter. It's not just about manoeuvrability either - it's also to make the car more appealing to female customers who make up an increasing percentage of the entry-luxury segment, and who seem to prefer a less massive car.

The original Aurora sacrificed interior space for the wide chassis members they needed to get the rigidity. They're smarter about these things now, so they've got the strength without the bulk. The narrower side sills make the new car much easier to get into, and the less barrel-shaped body sides increase visual space, as do the thinner windshield pillars and lowered cowl line.

It's not all smoke and mirrors - there is more space for all passengers. They're nicely accommodated too, in big, comfy sandstone leather seats, with "belt-to-seat" attachment for correct belt alignment, and so-called active headrests that cushion your head and neck in the event of a rear-end crash. The wood accents are genuine walnut veneer. The trunk is smaller by one cubic foot, but is more usable thanks to a wider opening and lower sill height.

The 4.0-liter V-8 gains the same internal upgrades as last year's Northstar. A redesigned block, new pistons, and new cylinder heads with reprofiled combustion chambers and a low-friction valve train return 250 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm - the same peak values as before. But the torque curve is flatter, with at least 230 lb-ft available from 2300 to 5600 rpm. It now runs on regular fuel, gets better fuel economy and qualifies as a Low Emissions Vehicle too. Cool.

I mentioned "V-8-equipped cars" earlier - turns out many of today's entry-level luxury customers expect a V-6 in a car like this, and feel that a V-8 is somehow over the top. So the 2001 Aurora also offers the twin-cam 24-valve 3.5-liter V-6 that's been in its little brother Intrigue since last year.

This has been dubbed the "Shortstar" because it is essentially a Northstar with two cylinders sawn off. The peak numbers are 215 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 234 lb-ft at 4400 rpm. While hard-core gearheads feel you can never have too much horsepower, the new Aurora 3.5 V-6 is about as quick as the old V-8 Aurora because it's about 165 lb lighter. The new Aurora 4.0 is also 165 lb lighter than its predecessor. Both engines churn through four-speed automatic transmissions, but the boxes are different, as is the gearing.

MacPherson struts perform the front suspension duties. The geometry has been modified to provide quicker turn-in. Magnasteer, General Motors' magnetic power steering system that debuted on the original Aurora, continues, recalibrated for better feel. The three-link rear suspension is similar to that on the other big GM cars, with tuning specific to Aurora.

Aurora offers what they call Precision Control System, but it's what Cadillac has called StabiliTrak for a couple of years now. It's one of the increasingly common directional stability control deals; sensors measure wheel speed, car speed, steering wheel rotation and how much the car is actually turning. If the degree of turning doesn't match the degree of steering wheel angle, meaning the car is not responding to the helm, the system automatically applies one or the other of the front brakes - the inside brake if the car is understeering, or plowing, the outside brake if the car is oversteering, or fishtailing.

PCS is standard on V-8 Auroras, optional with the V-6. This is only a two-channel system that, as noted, works only on the front wheels. GM engineers say that on a front-wheel drive car, this can be sufficient. Yet the Intrigue, a smaller, less expensive and, yes, front-wheel drive Oldsmobile, recently added a four-channel Bosch stability control system to their option list. I'd love to have been in on that divisional engineering meeting. The PCS also includes an all-speed traction control system, with both torque reduction and front-brake application strategies. Big four-wheel disc brakes with Bosch anti-lock control are standard across the board.

Road to Monterey

The roads around this pretty central California coastal town are ideal for evaluating a sports sedan like Aurora, and the car acquits itself very well. Turn-in is indeed sharp; the downside is that the geometry changes which enable this behaviour (for you techies: reduced "caster trail") also result in less self-centering - in certain types of cornering, you have to consciously unwind the steering. Cornering is athletic and composed. I did activate the PCS on a couple of occasions when I encountered sand on a tight corner - it's a nice safety cushion, when the alternative is smiting a big rocky bank. It isn't a cure-all, however, as one of my colleagues discovered to his shame. The ride is still firm, but more compliant than before, especially on larger disturbances.

The V-6 engine feels very nice in this car. Off-the-line grunt and mid-range response are both good, and this base motor has about as much performance as most competitors offer even as an option - if they offer an option. The V-8 is faster, but not massively so. Shift quality differences between the two transmissions are indistinguishable - both are very good.

I have some misgivings about the appearance - not that the new Aurora isn't a handsome car, but I don't think it has the presence of its predecessor. Still, the objective was to make a car with wider appeal. Not everyone was prepared to put up with the original car's tight interior and too-firm ride.

Oldsmobile has very high hopes for the new Aurora, expecting it to compete head-on with cars like the Acura 3.2TL, Lexus ES300, the new Lincoln LS and even the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. It has the engineering credentials - the performance, the ride, the handling - to do it. For The Big O Oldsmobile, the decade of the "oh-ohs" (as opposed to the '80s) is already looking pretty good.

2001 Oldsmobile Aurora

Base Price: $30,800 (V-6); $34,975 (V-8)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 215 hp; 4.0-liter V-8, 250hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Length: 199.3 in
Width: 72.9 in
Height: 56.7 in
Weight: 3880 lb
Fuel economy: 19 city/ 29 hwy (est. V-6)

© 2000 The Car Connection, Inc.

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