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1996 Oldsmobile Aurora

Can you learn anything about a car company from the car its boss drives?

Some observers – this one anyway – trace General Motors' problems of the 1980s to the fact that chairman Roger Smith rode in the back seat of a chauffeured Cadillac. How can you run a car business if you don't even drive?

But Maureen Kempston Darkes isn't your average car company boss (a first name of Maureen should be your first clue). The president of General Motors of Canada drives an Oldsmobile Aurora.

I know, because when I asked GM for an Aurora to evaluate the changes to the 1996 model, they gave me her car. (No, she didn't have to take the Hornet as a substitute.)

Kempston Darkes does have a driver. But more often than not, she takes the wheel herself. Given that she could have anything GM makes and chooses an Aurora is a good sign: it's the most modern and progressive vehicle in GM's fleet.

You also learn something about a person when you see what radio station presets she has in her car. First button: 92.5. CISSFM. New Country. All right, Maureen! Vince Gill rules, okay.

Aurora almost wasn't an Oldsmobile at all. During its planning stages, the Oldsmobile division was in dire straits, and GM wasn't sure it could, or should, be saved.

To cover all the bases, the word "Oldsmobile" appears only once on Aurora, on the radio faceplate, and that could be changed overnight if the decision to ditch Olds were taken. The alternatives were a new Aurora division, or to make Aurora an upscale Saturn.

VERY STIFF CHASSIS

But Olds has survived, and Aurora is its image car. It will, they hope, lead Olds into the division's second century with a line of cars designed to appeal to import intenders looking for style and high technology at a more affordable price than Japanese or German contenders.

Aurora's massively hyped launch more than two years ago was greeted with typical fawning praise from the American car magazines.

There was a lot to like – the car looked great – modern, sleek and aerodynamic, but with presence and individuality that so many look-alike aero cars miss.

The body achieved world-class levels of stiffness, which, properly exploited, can lead to excellent ride, handling, safety and durability. The platform, shared by Buick Riviera, forms the basis for the 1997 Buick Park Avenue, the next-generation Cadillac Seville, and several other upcoming GM cars.

Aurora's 4.0 litre four-cam 32valve V8 engine, a downsized version of Cadillac's Northstar, drove the front wheels with alacrity through GM's excellent four-speed automatic.

Aurora's early problem, however, was suspension tuning. In an attempt to emulate German sports sedans, it was far too stiff. Sure, it handled, but not well enough to justify the hard ride.

GM introduced Magnasteer, its magnetically controlled power steering system, on Aurora and Riviera. But the Olds version had a lot of resistance dialed into it, as the engineers confused "stiffness" with "road feel".

STEERING LIGHTENED

At the long-lead preview for the 1996 Aurora last summer, Aurora's suspension engineers admitted to me that they had allowed the pendulum to swing too far, partly in reaction to the too-soft setup of the Riviera sister car. For 1996, they've made a course correction, and it's all to the good, if not yet perfect.

The most obvious change is to the steering. It is considerably lighter in effort than before, especially at low speeds where the old setting was wooden and clumsy. BMW in particular has shown that steering can be light and provide road feel at the same time, and Aurora has come a long way down that road.

One of the brilliant aspects of Magnasteer is that it is software-adjustable. A dealer can even reprogram it within certain limits if individual customers want different steering characteristics.

Aurora's suspension has also been tinkered with. Much of the harshness on small-displacement impacts like freeway expansion joints that made the 1995 car a pain in daily driving has been removed. Aurora still has outstanding cornering grip, yet is a much more comfortable car to drive.

There's still some work to be done. Directional stability isn't an Aurora strong point. It doesn't dart around or anything, but you need a constant hand on the helm.

And I still think the car is over-sprung; it launches itself on large bumps rather than swallowing them, as it would if it were more supple. As always, I return to the philosophy of the late Colin Chapman, the wizard behind Lotus: lots of wheel travel, soft springs, firm dampers.

I am nitpicking here. As it stands, Aurora is a nice package. But it is tantalizingly close to being even better.

Suspension aside, what's the car like? Mostly, very good. Aurora owners do pay a price for the swoopy styling and stiff body. The wide door sills, which provide a lot of the strength, require a sizeable step-over. The front windshield pillars ("A-pillars" in auto engineer jargon) slant both rearward and inward rather sharply; shorter drivers may feel claustrophobic.

Midsized drivers like me may notice a knee clearance problem with the steering column, hindering ingress and egress. And neither styling nor stiffness considerations explain the lack of nonadjustable front shoulder belt anchors.

I found the seats excellent: comfortable, supportive and multi-adjustable through Mercedes-like seat-shaped buttons on the door panels. Bi-level power lumbar support is an added comfort feature.

The 4.0 litre V8 doesn't provide quite the scat of Cadillac's 4.6 litre Northstar, but it's capable of activating the traction control system during quick starts on dry roads. Quiet under normal conditions, it takes on a deliciously rude exhaust note when pressed.

The transmission shifts unobtrusively under all conditions. There is still some torque steer on hard acceleration that we could do without.

An occasional rattle in the driver's door apart, Kempston Darkes's Aurora was well finished and solidly built. The distortion in the rear window that afflicted early Auroras has been largely eliminated.

What I like about Aurora is its character. It doesn't try to be all things to all people, which can make a car bland. It's a stylish, aggressive, well finished and lavishly equipped car that offers excellent performance and good if not yet world-beating road-going comportment that few domestics can touch, and its mid$40,000 price is well below comparable foreign luxury cars.

But maybe my favorite aspect of driving this pearl-white Oldsmobile Aurora was that other cars tended to get out of my way when I approached them from behind on the highway.

Maybe in a rearview mirror, a white Aurora looks like a police car.

Or maybe those drivers just thought, "Oh, oh. Here's the president of General Motors, coming through."

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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