Performance, style, and value.

by Jim McCraw

Base Price (MSRP) $17,210
As Tested (MSRP) $23,490

The Alero is one of Oldsmobile's better efforts. Available in a choice of sedan or coupe body styles, the Alero offers a decent mix of performance and style for a good price. It delivers good mid-range power, a smooth-shifting transmission and positive steering feedback, as well as a roomy back seat, an attractive interior and a sizeable trunk.

Alero, Aurora, and Intrigue are some of the better domestic designs, so it's a shame to see Oldsmobile go from that standpoint. Buying a 2001 model shouldn't cause worry, however, as GM will be there to stand behind these cars and honor all warranty claims and maintenance needs.

Model Lineup

Oldsmobile Alero is available as two-door coupe and four-door sedan. Each is available in three trim levels, GX, GL, and GLS. Prices for sedans and coupes are the nearly the same. Sedan prices: GX ($17,210); GL ($18,620); GLS ($21,965).

A 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine is standard on GX and GL. A 170-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 is optional on the GL ($655) and standard on the top-of-the-line GLS.

New for 2001 is a 5-speed manual transmission, standard on the base-model GX and available on GL trim. GLS comes standard with an automatic transmission, which is also available on the other models.

All Aleros come with four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control, a four-wheel independent suspension, and hydraulic engine mounts. Our GLS sedan test car came with the performance suspension package, which includes a sports suspension, high-performance tires, and 16-inch alloy wheels.

The Alero sedan competes with the Mazda 626, Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, Chrysler Sebring, Honda Accord, Volkswagen Jetta, and Nissan Altima. The Alero coupe competes with the Dodge Stratus, Honda Accord Coupe and Toyota Solara.

Walkaround

Alero shares a strong family resemblance with Oldsmobile's bigger Intrigue and Aurora sedans. Examples of where that can be clearly seen are in the squashed-oval horizontal headlights and in the artful treatment around the fog lamps and front bumper. Enormous tail lamps are by far the Alero's strongest design element; they look like they are draped around the corners of the car and are instantly recognizable from quite a distance.

Oldsmobile's Alero shares its chassis with Pontiac's Grand Am. The common Alero/Grand Am platform provides a rigid body structure that allowed more precise suspension development, which in turn provides a decent ride and competent handling. Tubular door beams and strategically placed foam blocks help guard against side-impact injuries.

Interior Features

Aurora's influence on the Alero carries through to the expensive-looking interior. All the individual pieces fit together in a way that is natural without being ordinary, scientific without being flashy. The instruments, located under a deep, curved hood that keeps the sun off the faces, are large and legible. Audio controls are positioned in the center of the dash above the less-often-used rotary switches for the climate controls. Both the radio and climate control switchgear are redesigned for the 2001 model year.

Looks can be deceiving. Like many GM seats, the Alero's front buckets don't look supportive, but they do in fact hold you in place well when cornering. Interior space is comparable to other cars in this class, and the Alero accommodates large drivers with ease. We especially liked the seat-mounted three-point seat belts, which move fore and aft with the seat. They seem more comfortable around the shoulder than traditional belts mounted to the door frames.

Rear seats are surprisingly roomy, offering lots of headroom for taller passengers. All models now get child seat anchors in the package shelf. The trunk is big; at 14.6 cubic feet, it is significantly larger than the Honda Accord's 13.6 cubic feet of cargo space. The rear seats fold down for more space and are split for carrying one rear passenger and longer items at the same time. A low liftover height makes it easier to lift groceries and other cargo over the rear bumper.

Alero's interior colors, textures, and shapes are redolent of every Japanese car, showing just how far GM has come from the cheap plastic of its earlier products. Fit and finish were excellent in our test car.

Driving Impressions

The Alero actually makes everyday commuting much less of a chore.

Our GLS offered more grip than we would have expected from such a high-volume family car. It's easy to credit the GLS model's larger P225/50R-16 Goodyear Eagle LS Touring tires mounted on wider alloy wheels. However, Oldsmobile's engineers have optimized the suspension system to deliver the ride and handling demanded by import-oriented customers. The front and rear suspension struts attach to the car through intermediate subframes, which allow the springs to keep the tires in firm contact with the road without transmitting a lot of harshness to occupants. An ultra-stiff floor pan allows for more compliant suspension travel in the interest of smoothness.

The large tires on the GLS impart a somewhat heavy feel to the steering, which, like most cars from GM, has a slight dead spot at straight-ahead. But overall the steering feels quick and precise. This steering response makes the driver feel connected to the road. The Alero is taut, yet remarkably free of rattles over potholes. A bit of road noise and vibration dampened our enthusiasm slightly.

The 3.4-liter V6 that is standard on GLS delivers good mid-range torque. That means you've got good power for making passes on two-lane roads. This V6 is also clean enough to qualify for California's stringent Low Emissions Vehicle rating, but with 170-horsepower on tap still makes for an entertaining driver.

The four-speed automatic transmission works well with the engine and offers smooth, positive shifts.

We haven't tried out the Alero's new five-speed manual transmission, but we expect it to be a good one. Getrag, a German manufacturer renowned for superb manual gearboxes, builds it, and a new plant in Italy produces the transaxle. This new 5-speed manual gearbox should make the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine an attractive alternative to the more expensive V6.

All Aleros come standard with anti-lock brakes and electronic traction control. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control of the car during emergency braking maneuvers. Traction control reduces wheelspin under hard acceleration.

The traction control system uses ABS wheel-speed sensors that detect when the front wheels are spinning; torque is then reduced by upshifting the transmission, retarding ignition timing and, if necessary, cutting fuel to the injectors. Oldsmobile says this system has proven to be more effective than other traction control systems that use both power reduction and brake application to maintain control. A switch allows the driver to turn the system off if necessary, such as if the car is stuck in a snow bank.

Final Word

Given its sophistication and features balanced against its attractive price, the Alero is clearly Oldsmobile's best attempt yet at making a small car to compete with the benchmark cars from Japan. A new 5-speed manual gearbox should add to the sports appeal of the GL models. As a solid entry-level choice that no longer feels like a cheap rental unit, the Alero is quite appealing and should not be overlooked. But buy one soon, as Oldsmobile's days are numbered.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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