EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

Not long ago I spoke with a Sentinel reader who was in the market for a new car and had narrowed his choices to a BMW 540i and a Pontiac Grand Prix GT.

On the surface, comparing a Pontiac with a BMW might seem like a bit of a stretch, but it’s not. American automakers have sharpened their focus and improved their products in recent years.

The reader bought the Grand Prix, even though he could have easily afforded the BMW. The reason: value. He couldn’t find $20,000 worth of difference between the BMW and the Pontiac.

Value also is the key ingredient to this week’s test car, Oldsmobile’s flagship Aurora.

This is another car that compares favorably with more expensive imports, such as the Lexus LS 400 and Mercedes-Benz E420.

If you are a savvy buyer with the patience to look beyond the luster of a prestigious nameplate and compare the Aurora with its competition, I think you’ll be mightily impressed with this Oldsmosbile.

PERFORMANCE, HANDLING

The Aurora is powered by a smaller version of the Cadillac Northstar 32-valve V-8. The Olds engine is a 4.0-liter, double overhead-cam unit that is rated at 250 horsepower. It is mated to an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission that drives the front wheels.

At nearly 2 tons, the Aurora is a fairly heavy car. But the engine delivers spirited performance, and the transmission’s shifts are imperceptible. Overall, the car is quick, smooth and quiet.

It’s also extremely refined. There aren’t many high-powered front-wheel-drive cars that accelerate as smoothly as the Aurora. Even during fast acceleration from low speeds, there is no interference from the drivetrain. You don’t feel any torque steer – a pulling to the left or right, characteristic of high performance front-wheel drive – or lightness in the wheel when you step on the gas pedal.

The Aurora is a very stable car to drive on the highway and over rough pavement.

Taking a cue fromLexus and Mercedes, Olds engineers designed a superstiff body structure for the Aurora that flexes little over bumps. Then they created a superb four-wheel independent suspension system that provides a quiet, supple ride as well as competent handling.

The Aurora is a bit too heavy, and it rides too softly for it to be considered a true sports sedan, but it can take a curve with ease. It also has strong four-wheel disc brakes and a finely tuned rack-and-pinion steering system.

Fuel mileage averaged a respectable 23 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

FIT AND FINISH

The Aurora’s stiff body pays dividends not only in the refined way the car rides, but in the tight, precise fit of the various parts.

You’ll notice the gaps separating the doors and body, trunk, hood and fenders are narrow and uniform. And the doors close with a very solid thunk. The Aurora has the vaultlike feel of a Mercedes sedan.

It also has the sophistication of a big-buck import sedan. The interior, with leather upholstery and a floor shifter, has a European flavor. The dash has a clean, uncluttered design.

The controls for the air conditioner are the best in the business. Two rotary knobs control the temperature and direction of the air flow. They are ringed with lights. When you turn the knob to increase the fan speed, circular lights on the dash glow, not unlike the setup on an expensive stereo.

I love the way the contoured shifter fits into the palm of the driver’s hand. The shifter is curved forward slightly, and there is a button on it that allows you to program the transmission for quicker acceleration.

The Aurora is outfitted with a nicely styled set of analog gauges; a tilt steering wheel; power memory seats; cruise control; traction control; a computer system that gives fuel, maintenance and trip information; electric outside mirrors that tilt downward when you put the car in reverse, and several other electronic items.

Roominess and comfort are two other areas in which the Aurora excels. The front bucket seats are fairly soft, but they offer plenty of support. I like the Aurora’s dimensions. The interior is roomy without feeling too large. Front and rear passengers are likely to find more than enough space to remain comfortable for long trips. And the trunk is big enough for at least three golf bags.

In General Motors’ galaxy of automobiles, few shine brighter than the Aurora.

Specifications: Base price: $35,735. Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, side-impact protection, daytime running lights. Price as tested: $36,865. EPA rating: 17 mpg city26 mpg highway. Incentives: None.

Truett’s tip: Oldsmobile’s classy V-8 flagship offers more value than every other premium luxury sedan on the road. This is one of America’s finest automobiles.

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