Happy days are here at last for the Oldsmobile division of General Motors.
Sales are on a major upswing as buyers once again are warming up to America’s oldest car brand.
Leading the charge is the new Alero, which, after only a few months on the market, has rocketed ahead of all other Oldsmobiles to become the division’s highest volume car.
It’s easy to see why the Alero has gotten off to a quick start. This handsomely styled car gives buyers more for the dollar than most of the imported and domestic competition. For instance, in the GL model we tested, you don’t pay extra for traction control, anti-lock brakes or daytime running lights, important safety features that are usually optional on competitive cars.
Our test car came with GM’s much-improved 2.4-liter, Twin Cam, four-cylinder engine, a motor that delivers respectable performance and good fuel economy. The only transmission available (this year) is a four-speed automatic. Olds is expected to equip the sportier Alero coupe with a five-speed for the 2000 model year.
If a four-cylinder just won’t do it for you, there is a 3.4-liter, 170-horsepower V-6, also teamed with a four-speed automatic transmission.
But even with the four-cylinder engine, performance wasn’t lacking in the 3,000-pound sedan. As with many imports, the Alero feels lively at low-speeds, offers good midrange acceleration for passing slower traffic and cruises quietly at highway speeds.
The only time the engine made unwelcome noises was when it was called upon for high revs. It gets a bit hoarse and coarse when the tachometer needle climbs over 5,000 rpm, but because most of the power comes on much lower, you needn’t rev it up that high very often.
Opening the hood is also something you shouldn’t have to do too often. GM says the sturdy engine won’t require anything more than oil changes until it reaches 100,000 miles. Unlike Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans, there are no expensive timing belts to change or water pumps to replace. Even the radiator coolant is designed to last past 100,000 miles.
GM’s four-speed automatic transmission may be the smoothest-shifting in this class of car. Also, it’s sealed for life and requires no maintenance. There’s no dipstick, so you don’t have to check the fluid. Few other cars offer this feature.
Over the road, I found the Alero to be competent and easy to maneuver. The four-wheel independent suspension system easily muffles most shocks as the car rolls over bumps. Cornering is a stress-free exercise at most speeds. The power rack-and-pinion steering has a sporty feel and responds sharply. The ride is quiet but not so much so that you feel disconnected from the road. A strong set of four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes is standard.
Fit and finish
The Alero owes much of its solid feel to a superstiff body structure. Over bumps, it flexes and bends about as much as the average Mercedes-Benz, which is not much.
A stiff b ody allows the interior designers to craft panels, trim and components that fit more tightly together. That helps seal out noise and muffle vibrations.
The dash is a further evolution of the one-piece setup found in most cars these days. The center stack of controls for the radio and air conditioner is angled slightly toward the driver. Three easy-to-use knobs control the air conditioning system. The $200 optional sound system included both a CD and a cassette player – a nice touch.
Olds deserves credit for coming up with a pair of nice looking and very comfortable bucket seats. I spent many hours behind the wheel of the Alero and felt no fatigue. Interior parts such as the shifter, which conforms to the natural shape of your palm, and the thick steering wheel, gave me good feelings about the Alero. It’s a car that I think pays close attention to the comfort of the driver and passengers.
The rear seats fold forward, though they could be improved. They would be m uch easier to operate ifthe latches could be undone from inside the car, instead of the trunk.
Our gold test car came loaded with standard features, such as rear window defroster, power door locks, tilt wheel, tinted glass, electric trunk release and a theft deterrent system.
Options added about $1,000 to the price and included 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, power driver’s seat and radio-controlled door locks.
The Alero should be on your list of cars to test drive if you’re in the market for a sporty, import-oriented family coupe or sedan.
1999 Oldsmobile Alero GL Sedan
Base price: $17,975. Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, daytime running lights and safety cage construction. Price as tested: $19,590. EPA rating: 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway. Incentives: None.