Here and Gone 

Olds' last new model may be one of its best

Olds' last new model may be one of its best

There’s an e-mail making the rounds that purports to identify the last words you’ll hear from a Southern good ol’ boy in the moments before he crashes his truck: “Hey, bubba, hold my beer and watch this!” I’ve long since stopped taking umbrage over cheap shots at our enviable distinctiveness here in the South. It pains me more, in fact, to countenance the waste of a good beer. In any case, I just can’t help thinking of this punch line in the context of the Oldsmobile Bravada that recently dropped by for an evaluational visit. Just when Olds finally gets it right and builds an SUV that can hold its head high in the vigorous sport/utility market, the guys behind the wheel at GM pull the plug and wreck the entire division: “Hey, all you auto-buyin’ bubbas out there, hold my Bravada and watch this!”

In a nutshell, the 2002 Bravada is the bigger, smoother, roomier, more powerful, and more elegant sport/utility that upscale Oldsmobile has deserved to be selling for years. It’s technically sophisticated—even exciting in some respects; and it’s genuinely sporty and utilitarian in the purest spirit of the sport/utility credo. Although the all-wheel-drive Bravada I drove wasn’t exactly cheap at an as-tested total of $35,472, its price nevertheless hits the bull’s-eye in its upscale category, crowded with such like-minded rivals as Mercury Mountaineer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Acura MDX, and Toyota Highlander.

This new Bravada’s notability derives particularly from the more-is-better school of design. Horsepower is up by 42 percent over last year. Total cargo space (with the second-row bench seat folded) increases to 80 cu. ft. from 74. Chassis stiffness is vastly improved, thanks to the use of a still relatively exotic technique for shaping steel called hydroforming. In fact, torsional rigidity improves this year by 260 percent. There’s even 5 percent more braking surface in a system that now incorporates four-wheel disk brakes, standard with anti-lock circuitry.

The engine story is what’s most exciting. Underhood is GM’s first new inline-six in about 20 years, featuring GM’s first use of variable valve timing (exhaust side only) in North America. It’s a twin-overhead-cam design, and at 4.2 liters displacement it not only blows away last year’s 4.3-liter V6 by a margin of 270 horsepower to 190, but it also shames a good many even larger V8s. Torque—and, thereby, pulling power—is stout at 275 ft.-lbs. and it comes on relentlessly at a low rpm. As a result, acceleration is lively, and the tow rating is substantial at 6,200 lbs. for the AWD Bravada (6,400 lbs. for the 2WD model). Best of all, the straight-six is quiet, quiet, quiet. Engineers have long understood this layout as the smoothest, most efficient design for automotive purposes, and the Vortec 4200 is no exception. It’s so silent that an ignition interlock had to be designed to prevent accidental restarts when the motor is idling.

A straight-six is also relatively long—about twice the length of a V6. That can have implications for cabin space, and indeed it does in the Bravada. Yes, seating for five is ample, and maximum cargo space is increased from last year by about 8 percent. But whereas competitors like Mountaineer and MDX now make room for a part-time third-row bench (raising potential occupancy to seven), Bravada has had to kiss this opportunity goodbye. Just the same, it’s too early yet to know whether this is a case of stubbed-toe product planning or a benign serendipity: The jury’s still out regarding passengers’ tolerance for sardine-like seating in the nether regions of Mercury’s and Acura’s new SUVs.

Olds is unabashed about positioning the AWD Bravada as a “mostly on-road” off-road vehicle. Accordingly, its SmartTrak all-wheel-drive system is dedicated more to sophisticated traction control than to rugged trail-busting. With SmartTrak, Bravada is basically a rear-drive SUV that selectively directs tractive power to the front wheels in times of rear-wheel slippage. Credentials are there, however, for some ambitious trail riding: ground clearance is 8 inches, and the approach, departure, and breakover angles are 29, 23, and 18 degrees, respectively.

Those big, road-going 17-inch wheels and the self-leveling rear suspension (via air springs) give the game away, however. Bravada favors cruising over bruising, and any lingering suspicions are dispelled by the ultra-plush interior. It’s leather this, push-button that. Stereo controls are on the steering wheel, heaters are in the wing-mirrors, and the OnStar satellite service rides along as guardian angel. Personally, I found some of the doo-dads overindulgent: Memory settings for the driver’s seat are programmable for both “driving” and “exiting” positions—for two different people. If you don’t read the instructions and keep track of your individual settings, the seat’s liable to shoot all the way backwards when you get in to drive and scrunch you into the steering wheel when you’re ready to get out.

Perhaps the vehicle’s most telling feature is its most ambiguous. Looking at the window sticker, you’ll find reference to Bravada’s three-year/36,000-mile warranty—GM’s standard issue. But all the sales materials tout coverage for five years or 60,000 miles. So which is it? Well...both. To the standard GM warranty, Oldsmobile is adding a GM extended service protection contract (worth $950) for free. Let’s just call it an invitation to believe in the Afterlife, since Oldsmobile’s corporeal phase-out is already underway. Far from abandoning Bravada buyers, GM is actually rewarding them with warranty protection above and beyond the coverage applied to the nearly identical GMC Envoy and Chevrolet Trailblazer SUVs.

In other words, while Oldsmobile’s long-suffering showroom salespeople are pleading, “Lookie here at this great deal on Bravada,” Oldsmobile’s decision-makers are saying, “Watch this!” And for its first significant milestone, the all-new Bravada becomes an orphan.

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