All-new flagship is trimmer, smoother and more nimble.

by Phil Berg

Base Price (MSRP) $30,130
As Tested (MSRP) $38,570

Oldsmobile has successfully shed its early '90's image of stodginess with its recent Intrigue and Alero sedans, which are capable and handsome. Now the company aims to do the same with its luxury car flagship, the Aurora. Since its introduction in 1994, Aurora has not kept up with the profit trend set by hot-selling luxury sedans from Lincoln, BMW and Audi. So Oldsmobile skipped the 2000 model year for the Aurora, and introduced a newer, smaller model as a 2001. It went on sale February 2000.

Lately, each time General Motors has redesigned one of its half-dozen big luxury sedans, the cars have made leaps in the quality of their driveability. The new monster Cadillac DeVille, the flaunty Pontiac Bonneville, and the demure Buick LeSabre all run swiftly and competently. We mention all of these GM cars because they share the fourth-generation G-body platform with this new Aurora. Yet none of these cars looks the same, and none drives the same. Aurora boasts its own smooth, high revving V8 and V6 engines.

The new Aurora is notably more nimble than Buick's LeSabre and Cadillac's DeVille, and it feels smaller and lighter on its feet than the Pontiac Bonneville.

Model Lineup

Two models are available: 3.5L ($30,130), 4.0L ($34,305).

Offering two models is a departure from the original Aurora, which was conceived as a fully equipped showcase of high-tech gadgets to go along with its complex and standard-setting rigid body construction. This time around, Aurora is available as a lower-priced 3.5L, which comes with a smaller engine and smaller tires. The V6-powered 3.5L gives buyers the choice of whether they want traction control, automatic air conditioning, passenger-side power seat, and a few other electro-goodies that come standard on the more expensive 4.0L.

Both models offer more options, such as the chrome wheels, Diamond White metallic paint, a premium stereo system, and the power moonroof that came on our test car. All of this can shoot the price of an Aurora up to nearly $38,000.

Walkaround

Though it maintains the muscular form of the original Aurora, this new second-generation model boasts all-new sheet metal. Less is more was the Aurora designer's mantra, so this new car is bereft of cladding, tacked on moldings or other frivolous decoration.

The 2001 Aurora is 6 inches shorter than the original. The smaller, tighter shape gives it a cleaner, more nimble look. Its profile is smooth and fluid with a raked rear window. Rear fog lamps give balance and symmetry to the rear of the car, while enhancing safety. A steep back light and large, wrap-over tail lamps minimize the horizontal length of the deck lid. Instead of a front grille, the designers opted for lower intakes in the bumper to reinforce the Oldsmobile character.

Interior Features

When you first enter the Aurora, your sense of smell picks up an aura of the leather that a BMW or Mercedes driver would call familiar. The feel of the smooth, soft leather surfaces reinforces this sense of deja vu. The leather is light-colored, in the latest Euro fashion, and the real burled walnut wood surfaces are not overwhelming. Oldsmobile interior designers have truly figured out the ambiance that makes the European and Asian luxury cars generally so appealing.

The cowl is lower than the previous car's, giving you the impression you can see outside better. Even though the new Aurora is smaller outside, you actually gain a little head-, shoulder-, and hip room in the front. Tall drivers, like me, may sense a bit less legroom than the previous Aurora; and my left leg covered the driver's door stereo speaker. The trunk is 1 cubic foot smaller, but a wider opening and a low lift-over make it more useable and easier to unload a set of golf clubs.

The instrument panel is angled sharply toward the driver. The driver's adjustable lumbar support should allow back-pain sufferers to drive long distances in comfort. Climate controls are found on the left spoke of the steering wheel, but you may find these redundant since the climate functions buttons on the center console are angled so close to the driver that they're an easy reach. There is a trip computer that you can configure to your needs, and it's handy, too. The high-tech "rain-sensing" automatic interval wipers could not sense frozen wiper fluid or slush, we found out one cold morning, and it shifts the blades into overdrive when they aren't required.

One departure from standard GM practice is a cruise control lever on a stalk on the right side of the steering wheel. Perpetual phone users won't like this placement, but hopefully it will force squawking drivers to use hands-free phone setups.

Driving Impressions

We drove a pre-production 4.0L test car, which could explain why the drivetrain clunked loudly when we shifted into gear with the Euro-style console-mounted lever. Usually, the 4T80-E four-speed GM transmission, which began life in Cadillacs nearly a decade ago, is so smooth to operate it's almost invisible. Beyond that wake-up call to refinement, the Aurora exudes very high quality.

Moving from a stop, the steering feels super-light. Parking is a one-finger operation here. When you couple that behavior with the smaller size of the new Aurora, it makes you feel like you could thread a needle with this luxury sedan.

Gathering steam, you hear nothing but exhaust noise. We think that's good, because it means all the extraneous noises from the suspension and drivetrain - everything from the tires to the gears - do not creep into the passenger compartment. Hot rodders will like the grumbly V8 exhaust, but some passengers we had in the car complained it was too loud. We think they were just whining, and pronounce the noise pleasing to our ears.

The Aurora V8 is the smaller-displacement version of the Cadillac Northstar engine that appeared on the original Aurora, but it has been significantly refined and updated for the new car. Emissions are improved, fuel efficiency is improved, and it makes the same 250 horsepower on regular gas that the previous engine made on premium fuel. The Indy Racing League uses a modified version of this same engine to run the Indy 500.

The V6 engine found in the Aurora 3.5L comes from the mid-size Intrigue, and it's a twin overhead-cam design derived from the V8. Both engines use four valves per cylinder, a more efficient and expensive arrangement than the two-valves-per-cylinder pushrod V6 engines you'll find in the big Buick and Pontiac sedans. Aurora's V6 makes 215 horsepower, the same as it does in the Intrigue. But the Aurora 3.5L weighs about 250 pounds more than the Intrigue, so it doesn't feel as much like a hot rod as the cheaper Intrigue does.

Both engines are mated to electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmissions. Standard on the V8 car and optional on the V6 is a stability system that can apply braking force to an individual front wheel to prevent the car from too much plowing or drifting in a corner. The traction control system uses wheel braking and engine power reduction (the most desirable combination) to limit wheel spin.

Though silent on the highway, the bigger tires on the Aurora 4.0L tend to squeal early in sharp corners. That discourages sport driving, although the new Aurora corners as flat as any sports sedan. Credit heavier springs for that, although careful tuning of the suspension struts (bushings, rebound springs, and damping) and smaller anti-roll bars mean the car doesn't feel stiffer on the road. The new Aurora is more balanced, too. Even with the electronic stability and traction control, you can successfully left-foot brake the car to point it into a sharp corner. The brake pedal is firm and sensitive, encouraging confident stops.

Another area that's improved is the masking of torque-steer, a tugging on the steering wheel that happens under hard acceleration in a front-drive car with lots of horsepower. In everyday driving, you'll never notice you're in a front-wheeler. Where torque-steer occurs most noticeably in the new Aurora is on bumpy roads. You can leap from a stop on rutted, crumbly roads with the car's traction control limiting wheelspin, but you need both hands on the steering wheel because of the torque steer. BMW and Mercedes lick this problem by using rear-drive.

Final Word

The new Aurora is on target with the top-sellers in the growing $35,000 luxury class. It is refined almost to the point that if you were blindfolded, you wouldn't know you were in a big GM cruiser. Its lightness and agility is unlike the General's boats of yore. Yet the Aurora still has character, something you may miss in a sterile Lexus ES300 or Infiniti I30.

The price for the V8 4.0L is a genuine bargain in the class, although the front-drive layout detracts from its full enjoyment. Overall, however, this new Aurora is terrific.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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