EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

When consumer groups focused on the clean steel statuary of Oldsmobile’s proposed Aurora, the feedback was like a head-on collision: damaging yet educational.

Led to believe that the car was built by Lexus, most critics for a day said they would consider buying the car.

Told it was an Oldsmobile, they changed their minds.

Company conclusions were inescapable: Oldsmobile had become a name synonymous with cars that didn’t work, usually limped home, looked frumpy and, frankly, weren’t as desirable as your father’s Oldsmobile 442.

Even the rocket ship logo–a symbol of Oldsmobile power and celestial sales ambitions since the space-traveling ’60s–was considered a leper.

So the 1995 Aurora luxury sedan comes to us naked of past symbology and stripped of familiar nomenclature in deep denial of being joined at the bloodline to General Motors.

The hood emblem is now an oval dissected by a chromium noodle that’s maybe an A but is definitely a squiggle and vaguely Toyotan. “Aurora” is the solitary name on the trunk lid. “Oldsmobile” appears only in pygmy letters on the radio.

Some may consider this a sleight of Detroit packaging, fresh wrapping around old weaknesses and the hollow distancing of new products from past shame. After all, Oldsmobile is the feeblest of GM’s seven car and truck divisions, sales have skidded 60% since 1986, fratricide has long been a whispered option, and that’s quite enough negative baggage for any company outside the savings and loan business.

Or one could view Aurora as an honest renaissance, a comeback car conceived and crafted to be a triumph with a new image critical to its promise of substance. In that case, turning to a new identity and understated origins to attract buyers is no worse than leaning on pen names: If the book is good enough, you really don’t need to know who wrote it.

And Aurora is good enough.

It could even be a bestseller.

This is a front-drive luxury car that replaces the aircraft carrier Toronado and is squarely aimed at splitting the mid-levels of Lexus and Infiniti. Yet with its V-8 pulling power, endless equipment, quiet comfort and satin-slick transmission, plus advanced and handsome styling, Aurora would be better matched against heavyweights Lexus LS400 and Infiniti Q45–and for about $20,000 less.

As Cadillac blew up the notion that two-ton American cars, particularly Oldsmobiles, should maneuver like backhoes, so Aurora with its brick-stiff chassis, self-leveling suspension, and superior combination of ride and handling makes an even better case for four-door ballerinas.

*

Aurora shares this fine platform with the new Buick Riviera coupe, but goes its own way with a V-8 engine that is a downsized, 250-horsepower variant of GM’s lusty 32-valve Northstar.

Externally, front and back, the Riviera is the better pinup with a rear deck that flatters by imperso nating Jaguar. Aurora’s squared-off, almost aristocratic rear is marred by huge backup lights bigger than warehouse floods.

The Riviera presents a nose and chin with delicate chrome accents. Aurora is almost artless with a deep crease above a bottom-breathing grille and fog lights framed by a long figure eight of black rubber. Like two flashlights in a Thighmaster.

But inside . . . ah, as Aurora is probably the best car in the 98-year history of Oldsmobile–and at $32,000 the most expensive–so is its interior the finest in carpeting and traveling comfort since Cesar Ritz furnished his first hotel.

Much has been made of modern car interiors that are cockpits. An Aurora pilot commands a flight deck that sweeps around the human form and encapsules without cramping, brings every control within instant reach of fingers and eyes without confusing either sense.

All window and mirror buttons are on the upslope of the door rest, just below a pictograph p wer-seat switch purloined from Mercedes-Benz. Instruments are large and s peak to you. There’s no squinting and reaching for trunk and gas flap remotes because they’re conveniently set in the dashboard, just above the knee bolster.

From leather armchairs to computerized trip monitoring, through mine ‘n’ yours air bags and an overhead cubbyhole for the garage door remote, the Aurora glows with little luxuries.

Front seating is spacious, rear seat room not so airy. If Oldsmobile has to use a foot pedal for a parking brake, we wish it would disengage when the transmission is shifted to drive. And unless someone out there is converting Dodge Rams and Lincoln Town Cars into low riders, heating wires in the back window are distorting the rear view of following vehicles.

*

Despite their refinements and growing excellence, there remain subtleties–apparently unattainable, for they surely have been recognized–that continue to separate imported from domestic luxury. A Mercedes rides like it was carved from a solid billet. In a Lexus, touch the ashtray and it opens with a hiss.

On Aurora, the ashtray clatters about its business. Close the center armrest too smartly and a collection of crab claws posing as cup holders start groping for something to do. Sadly, these items retain the feel and sound of low bidders in GM’s component programs.

No complaints, however, about the mood of Aurora on a roll.

The Northstar engine–although diluted by some 20 horsepower to prevent Oldsmobile stomping on Cadillac’s turf–is a throaty, muscular thing built to humiliate all lane laggards and on-ramp turtles.

Anti-lock brakes easily slow the car from the supersonic; the speed-sensitive power steering is a smidge on the heavy side, which is the way it should be, and the automatic transmission, except when kicking down and playing to the grandstand, never breaks its smoothness.

This is an effortless car, one of high performance and matching grandeur shod with premium wheels and tires that willingly remove the noise and vibrations of freeway hammering from the concern of its owner.

Meanwhile, back in the land of pseudonyms, the Aurora certainly intrigued those who thought they knew ’em all.

“Whatissit? Whomakesit?” begged one spectator.

It’s an Aurora, we told him, made by a company in Alaska. They plan to market a compact car, the Borealis. And maybe a convertible named Northern Exposure.

1995 Aurora

Price: $31,370

The Good: Efficient, stylish break away from weary old Olds. Luxury levels that match Asian cars. Hard-pulling, high-powered Northstar V-8 engine. Interior sets an industry standard.

The Bad: Small details require attention.

The Ugly: Ghastly oversized backup lights.

Cost As tested, $33,385 (includes standard anti-lock brakes, traction control, two air bags, remote keyless entry, automatic lock s, air conditioning, four-speed automatic, leather seats and automatic headlights. Plus optional glass sunroof and performance tires).

Engine 4.0-liter, 32-valve, Northstar V-8 developing 250 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, mid-size luxury sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 9.4 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 135 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 17 and 24 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,967 pounds.

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