The Morning Call and's view

How come it seems that things never get better?

Banks introduce ATMs, only to charge for accessing your own money. The government allows 401Ks, but now you have to be a Wall Street whiz and figure out your own retirement. Microwaves allow you to cook food in an instant and scald the roof of your mouth just as fast.

The future ain’t what it used to be, bubba.

But not everything is getting worse. Note that General Motors finally is producing some cars worthy of their name. To see how much better the General has become, compare two compacts: the all-new Oldsmobile Cutlass and the Pontiac Grand Am.


The Cutlass is the older name but the newer car. It’s almost identical to Chevrolet’s new Malibu, but shares a few distinguishing styling features. It’s the sole Cutlass for ’98, as the Cutlass Supreme and Cutlass Ciera ride off into a well-deserved retirement. The Cutlass is focused on Asian imports like the Camry and Maxima, which explains the conservative styling. Once Olds’ top-seller, it’s struggling to regain its former luster. It just might work. Several people thought it was a luxury car, bathed as it was in lustrous black paint.

That’s not true of the Grand Am. The extroverted styling and excessive body cladding screams ’80s, yet it’s bulging muscular nature has been updated with clear lens headlamps and a smaller grille. The styling might seem dated, but when painted in “Light Taupe Metallic,” it garnered unsolicited comments.


Both are about the same size, but the Grand Am’s 103.4-inch wheelbase is dwarfed by the Cutlass’ 107-inch wheelbase. The Olds is only a half-foot longer than the Pontiac and boasts more than three cubic feet of additional trunk space. The Olds weighs about 100 pounds more.


Both cars can be had with GM’s 3100 V6 engine, an overhead-valve engine that displaces 3.1 liters and produces 155 horsepower in the Pontiac,160 in the Olds. But the test Pontiac came with a more modern double overhead cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine, worth 150 horses. It gives up little in refinement to the six-cylinder, yet the Olds’ power train seemed more refined. The Pontiac’s four made quite a racket when revved, even though the Olds’ V6 is not a model of refinement when compared to the imports. Going with the bigger engine means giving up 2 mpg in the city cycle, for a yield of 20 mpg, according to the EPA.

Aside from the difference in noise, you’ll notice little difference in performance except that the six seems a little more at ease than the four. Both furnish good power and were coupled with automatic transmissions that worked with typical GM smoothness. The front disc/ rear drum brakes with anti-lock worked decently on both cars, but the Olds had much better progression and feel than the Grand Am’s spongy brakes.


Even if you don’t notice the difference in engi nes (and it is minimal), you will notice the big difference in ride — the Olds feels far more sophisticated than the Grand Am. The Grand Am’s suspension and tires seemed to find and transmit every ripple and shock in the road, even on freshly paved highways. When it found a pothole, the steering wheel shook. In the Olds, the shocks were transmitted with a distant thunk, heard but never felt. One wouldn’t mind the ride of the Pontiac, but the handling, while not bad, was no better than the Olds. The Olds handling wasn’t particularly sporty, but it was far from a mushmobile — although the Olds seemed to have more road and tire noise than the Pontiac, which rode very quietly.


Close. Where these two cars differ inside is attitude. Both sport ergonomically correct interiors. But each contains an oddity. On the Pontiac, it’s air-conditioning vents that look like they came from an old AMC product. On the Olds, it’s the thoughtful touches like the pen holder, or the left-handed cup holder. The Olds also had better seats, although they were quite flat. Interior space also seemed better in the Olds, but that’s partly because of the its taller stance. The radio was far better in the Olds than in the Pontiac — its audio system sounded worse when it was turned up.


Although the Pontiac is an agreeable enough car, with sporty looks and a modest price, the Olds is the clear winner here. Although the Grand Am SE sedan starts out a lot lower at a base price of $14,734, by the time the power goodies are added, along with better wheels and tires, keyless entry and a couple of odds and ends, the price jumps to $18,015.

The Oldsmobile Cutlass tested was the upscale GLS model that had only New York emissions specs for an option. The only real difference in equipment was that the Olds had leather seats. The bottom line was $19,911. While $2,000 might sound like a lot, keep in mind that the Olds has a better ride and handling package, bigger brakes, larger trunk and interior, and an all-new design in addition to the leather seats and superior stereo. As a matter of fact, someone mistook it for a Lexus competitor. Quite a feat for an auto under $20,000 and one that proves how much better General Motors is at building good cars.

Maybe GM’s future looks brighter after all.

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