There it was, the Oldsmobile Aurora sitting in the parking lot across the street from Win Schuler's restaurant.

It was a hand-built preproduction prototype because the Aurora doesn't go on sale until next May as a 1995 model.

Yet here it was, a car nearly 10 months from appearing in showrooms being made available for a handful of auto writers to grope and drive.

Typically, making cars available so far in advance is a sign of desperation. An automaker is in trouble or one of its cars is in trouble, and the rationale is that if you show the media what's coming, the media will retreat from their death watch.

Olds chose to show off its all-new 1995 sedan, the successor to the Toronado coupe that was dropped after the 1992 model year, because the division has spent the better part of the last year dodging coffin nails.

A press report surfaced that Olds was in the dumper and so GM was going to give it the ax in the interest of saving money. Since a number of executive heads were rolling at the time, it seemed logical that a few cars and perhaps a division or two would be pink-slipped as well.

Well, several executives are on early pension, yet no division has vanished. But Olds still bears some scars after even salesmen at rival GM divisions told customers not to buy an Oldsmobile because it would soon be out of business.

Olds brought in John Rock, the candid, outspoken, no-nonsense general manager who whipped GMC truck back to respectability, and entrusted him with the task of squelching rumors of a demise while winning back customers.

Rock has used a couple of tools to instill interest in Olds. One was value pricing, in which he loaded a variety of models with a host of options and then discounted the sticker. Olds dealers haven't had to call in Andy Frain troops to hold back the crowds, but enough customers have come back that salesmen no longer look comatose.

The next trick in Rock's saddlebag is to erase thoughts of past disaster by generating excitement in Olds' future. Thus the media adventure here with Aurora.

Actually, Rock was forced to focus more on the future than the present because Aurora was supposed to come out this fall. However, when the money crunch hit GM in 1991, the introduction was pushed back to May as a '95 rather than October as a '94.

Regardless, Aurora is coming, and if this car signals the return of Olds, the GM division stands in good stead.

Aurora is being brought out to do battle with the likes of Lexus and Infiniti in the luxury sedan market. Aurora even looks very much like its Japanese rivals-especially Infiniti, with its rounded aerostyling. In fact, Aurora looks so much like a Japanese luxury sedan that it even borrows Lexus and Infiniti's use of an artsy letter-A-logo on the hood as well as body-colored, flush-mounted door handles.

And though Olds had become a V-6 engin e division until now, the Aurora, like Lexus and Infiniti, sports a V-8 power plant, a new 4-liter, 250-h.p., 32-valve, V-8 derived from the Northstar family at Cadillac.

Buick's next-generation Riviera coupe will be built off the Aurora sedan platform when it comes out in May, but it will be limited to a V-6 engine. Aurora has the 4-liter as an exclusive for now.

The 4-liter is smooth, quiet and more lively than the 3.8-liter, V-6 the Olds had relied on as its top-of-the-line performer for what seems like the last decade. The 4-liter is teamed with an equally smooth and quiet 4-speed automatic with almost imperceptible shift points. The trans is so smooth and quiet, you find yourself making a few hard accelerations just to ensure the gears are changing.

Step on the pedal, admire the scenery, look at the speedometer and, oops, while the sensation is that of cruising at 55 miles per hour, the numbers in the instrument panel are at 70 m.p.h.

The 4-liter is part of a package of goodies designed not only to lure buyers away from the Japanese but also to justify what is expected to be a $33,000 to $35,000 price tag. While a monumental sticker for an Olds, the price would be considerably less than that of its Far East rivals.

In addition to the peppy V-8 and silent 4-speed, you get driver- and passenger-side air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes and traction control as standard equipment. With traction control and ABS, Olds has prepared for any problems you might have in starting or stopping, while the dual bags are an insurance policy should all else fail.

The suspension is reminiscent of that in the Cadillac Seville STS-soft without being cushy, firm without being harsh. In traipsing through the countryside in and around Marshall, you find a number of hills and valleys in the roadway. One stretch seemed to be designed by a roller-coaster aficionado, as the pavement rose and sank in almost planned intervals every few yards. A softly sprung luxury car would have the occupants alternating between bouncing off the headliner and floor pan. Aurora maintained a level ride so that occupants weren't even a half bubble out of plumb.

When the road twisted and turned, Aurora sat flat so that you didn't lean into the turn and linger before snapping out of it. There was no need to back off the accelerator and tap the brake when the yellow signs appeared with their arrows bending left or right. The suspension system reacts on its own to the roadway to give the driver control over the environment just as ABS or traction control would.

Aurora's dimensions contribute to the smooth ride. It's built on a long, 113.8-inch wheelbase, three inches more thanthe Olds 98. Overall length is 205.4 inches, 0.4 inch less than a 98. The long wheelbase keeps you far removed from road harshness transmitted back into the cabin from the wheels. The length means youhave more than ample leg, head and arm room to stretch on long-distance driving.

While pleasant, Aurora could use some refinement. Goodyear all-season 16-inch tires are standard and Michelin all-seasons are optional. The Michelins are speed-rated at 145-m.p.h., versus 112-m.p.h. for the Goodyears, but the Michelins tend to transmit too much road noise back into the cabin. The Goodyears are quieter.

Also, rear windows go down only halfway; the smooth dash gives off too much glare; the 16 mile-per-gallon city/25 m.p.g. highway mileage rating is 2 m.p.g. shy of satisfaction level (though Olds used plastic fascia and an aluminum hood to reduce weight); and, while the trunk lid opens at a 90 degree angle to make it easier to access, the lid itself is narrow and storage space inside is cramped because wheel-well housings rob room. When you add Olds' new Acoustimass sound system, which is stored in the trunk, even more room is lost. If you golf, leave the wood s at home. Another trunk annoyance is Olds' belt and suspenders approach of using hinges and gas struts to hold the lid open. Another space robber.

On the plus side, there's spacious rear seat room with a pass-through to the trunk so you can carry skis; a fold down rear-seat armrest with dual cupholders; front seat console with dual cupholders and cassette stowage; programmable door locks that automatically lock when you shift from park to drive, but can unlock or stay locked when going from drive to park; dual sun visors to block front/side glare plus a pullout shade to block glare at the center of the windshield behind the rearview mirror.

Also, the steering wheel houses fan/temperature/radio controls for easy use; there's an outside temperaturereading in the dash along with a driver information center complete with miles to oil change reading; fuel filler door and trunk opener buttons are on the dash; the roof console conceals the garage door open er, and the roof liner is made from recycled plastic pop bottles.

The best feature is that the 4-liter V-8 derived from the Northstar has an anti-restart feature. If you forget yourself and turn the ignition key again while the engine is idling, the starter won't re-engage, saving you from the embarrassing metal-on-metal grind.

Aurora standard equipment will include the typical power brakes/steering/seats/windows/locks goodies plus AM/FM stereo with cassette and CD player, air conditioning, leather seats and the like. About the only options will be power sunroof, heated seats, cloth seats and choice of tires.

Olds said Aurora will be marketed much like the Saturn with a "no-dicker sticker," meaning what the label says is what you can expect to pay. A novel warranty is planned, but Olds won't divulge details.

Olds said it expects to sell 24,000 Auroras from May through the end of next year and 35,000 to 40,000 annually in its first full year starting in 1995.

As Olds revamps its lineup, all cars will bear a family resemblance to the Aurora. For example, Olds says it plans to combine the 88 and 98 sedans into one "entry lux" model in the late '90s that will be built off the Aurora platform and could be powered by the 4-liter V-8 or a new V-6 derived from the Northstar V-8.