There are surprisingly few instances anymore of American carmakers’ goals exceeding their reach. On the one hand, they no longer seem to care about making affordable, safe, and practical commuter cars for under, say, $10,000. Lately, that seems to be the Koreans’ responsibility. At the other end of the spectrum, they’ve already pushed the street-legal high-performance envelope about as far as it can stretch with the likes of Chevy’s 345-horsepower Corvette, Ford’s 320-HP Mustang Cobra SVT, and Dodge’s 450-HP Viper. Meanwhile, today’s popular trucks, including SUVs of course, remain proudly unsophisticated and serve as poster vehicles for the New Complacency.
There does remain, however, an elusive Grail. It is “the American car with a European feel.” There are many claimants, but so far, none has even come close to nabbing the mysterious prize. Lincoln’s LS and Cadillac’s Seville have drawn the most attention with their loud, cocky behavior. These are indeed quite enjoyable cars, only not especially European-feeling ones. Chrysler has essentially capitulated: With Mercedes-Benz as its senior partner, what need anymore merely pretending to be European?
There is one knight-errant in this quest who may yet prevail. When dispirited, downtrodden Oldsmobile Division debuted its Aurora sedan for 1995, only a few Olds loyalists really took much notice. In the last six years, however, it has slowly but increasingly dawned upon buyers in the sporty luxury class that Aurora is out to change Oldsmobile’s reputation and fortunes. Strangely, the car isn’t even promoted as an especially European-flavored contendereven though, arguably, it is closer to being so than any American-made rival.
This paradox was brought into particularly high relief last month at the Indy Racing League (IRL) race at the new Kentucky Speedway, southwest of Cincinnati. Nothing could be more all-American than oval-track racing at a superspeedway. (The Nashville area will itself soon play host to a similar event at the racing facility now under construction northwest of town.) IRL racing is furthermore unique in allowing competitors, at present, only two choices of production-based engines for their open-wheel cars: Oldsmobile’s Aurora V8 or Infiniti’s V8 from its Q45 sedan. On the starting grid of 27 cars at the Kentucky race, all but two were fielding Oldsmobiles. But in introducing auto writers to the 2001 Aurora during a day of energetic test-driving prior to the race, Oldsmobile clearly meant to challenge preconceptions about its athletic midsize sedans with its Euro-style, twin-cam engines.
It is the engines, in the plural, that represent Aurora’s biggest news for 2001. In addition to Olds’ sophisticated 4.0-liter, double-overhead-cam V8, the Aurora is now available with a 3.5-liter, twin-cam V6. This smaller plant is, basically, a three-quarter clone of its elder sibling, having two fewer cylinders but the same basic engineering architecture. Both motors are derived from General Motors’ sophisticated Northstar engine development program, which they share with Cadillac’s larger V8s. It is, however, Olds’ unique combination of slightly smaller motors in a slightly trimmer sedan package that gives the two Auroras their special, nimble feel.
From the standpoint of sporty responsiveness, in other words, less is undoubtedly more. Winding through the northern Kentucky foothills and ridgelines overlooking the Ohio River, the V8 Aurora in particular was balanced, even magnificent. No bigger, more powerful Seville could have done as well. Aurora’s 260 ft.-lbs. of torque provided heaping reserves of power for hill-climbing or quick acceleration for exiting hard corners. And hard cornering is an entirely reasonable activity in such a car with large-diameter disk brakes at all four wheels. Moreover, the inclusion of computerized stability assistance, dubbed Precision Control System(PCS), as standard equipment on the V8 Aurora goes a long way to banish the lackluster performance reputation of front-wheel drive.
Olds’ PCS system is an availableand recommendedoption for the V6 model. In all but the most aggressive hands, moreover, the V6 renders this refined overall package into a startling value as well. For just over a $31,000 base-price, the V6 Aurora dramatically challenges its European and Japanese rivals in the “near luxury” class. Its 215 horsepower is competitive; its spacious, comfy interior is a trump.
Compared to the larger Aurora V8, the V6 engine becomes slightly winded during spirited barnstorming runs. The four-speed transmission in particular gets fussy in its hunt-and-peck search for a proper gear. There’s no question, however, that the V6 is the better buy for an average driver, coming in some $4,200 less than the V8 model. An annoying quirk of Oldsmobile’s pricing policy, however, requires bundling numerous options to tailor a V6 Aurora to one’s preferences. The PCS option, for example, costs $575; but getting it requires shelling out an additional $440 for a power-seating/dual-climate control package. Suddenly, a good value begins to fray at the edges.
I can easily envision Aurora initiating an image revolution at Oldsmobile that will pervade the entire division. Indeed, the next model down in the pecking order, the Intrigue, is already wearing the new twin-cam V6; and the entry-level Alero acquires a snappy five-speed manual next year to coax maximum zest out of its spunky Quad-4 motor. Even the exteriors of all these Olds are beginning to resemble one another. Personally, I prefer the Aurora’s “mature” lines most of all. They are meaty and sinewy, but graceful tooparticularly at the rear, where the shape is consciously Italianate for 2001. Only the front, with its grill-less fascia punctuated with odd nostrils and slits, misses the mark entirely. Just as Olds’ ambitious, flagship sport sedan reaches to grasp the Grail, its face greets the world with an all-too-American “Howdy!,” and Aurora’s dream of a European aura dissolves.
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