A little Aurora goes a long way.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $22,395
As Tested (MSRP) $26,245
The 1995 Aurora seemed to herald a new direction at Oldsmobile, with more innovative style, more European driving dynamics, and very little of the tired old this is the way we've always done it attitude. When the mid-size Intrigue replaced the hoary old Cutlass a few years later, it was clear that the essence of Aurora was permeating the whole fleet. Intrigue even looked like a little Aurora.
Intrigue is not just smooth and comfortable, attractive and expressive; it is arguably the best of the General Motors sedans in this class. More importantly, it is an enjoyable car, and more than capable of holding its own against such mighty mid-size imports as the Toyota Camry V6.
Intrigue's own twin-cam V6 delivers lots of power for quick passes on two-lane roads. The Intrigue provides quick, accurate steering, agile handling, excellent high-speed stability and a nice ride quality on bumpy roads. A handsome interior, available in tasteful leather, features well-designed climate controls. The Intrigue seats four people comfortably, or its rear seats can be folded down to make room for a lot of luggage.
Three trim levels are available: GX, GL and GLS. All are four-door, five-passenger sedans. All Intrigues are equipped with a 3.5-liter double overhead-cam V6 (phased in during the 1999 model year), mated to a four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission.
Intrigues come well equipped. The base GX includes air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette stereo and power windows, mirrors and door locks for $22,395. Tone-on-tone seat fabric has been added for 2001, providing an even more luxurious look; and the previously optional air filtration system is now included in the cost of admission. It features a replaceable air filter and should prove a boon to hay-fever sufferers.
Intrigue GL models, which will start at $24,150, include dual automatic climate controls and a premium AM/FM/cassette stereo with six speakers. GLS models, which start at $26,515, are equipped with leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, a CD stereo and GM's OnStar communications system.
Our test GL came with optional leather seating ($995) and a premium Bose sound system ($500) with an amplifier, eight speakers, and a CD changer.
The Intrigue's quietly muscular exterior features styling cues from big-brother Aurora. This is most apparent in the twin openings below the reflector headlamps, which add character to the front end. Aggressive 16-inch wheels fill the wheel wells. The Intrigue's styling and proportions disguise its substantial size; it is more than 7 inches longer and 3.5 inches wider than the Toyota Camry.
Intrigue shares a lot of hardware with GM's other mid-size entries: Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevy Impala, Buick Century and Buick Regal. Yet the Intrigue presents its own character and is arguably the best interpretation of GM's W-car group.
The inside color scheme of our Intrigue GL came in a subdued contrast of taupe and cream. Devoid of GM's characteristic wood trim, it was tastefully done and looked like something from the cover of an interior design catalogue. An organic dash design looked clean, uncluttered and contemporary.
This is a big car by mid-size standards, and there's corresponding roominess inside. Front legroom, augmented by extended seat travel, is abundant. The front bucket seats are nicely contoured. Six-way power adjustments on the driver's side are designed well.
There's plenty of space for two adults in the rear. Long seat cushions provide exceptional thigh support, and the Intrigue beats the Camry for rear-seat legroom by 1.4 inches. Five passengers would be crowded for anything but short trips, however. Three people in the back seat is a bit cramped and, rather than a shoulder harness, there is only a lap belt in the center position.
Trunk space is vast with plenty of room for golf bags, or mass quantities of luggage. I folded down one of the rear seats and stowed a set of fly rods there for a 600-mile round trip to Key West.
Lots of glass, a streamlined instrument cowling and a low hood line make for excellent driver sight lines. An analog tachometer and speedometer are separated by an illuminated PRNDL repeater for the transmission. Padded in thick leather, the steering wheel feels good. There are auxiliary switches on the steering column for cruise controls and, on our GL, sound system controls.
Mounting the ignition switch on the dashboard eliminates fumbling with column locks; this is the way all ignition switches should be. Similarly, the location of the emergency flasher and main cruise control switches, stacked to the right of the instrument nacelle, is ideal because they are easy to find and easy to reach in a hurry.
Climate controls are designed well and feature a passenger temperature adjustment that provides the significant other with some fine-tuning. Cup holders are among the best.
Driving from Delray Beach to Key West and back showed that the Intrigue delivers a smooth ride, plenty of power for passing on two-lane roads and quick, accurate steering.
Although Intrigue was launched with a 3.8-liter pushrod V6, that power plant was replaced in 1999 with a modern, double-overhead-cam V6 displacing 3.5 liters. Made of aluminum, this lightweight V6 uses technology developed for the highly successful Aurora V8. It generates 215 horsepower and, more importantly, 230 foot-pounds of torque. That's enough to blast out of the tollbooths on Florida's Turnpike, an event that sometimes resembles a Grand Prix start. The engine is smooth. And you can barely feel the four-speed automatic transmission shift; it's almost seamless.
The Intrigue seems to offer more grip than a Camry LE does. It stops a bit shorter and changes directions without drama. Quick transitions produce a fair amount of body roll, however. With the Intrigue's relatively high curb weight, there's more weight transfer than you'll encounter in a Camry or Nissan Maxima. But these motions are nicely controlled, so leave the Dramamine at home.
This car rode exceptionally well on Key West's bumpy back streets. The Intrigue feels smoother and more compliant than the Pontiac Grand Prix on rough surfaces, it's more agile than the Buick Century, and it has enough punch to keep pace with the Toyota Camry V6.
Much of the Intrigue's excellent ride and handling can be traced back to its rigid chassis. A rigid chassis provides greater durability, by reducing vibration. It also helps reduce noise 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. Although the Intrigue's front-drive chassis is an evolutionary development of the Cutlass Supreme/GM-10 platform, it was re-engineered from end to end to improve rigidity; that's a relatively new and significant engineering priority at GM. The Intrigue seems to indicate that GM is learning how to increase chassis rigidity without increasing size and weight. According to Oldsmobile, the Intrigue's chassis is stiffer than the Toyota Camry's chassis. At 3455 pounds, the Intrigue is no lightweight; it is substantially heavier than its Japanese rivals are. But it doesn't feel heavy on the road.
The Intrigue seems to offer an ideal blend of ride quality and handling control. It feels European in character: firm, but devoid of harshness. The Intrigue's all-strut suspension is American in design. When driven beyond the grip of the tires it exhibits progressive understeer, a nearly universal trait 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. Understeer is favored by American handling engineers because correcting it is intuitive for the driver: Simply slow down.
But Oldsmobile added some subtle tweaks that lend an extra measure of precision and pleasure to the Intrigue driving experience. The struts, 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 is precise with little play in the center. GM's magnetic variable-assist rack-and-pinion system gets the credit.
Brakes are discs all around. As on most GM cars, ABS is standard equipment, and pedal feel is firmer than with previous examples of GM antilock systems. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control in a panic braking situation. Traction control is standard on GL and GLS and optional (as part of a $590 Driver Control Package) on GX; traction control reduces front wheel spin in slippery conditions.
Last year, Oldsmobile began offering the Precision Control System as well, which helps reduce understeer (the car goes straight when the front wheels are turned) or oversteer (the rear end swings out) after entering a corner too fast. In simple terms, PCS helps keep the Intrigue going where the driver steers it. Fully automatic, PCS requires no input from the driver and is designed to help drivers maintain control in an emergency maneuver, including heavy braking and turning at the same time to avoid an obstacle. The system senses a skid and applies braking power to individual wheels to correct loss of grip.
Precision Control System is available as part of a $595 package for GX and GL that also includes a faster-accelerating 3.29:1 axle ratio (instead of 3.05) and P225/60HR16 performance tires; GLS buyers must opt for a $1,456 package that adds a decklid spoiler, power moonroof, and chromed aluminum wheels.
Oldsmobile Intrigue delivers quiet comfort with a shot of elegance in a subdued but stylish package. It runs and rides smoothly with handling agility that makes it a pleasure to drive.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.