Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Zut Alero!

Thought Oldsmobile was dead? Think again.

By Marc Stengel

MARCH 1, 1999:  Ooo-la-la. Look at ze pretty new Oldsmobile wishing to compete with European automakers for American pocketbooks. Look closely indeed at the phoenix-like resurrection of a geriatric American car company that most everyone--including dealers--had consigned to the hospice just two years ago.

The irony, of course, is that this oldest of all continuously operating U.S. auto brands was celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1997 while everyone in the audience was planning its wake. Meanwhile, in a rosy dawn of hopeful anticipation, Olds released the luxurious, powerful Aurora grand touring sedan, to be followed by the eye-catching midsize Intrigue sedan shortly thereafter. For '99, the Alero has sneaked quietly into showrooms in compact sedan and coupe versions to complete a trio of conspicuously related models on whom Oldsmobile's future quite literally depends. It is a high-stakes gambit that appears to be paying off. Among all of General Motors' car divisions in '98 (excepting the jointly owned Saab), Oldsmobile posted the only sales growth for the year--up 4 percent.

In many ways, Alero is critical to Oldsmobile's plans. If it can lure buyers into Olds' reconfigured orbit, the four-cylinder, compact-sized Alero may lead to purchases of the V6 midsize Intrigue before ultimately consummating a deal for the V8 sport-luxury Aurora. At each step of the way, Olds promises European flair and a distinct family resemblance among these three models. Arguably, it is with the Alero that Oldsmobile's ambitious intentions veer nearest toward unnecessary pretension.

There is no denying that the Alero I tested is an uncommonly attractive car. I drove the midrange GL-version sedan, which boasts a peppy, 150-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. Based as it is on the same platform that undergirds Pontiac's two- and four-door GrandAm models, Alero is available as a two-door coupe as well; engine options also include a 3.4-liter V6 making 170 horsepower. But the GL sedan in particular plays a vital role in Oldsmobile's sales calculus: At $17,975 base price, it is Alero's volume-leader version and thus Olds' most strategic step for getting customers, eventually, into a top-of-the-line Aurora.

The Alero's sweeping, well-proportioned silhouette is attractive in many distinctive respects. Its slitted headlamps accomplish a deft transition among front, side, and upper surfaces of the car. The model's rounded rear proportions both achieve and conceal a 15.3-cubic-foot trunk that is huge for this class. Rear tail lamps are big but tasteful; in the general absence of chrome trim throughout, these lamp lenses give just the right touch of sparkle. Especially from the rear, the Alero displays its stylistic affinity with Intrigue and Aurora. But I respectfully submit that from no angle does this sedan appear "European" in any meaningful sense of the term.

The car's interior, moreover, is pure middle-America. Inexpensive-looking velour upholstery looks like an interest-free purchase from Rooms To Go. The rear bench is amply broad for a compact sedan, and legroom is surprisingly decent. But the interior roof line swoops down swiftly at the rear window, placing pompadours at grave risk. The lack of a folding rear armrest is a sadly missed opportunity to instill a little deluxe into the overall ambiance. The rear setback does split 70/30, however, to provide a nice variety of cargo handling options.

Up front, the sporty buckets are comfortable and supportive in spite of the bland upholstery. The dash, too, is logical and uncomplicated to use. Unusual but convenient switches for traction control and trip odometer at first look out of place but soon prove their merit. The center console, though, is a gripe. It harbors two lame cupholders fore-and-aft the shift lever. Shift into "Drive," and splish goes your coffee. Shift back into "Park," and splash goes your kid's Coke. And if your cellular phone is plugged into the power outlet beside the front cupholder, you're in for a potentially electrifying moment of mess-up and mop-up. Come to think of it, given the Euros' own tendency to treat cupholders as an uninteresting afterthought, this quirk may be Alero's most transatlantic trait.

What's hardest to evaluate is the Alero's driving feel. Behind the wheel, I was instantly impressed with the car's responsive powertrain and lightweight, nimble road feel. This is a motor with only 150 horsepower, after all; but it's a twin-cam, quick-revving go-getter that pulls hard and zips right along. A rigid body structure goes a long way to enhance the handling experience, and the firm springing and damping of the four-wheel independent strut suspension is suitably "European" by American standards of euphemism.

Not so the power steering. This is the car's chief disappointment in the ride-and-drive department. Boasting a speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion design, the GL's power steering is nevertheless much too "loose" and overeager by sport driving standards. The result is diminished, instead of improved, steering feedback; the Alero feels headstrong and unmindful of the driver's directional intent as a result.

There are neat tricks here and there, just the same: An ingenious system for monitoring tire pressure uses anti-lock braking sensors to detect when an over- or under-inflated tire is spinning at a slightly different speed compared to its brethren. Interior lights accidentally left on will shut off automatically after 20 minutes. And perhaps as a dismal sign of the times, GM has equipped Alero (and most other models) with a means of escaping the trunk--should anyone ever be locked inside.

In many obvious ways, the Alero is attractive, clever, and competent. At $19,590 as tested, the GL I drove still manages a little headroom below that magic threshold of $20,000 for a well-equipped, status-pretending, compact sedan. The car is destined to shoulder well its burden of luring car-savvy prospects back to the Olds fold. The marketers-in-charge, however, should spare us all the lavish Euro talk. The Alero makes a mighty fine specimen of Yankee ingenuity when considered as such. But as a European dandy, it's a fop.

Something's in the air

As you read this, the White House is likely making its final review of sweeping air-pollution regulations that the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last week. Since the primary whipping boys are high-profit SUVs and other light trucks, it's interesting to ponder two curiously coincidental news items that surfaced last week as well. First is Saab's announcement of an "exclusive marketing partnership" with Gary Fisher Bicycles, a leading maker of high-end "performance" mountain bikes. Next comes word that Lee Iacocca's latest venture, EV Global Motors, is courting auto dealerships to distribute a fascinating "light electric vehicle" known as E-Bike. According to Automotive News, Iacocca predicts a national network of 125 bike dealers by Apr. 1 to sell his battery-powered, pedal-assisted bikes, starting at $995. As emissions regulations tighten in the next century, perhaps the best approach for manufacturers is simply to soft-pedal the issue.

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