Oldsmobile may be the most underrated brand of cars in the United States. The General Motors division is building some terrific vehicles - the Cutlass Supreme convertible, the Bravada sport-utility vehicle, the Eighty-Eight Royale. Each year since 1986, though, more and more buyers have been deserting the marque. Oldmobile's sales peaked at more than 1 million in 1986, but in 1991 Olds didn't sell half that many vehicles, according to Automotive News, a trade publication. Yet if you go to an Olds dealer, you will find a showroom full of vehicles that have style and individuality, and that deliver excellent performance and offer good value. And nowhere are these things better embodied than in the Toronado Trofeo, this week's test car. If this luxury sports coupe came from Europe or Japan, it might land on the cover of every enthusiast magazine. Trofeo probably would be hailed as a breakthrough, a milestone car for the creative and ingenious way engineers have made some very high-tech equipment user-friendly. Chances are you didn't even know there was a Trofeo. Olds sold only 3,470 Trofeos in 1991 and about 1,700 so far this model year through the division's 3,100 dealerships. PERFORMANCE As with many of GM's midsize cars, the Trofeo's power is supplied by the company's 170-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6 engine. But in the Trofeo this engine has a slightly different character than the versions used in Buicks and Pontiacs. Aggressive driving provokes a fairly loud snarl from the dual exhaust system, and that fit well with the sporty appearance of the all-black test car. Because Trofeo hasn't been road-tested by the leading automotive magazines, there's no independent appraisal readily available of its performance capabilities. Olds, however, says the Trofeo will do zero-to-60 mph in 10.3 seconds. That isn't especially quick, but the 3,528-pound Trofeo doesn't feel slow by any means. Around town the car muscles away from stoplights with authority; on the interstate, a tap of the accelerator downshifts the transmission and sends the car bolting past slow-moving traffic. The front-wheel drive Trofeo comes only with a computer-controlled four-speed automatic. The shifter is mounted in a stylish floor console between a pair of leather bucket seats. As with the other GM cars I have tested with this transmission, the shifts were exceptionally smooth and well-timed to take advantage of the engine's power. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the Trofeo at 18 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway. That's close to what I got with the air conditioner on. The test car delivered 19.6 miles per gallon city, but only 26 and change on the highway. HANDLING The Trofeo's four-wheel independent suspension helps gives the coupe an agile, athletic feel. An independent suspension system allows each wheel to react individually to road conditions, giving the driver better control. I executed some fast cornering and discovered that the Trofeo won't easily lose its composure should such a maneuver be necessary in an emergency. The four-wheel disc brakes are powerful, but the anti-lock brake system on the test car was a bit touchy. I could feel the ABS engage several times at slow speeds when I knew the tires were not losing traction. Perhaps the test car, which had about 2,000 miles, needed a slight adjustment. FIT AND FINISH Here is where the Trofeo stands out from every other GM car and most imports in its class. The problem with many GM cars today is that they use too many of the same interior components, such as switches, buttons, steering columns and radios. They just don't have much individuality. But that's not so with the Trofeo. This car has a feature that no other GM car has. The test car came with the optional ($1,295) ''visual information center,'' a small color computer screeni the center of the dash. Olds calls it the VIC, and you can use it to change the temperature, adjust the radio, get a fix on your bearings with an electronic compass or call up a virtual encyclopedia of information. I have never seen anything like this in a car. When you turn on the key, the computer screen lights up and displays the radio settings, the day and date and the temperature, both inside and outside the car. To change the radio station, you lightly touch the screen over the shaded area that displays the radio station's frequency. Five buttons on the right side of the screen give access to the car's compass; the status of the drivetrain, such as when to bring the car in for service; calendar information; and the car's trip computer, which calculates time, distance and fuel. Among other functions, the VIC also: Reminds you to turn off the turn signal should you forget to do so after a lane change. Displays numerous warnings should something go wrong, such as an overheating engine. Monitors fluid levels and alerts the driver should the fluids run low. Leather upholstery comes standard in the Trofeo. Head room was a bit tight in the test car because it came with the optional ($1,350) electric sunroof. However, there is plenty of leg room for both front and rear passengers, plus a trunk that can swallow at least four golf bags.
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