The Detroit News's view

Even though its latest family sedan is all-new from the ground up, Oldsmobile continues to cling to the Cutlass nameplate, which dates back more than 35 years. Why keep it around? According to former General Manager John Rock, Cutlass is “still one of the best recognized car names in the industry.”

The shape of the 1997 Cutlass GLS may also be familiar – at least to some Chevrolet owners. It is virtually identical to the new Malibu. Is the ’97 Cutlass as good a value as its Chevy sibling? Read on.

He: I feel almost guilty saying this, but we’ve been driving a very nice family car with leather upholstery, standard features like air conditioning and antilock brakes, and a pretty decent V-6 engine – all for less than $20,000 – and yet I’m hard-pressed to give the new Cutlass our best four-star rating. I think that’s partly because the $17,600 Malibu we tested earlier this year was so good and partly because the new Cutlass still has a bit of an unfinished feel to it.

She: I actually felt more at home in the Malibu. I noticed some very fine – and annoying – differences between the two cars. I also feel like I can’t really relate to the Cutlass name. That’s a name that would appeal more to my father than me, and I bet he wouldn’t even like this car because it’s so much smaller than his old Cutlasses. In fact, he was over here while we were test-driving it, and I couldn’t convince him to take a spin. He had no interest in the ’97 model.

He: We can argue all day about the merits of the Cutlass name. My biggest gripe concerns the less-than-stellar quality of the interior trim, especially the gaps between bigger pieces like the instrument panel and the windshield pillars and the sloppy fit between some of the smaller parts. You won’t find those gaps on any of the Japanese-brand small cars built in North America, including companion models like the Geo Prizm, and there’s a good reason for that. The Japanese management simply won’t stand for it. And guess what? A lot of consumers won’t stand for it, either. The sad thing is, it makes an otherwise outstanding car like the ’97 Cutlass look and feel cheaper than it should.

She: But you have to admit the price is surprising for an Oldsmobile. I thought it would be at least 25 grand. So if you’ve really got your heart set on a Cutlass, the sticker ought to be good news.

He: Remember this car is supposed to replace the old Cutlass Ciera, which was also kind of bargain-priced. But it was also really old. What amazes me about the ’97 model is how Oldsmobile was able to pack so much equipment into the Cutlass and still hold the price under $20,000. Compared with a new Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry – or even a Ford Taurus for that matter – the Cutlass GLS with the leather upholstery looks mighty tempting for the money.

She: If I were buying an Oldsmobile, I’d buy the Intrigue. I know it’s larger than the Cutlass, and it costs around $25,000, but it seems like it’s put together better. I get really suspicious of Oldsmobile cashing in on the Cutlass name. I’ve said it before. I went to my wedding in a Cutlass, and this doesn’t feel like the old-time Cutlasses. It’s kind of like a Kmart version of a Cutlass. Now, I’ve probably got Kmart and Olds mad at me.

He: Can’t you buy Polo and Calvin Klein these days at Kmart?

She: No, but you can buy Kathy Ireland and Jaclyn Smith.

He: Gimme two Irelands. Uh, didn’t this start out as an Oldsmobile test drive? I think you’re being a little critical. Mechanically, the Cutlass stands up well alongside its competitors in what the industry likes to refer to as the “low/mid” segment. The GLS features a standard 150-horsepower, 3.1-liter V-6 mated to an electronic four-speed automatic transmission – a combination that’s powerful and smooth, and returns surprisingly good gas mileage. According to the EPA, the Cutlass should get 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 on the highway. And it’s sy to operate.

She: That’s where I had a little bit of a problem. For some reason, I found the Cutlass a bit difficult to steer at low speeds. I found myself thinking about having to steer, and that’s an experience I didn’t expect to have in a car like this. I also expected a softer ride. And if this is a family vehicle, it should have an optional child safety seat.

He: You should be impressed by the rest of the safety features on the Cutlass. It may lack an optional child safety seat, look at what else you get – dual front air bags, ABS, daytime running lights, child-proof rear door locks, even a security system.

She: It’s the little stuff like this that makes the Cutlass a good car, but not a great car.

He: I do have one other concern. While the styling on the new Cutlass is clean and contemporary, it’s a bit on the conservative side. And, to Oldsmobile’s eventual detriment, I believe, it is virtually a clone of the Malibu. Look at it from the side, and you’ll see a Chevy long before you’ll figure out it’s really an Olds. The Cutlass will stick out like the proverbial sore thumb even more next year when the new Alero rolls into showrooms. That car looks like a scaled-down Intrigue, which in turn looks like a scaled-down Aurora. What I’m saying is, there’s a family resemblance there that’s lacking in the Cutlass.

She: I don’t want to ruin Oldsmobile’s 100th birthday party this year, but I agree. Now, Olds, make a wish and hope that we give the next Cutlass four stars.

1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass GLS

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: Base, $19,225; as tested, $19,741 (inc. $525 destination charge less $9 credit for assist handles)

What’s new for ’97: All-new for 1997

Standard equipment: Air conditioning, security system, variable intermittent wipers, rear defogger, power door locks, all-season radial tires, aluminum wheels, leather upholstery, split folding rear seat, center console with armrest and cupholders, AM-FM stereo cassette, power mirrors, cruise control, lighted passenger vanity mirror, fog lamps, carpeted floor mats, keyless remote entry, power windows, tinted glass, tilt steering column

Safety features: Dual front air bags, antilock brakes, daytime running lights, child-proof rear door locks

Options on test vehicle: >None

EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway

Engine: 3.1-liter V-6; 150-hp at 4800 rpm; 185 lb-ft torque at 4000 rpm

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Competitors: Chevrolet Malibu, Saturn SL2, Pontiac Grand Am, Ford Contour, Mercury Mystique, Dodge Stratus, Chrysler Cirrus, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Mazda 626, Mitsubishi Galant, Subaru Legacy, Volkswagen Jetta

Specifications: Wheelbase, 107.0 inches; overall length, 192.0 inches; curb weight, 2982 pounds; legroom, 42.2 inches front/38.0 inches rear headroom, 39.4 inches front/37.6 inches rear; shoulder room, 55.5 inches front/55.0 inches rear

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $842

* Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Oklahoma City

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