With its careful architecture and fine, playful touches to the outerwear, Oldsmobile's 1998 Intrigue certainly looks like any mid-size import it was born to challenge. By price, performance and gruff mechanical song, it even walks and quacks like an Accord or Camry.

But deep down, inside its automotive soul, where mechanical personality and owner love affairs should form, there's nothing but hollow rumbles.

It's tough to nail, more of a puzzling sense than a firm argument based on hard deliberation. And those who buy cars as commuter appliances, or have yet to be seduced by the complete qualities of Toyota, Honda or Nissan, might not notice this void where beguiling should be.

Nonetheless, Intrigue falls short of its name. Nothing really mysterious here. No fascination. None of the careful attention to minutiae--a key sliding easily into the ignition, a rich click to the switch gear--that is a given with the imported competition. Here is just a slightly better-than-ordinary General Motors sedan with a fresh face on a familiar frame.

Think of The Donald deciding to remarry, and his new bride turns out to be Ivana with a make-over.

Worse, the Intrigue offers no huge reasons of horsepower or handling to ditch your Nissan Maxima, which GM chose as a target car; nor does its packaging compete with the variety of engines, body styles and equipment that have Camry and Honda flexing so easily to customer needs.

In its wisdom, or possibly in its arrogance--only sales will tell if experience and assumption works--Oldsmobile has decided what Intrigue buyers will want in performance, transmission and fuel economy. So only one engine is available, a 3.8-liter V-6 with 195 horsepower, a proven yet elderly pushrod veteran of service with other GM divisions. A new, punchier V-6 won't be available until next year.

Only one transmission--the four-speed automatic introduced last year in the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight. No manual is in the works.

Only one body style and interior configuration--a five-place four-door, with bucket seats up front and a bench in the rear. No wagon, no coupe, no other shapes in the crystal ball.

While Accord, Camry and Maxima stand alone on individual merits, and squarely behind distinctive badges, Intrigue is a mechanical clone of cars badged as Pontiacs and Buicks.

Standard equipment includes airbags, automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, air-conditioning, power windows and cruise control. But you can recite the same goody list for V-6 versions of Camry, Accord and Maxima; also Eagle Vision, Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Ford Taurus, four highly efficient and well-selling domestic front-runners in the mid-size stakes.

Intrigue trickles into showrooms this month with base-to-loaded pricing starting at $21,250 (including destination charges) and stretching to $26,450 for a GL with all the toys and trinkets. Once more, that differs only by nickels, dimes and a couple of lottery tickets from Camry, Accord, et al.

With a torque rating of 220 pound-foot, Intrigue does provide the pulling power of one tugboat or a brace of tow trucks. Yet only those with stopwatches implanted in their pacemakers will notice fragmental differences in initial acceleration between Intrigue and the competing mob.

At 107 mph, top speed is slower. At 19 mpg on surface streets, and 29 mpg on Interstate 10, fuel comparisons are a matter for measuring spoons. Intrigue is wider, longer and has more cargo room. But there's a Ford Taurus with a V-8 that pumps out 235 horsepower and will humiliate most sedans out there.

So, with the fatalism of Fagin, you pays your money, you makes your choice--and wonder if the elegant, international exterior and uncluttered, comfortable interior of Intrigue are enough to continue the rebirth of Oldsmobile, a division on life support until the classy Aurora l xury sedan of 1995.

Forget its role as an import-snuffer: Will this sedan be embraced as a replacement for the 10-year-old Cutlass Supreme, a high-volume family mainstay and high-value alternative to Taurus and Accord?


In fairness to Oldsmobile, our test Intrigue GL was a prototype in which one must anticipate more bugs than a log cabin has termites. That could explain a grab handle over the back door coming adrift at first grab. Also suspension settings by Dolly Madison that had the car diving under braking like Buicks of yore.

On the other hand, we doubt that full production will improve a trunk lid that closes with the rattle and clang of a cheap lunch pail. Or a boot around the shifter that introduces a certain amount of guesswork when lining up lever with transmission setting. Those settings, incidentally, are not illuminated for night operations or basement parking.

OK, there is a vertical gear position indicator on the dashboard. But unless the steering wheel is set square in the dead-ahead position, its rather large hub will obscure the setting.

Major radio and heater-ventilation controls are a similar mess. They are the same size, which means eyes instead of fingertips must change stations or temperatures.

Odd faux pas, indeed, for a company whose interior designers were canny enough to give us a grope-free ignition switch set in the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel.

Still, Intrigue does perform with much the same numbers and most of the agility of the imports. It's not a sports sedan by any means. At 3,455 pounds--or more than a quarter ton heavier than Accord--it is too heavy. But it does get underway with alacrity, and responds with considerable authority when aimed at holes ahead in freeway traffic.

And a taut frame, long wheelbase and intelligently tuned suspension provide a secure, balanced, conservative ride. Except when making vulgar directional changes and all that weight gets a little out of hand.

Yet an inner flair, that fine abstraction evolved and burnished so well by Asian manufacturers, simply is not part of the Intrigue equation.

That doesn't mean that Oldsmobile is building wheels worse than the majority. It does mean that Honda, Toyota and Nissan continue to build wheels a generation or three ahead of everybody else.

1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue GL

The Good: Outstanding styling, international aura. Price, performance and value parallels Asian competition. Ride more suited to American derrieres.

The Bad: No fire in the belly. One transmission, one configuration, one engine, one more GM dictate on what America will drive.

The Ugly: Selecting gears in the dark.

Cost Base: $22,650. (Includes automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, aluminum wheels, air-conditioning, two air bags, power windows and door locks, cruise control, tilt steering.) As t ested: $26,450. (Adds leather upholstery, power sunroof, chrome wheels, premium sound system and destination charges.)

Engine 3.8-liter, 12-valve V-6, developing 195 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, five-passenger, mid-size sedan.

Performance 0-60 mph, as tested: 8.0 seconds. Top speed, electronically governed: 107 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway: 19 and 29 mpg.

Curb Weight 3,455 pounds.