A far better achiever than the Achieva.
by Jim McCraw
Base Price $21,400
As Tested $21,400
We recall it as though it were yesterday. Six years ago, we took our first ride in the new Oldsmobile Achieva. It was at a product preview and we were riding in the new Achieva with a representative from Oldsmobile. We hadn't driven 200 feet when we turned to the Oldsmobile representative and said, "You've got to be kidding!" We then went through a long list of the car's deficiencies and asked him if any of the people who designed the Achieva had ever been in or near a Japanese car. He said he wasn't sure -- and he was the marketing guy for the car line.
Things sure have changed at Oldsmobile in the past few years.
This time around, the folks at Oldsmobile closely studied the competition from Japan. The result is that the Alero is a vastly superior automobile. And it offers an exceptional value with a long list of features and creature comforts. This makes a worthy competitor for both Japanese and domestic cars -- something we could not say for the old Achieva.
The Alero's key competitors include the Ford Contour, Dodge Avenger, Chrysler Sebring and Chrysler Cirrus. But Oldsmobile hopes the Alero will woo buyers away from the Honda Accord, Mitsubishi Eclipse, and Nissan Altima.
The Achieva has been discontinued and we won't miss it. Oldsmobile will also be phasing out the Cutlass. That leaves the Alero as the entry-level car in the Oldsmobile family. Oldsmobile expects to sell about 150,000 Aleros a year, making it the company's volume car line.
The Alero shares styling with Oldsmobile's mid-size Intrigue and luxurious Aurora models. This is a good thing. The Aurora is firmly established as Oldsmobile's flagship and the similarly styled Intrigue is doing extremely well in the showrooms. The addition of the Alero successfully creates a unified Oldsmobile family look in the showrooms.
The Alero shares its underpinnings with the all-new 1999 Pontiac Grand Am. These are the only two cars built on this particular platform, and that gave engineers time to make the platform better without worrying about creating variations for four or five sales divisions. The result is a rigid body structure that allowed a suspension to be developed that provides good ride and handling. Tubular door beams and strategically placed foam blocks help guard against side-impact injuries.
Coupe and sedan body styles are available along with a choice of two engines: a 2.4-liter in-line four and a 3.4-liter V-6. Three trim levels are offered: GX, GL, and GLS. A Touring tire and wheel package is available for the top-of-the-line GLS Coupe and Sedan, while a Performance tire and wheel package is available for the GLS coupe.
All Oldsmobile Aleros come standard with a four-speed automatic transmission. A five-speed manual gearbox is expected to be available for the 2000 model year, but only for the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.
The standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine produces 150 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 155 foot-pounds of torque at 4400 rpm. The 3.4-liter V-6 comes standard on GLS models and is optional on GL models. It produces 170 horsepower 4800 rpm and 200 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm.
The Inside Story
The Aurora's influence on the Alero appears to carry through to the interior as well. Like the Aurora, the Alero interior is a solid design. Everything seems natural and sensible without being ordinary or boring, a difficult combination to master these days. Instruments are large and legible, located under a deep, curved hood. Audio controls are positioned in the center of the dash above the climate controls, where they belong. The climate control layout uses rotary switches, a familiar design that is elegant and easy to use.
Interior colors, textures, and shapes reinforce our feeling that Oldsmobile's design team benchmarked every Japanese car in the segment as well as some of the domestic competition. It looks rich and expensive inside the Alero and fitment of the pieces was remarkable in the GLS Sedan we drove.
Blocky in design, the Alero's seats look similar to those found in many GM vehicles, but they provide good support when cornering. Interior space is comparable to other cars in this class and my six-foot four-inch frame was comfortably ensconced. 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.
Ride and Drive
We were surprised and delighted that the Alero was so much fun to drive. Everything we hated about the Achieva's weak powertrain and mediocre chassis has been banished from the Alero.
The Alero GLS offers more grip than we would have expected from Oldsmobile's high-end, high-volume family car. Some of this comes from the GLS model's larger P225/50R-16 Goodyear Eagle LS Touring tires mounted on wider alloy wheels. At the same time, there is little harshness or vibration transmitted through to the passengers. The larger tires impart a somewhat heavier feel to the steering. But the steering is responsive and makes the driver feel better connected to the road. Like most cars from GM, there's a slight dead spot at straight-ahead, but overall the package is nicely balanced.
The ride quality is smooth and much more controlled than the Achieva. The Alero feels taut, yet there's a noticeable absence of shimmy and shake and rattles over potholes. Front and rear suspensions comprise MacPherson struts attached to the car with intermediate subframes. This design allows the springs to keep the tires in good contact with the road without transmitting a lot of harshness to occupants. Oldsmobile engineers designed an ultra-stiff floor pan and a compliant suspension with increased travel that provides a level of quietness and smoothness that the Achieva never had. Bushings, springs, strut damping, and front and rear anti-roll bars were all developed to provide the ride and handling performance demanded by import-oriented customers.
The 3.4-liter V-6 that came on our GLS is a lineal descendant of the 2.8-liter V-6 introduced in 1980. It was later increased to 3.1 liters and then 3.4 liters of displacement. Along the way, it was blessed with hundreds of mechanical and system improvements. It may not be a fire-breather, but it produces more power than most of its competitors.
We also spent some time with the standard 2.4-liter engine. With its relatively flat torque curve, this engine delivers plenty of power around town and offers good acceleration for tackling freeway on-ramps. The four-speed automatic offers smooth, positive shifts and seems a good match for the engine.
The four-speed automatic is the same transmission found in the Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan, but has been recalibrated for quicker downshifting -- a welcome improvement.
All Aleros come standard with anti-lock brakes and electronic traction control. Aluminum brake calipers are 20 percent lighter than cast-iron designs; decreasing this unsprung weight reduces oscillations of the wheel over bumps for better handling and a more controlled ride. The traction control system uses ABS wheel-speed sensors that detect when the front wheels are spinning; torque is 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 traction control systems that use both power reduction and brake application to maintain control. A switch allows the driver to turn the system off when needed.
The Alero GLS may not break any new ground in the great features race, but it provides a good combination of driving dynamics and safety. It looks like a baby Aurora, it sounds and feels like a Japanese import, and it is attractively priced.
It has been years since people walked into Oldsmobile showrooms looking for smaller cars. After all, the Achieva was not a great product. In a single stroke, however, the Alero erases all the memories of that car and puts a viable candidate in the Oldsmobile stores along with the Aurora, Intrigue, Bravada, Eighty Eight and Silhouette.
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