Luxury sport-utility vehicles continue to be one of the hottest segments in the industry. Last summer, Lincoln rolled out its Navigator to soaring sales, GMC developed the Envoy and Denali and now Cadillac says it will get into the segment soon.For Oldsmobile, this trend is hardly newsworthy because its Bravada has always been more luxurious than its siblings, the GMC Jimmy and Chevrolet Blazer. All three are derived from the same basic vehicle, but each is tailored to fit its own specific brand image. While Oldsmobile's compact sport-ute is not as cushy as some mega-buck sport-utilities, it does offer a long list of creature comforts and full-time, all-wheel drive at a price that is on par with competitors such as the Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango. For 1998, changes are modest. Outside, the front-end has been smoothed up with larger headlamps, six-spoke alloy wheels, horizontal grille bars and new body-side cladding that reinforces its relationship to the Aurora. Inside, the biggest change is a new instrument panel. It was redesigned to accommodate a passenger-side airbag, and that gave Oldsmobile the chance to tidy up some of the ergonomic shortcomings of the earlier model. Now it not only looks better, but is easier to use. For example, the climate control knobs are some of the best found on any GM product. They rotate as if they were rolling in liquid silicon, while the soft rubber knobs have textured surfaces that feel good and are easy to grip with gloves. They are so superior to the rest of GM's product line it is a mystery to me why all GM products don't use them. Now, raving over the knobs of the heater may seem trivial, but the driver comes in contact with ancillary controls many times a day, and when they feel smooth and silky it reinforces the luxury message each time they are used. Elsewhere, there are new gauges, a grab handle for passengers second-generation airbags that inflate with less force. Surrounding many of the switches were gray plastic panels that did not complement the light-tan trim of our test car. It's too bad they are not color coded for a more unified look. The standard leather upholstery is sumptuous as well as comfortable. The seat bolsters are big enough to give generous support on the sides of your thighs and back, yet they are not so big as to make getting in and out awkward. Seatbelt buckles are now mounted to the seat frame so they move with the occupant for greater belt comfort. This year a six-way power driver's seat is standard, and both front seats have power lumbar adjustment. Heated seats are an option. The split-folding back seat has headrests that fold automatically when the seat is lowered for more cargo space. Nice touch. Legroom in the back seat is not overly generous, but fine for small-to-medium adults and kids. As with the GMC Jimmy and Chevy Blazer, a hump in the floor of the front passenger seat intrudes on foot ro om and is generally a nuisance. One of the Bravada's strengths is SmartTrack, a combination of all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes and a locking differential system that is always working, ready to give you the benefits of four-wheel-drive traction whenever conditions dictate. This year, a more efficient electronic transfer case decides when to switch power from the back wheels to all wheels. In normal circumstances, 100 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels. If there is rear-wheel slippage, then power is sent to the front wheels immediately and seamlessly. The only drawback to SmartTrak is the lack of a low-speed gear for off-road use. Standard powerplant is the 4.3-liter, Vortec V6 engine. Its 190 horsepower is a tad coarse at full throttle, but for the most part it moves the vehicle with enthusiasm. It is rated at 16 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. A four-speed automatic transmission is the only one offered. The Bravada is built in oraine, Ohio. Last year sales were 32,000, double what they were the year before. As long as the Bravada offers luxury-car amenities with all-wheel-drive at a decent price, it should continue to lure even more buyers who want a pavement-oriented sport-utility that is as plush as a sedan but as versatile as a big station wagon. Price The base price of our test car was $30,645. Its only option was the heavy duty tow hitch and AM/FM cassette radio with compact disc player. The sticker price was $31,205. Warranty The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: The Bravada brings full-time, all-wheel drive and a leather interior to the compact sport-utility segment. It rides well, has decent pep and is priced competitively. Counterpoint: The lack of a low-gear means the Bravada is pretty much a pavement-only vehicle. The cabin feels smaller than its competitors, and a hump in the floor intrudes on passenger leg room. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 4.3-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 107 inches CURB WEIGHT: 4,049 lbs. BASE PRICE: $30,645 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $31,205 MPG RATING: 16 city, 20 hwy.
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