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1996 Oldsmobile LSS

Many car enthusiasts developed a strong antipathy over the years towards domestic sedans.

They might grudgingly admire their massive interiors, torquey engines, the world's best automatic transmissions, air-conditioning and sound systems, and excellent value-for-money.

But their barge-like proportions, Buck Rogers styling, jukebox interiors, hopeless ergonomics, seats that Torquemada could have used for the Spanish Inquisition, flaccid suspensions, and

steering that feels like it's connected to the front wheels by a length of surgical tubing, were enough to turn off anyone who enjoys driving more than, say, do-it-yourself root canal work.

This bad rep might have been avoided if there were more domestic sedans like the Oldsmobile LSS.

Yes, it's big, inside and out. It has a torquey engine, General Motors's excellent 3.8 litre V6, augmented in my test car by the optional supercharger, which bumps power to 240 horses, and torque to a peak of 280 poundfeet at 3200 r.p.m., although it seldom dips much below that level from idle to red line.

The four-speed automatic, the sound system and the air conditioning, with separate temperature controls for driver and passenger, are all beyond reproach.

So far, so typical.

But the LSS exterior is handsomely sculpted, and remarkably free from excess ornamentation. The matte-finish five-spoke alloy wheels are gorgeous.

Inside, high-quality materials are well assembled. The instrumentation consists of proper white-on-black analogue gauges, even if the fuel level and coolant temperature needles swing in counter-intuitive ways (out-of-fuel is clockwise; high temperature is counter-clockwise).

The seats are lifted more or less intact from Oldsmobile's flagship, the Aurora. They're big, extremely comfortable, nicely supportive during vigorous driving, and extensively adjustable via Mercedes-style seatshaped buttons on the door panels. My tester had the optional leather seating surfaces.

LSS uses GM's recently developed MagnaSteer power steering, whereby assist level is adjusted by magnetic induction resistance, rather than reduced hydraulic fluid flow as in conventional variable-assist systems.

Magna-Steer was introduced on Aurora and Buick Rivera last year. Interestingly, LSS engineers have done a better job calibrating it on this car. Assist is properly light during parking lot manoeuvres and it firms up unobtrusively as road speed increases, with no noticeable transitions.

This excellent steering combines with the so-called Level III Touring ride/handling suspension (read: stiffer springs, shocks and stabilizer bars) and chunky 225/60R16 allseason radial tires to provide surprisingly nimble handling. It may not exactly encourage you to go storming down your favorite two-lane twisty road as, say, a BMW or Alfa Romeo might. But neither will it embarrass you if you choose to do so.

The front-disc/reardrum brakes have a new-for-'96 Bosch anti-lock control system as standard equipment. My test car also had the optional traction control, which cuts engine power and

momentarily applies the brake on either front wheel should excessive wheelspin be detected. It makes getaways on slippery surfaces less exciting, but more reliable.

There are only a couple of areas where the LSS falls short of world-class status, and they're related. First is structure. This platform dates back to GM's first fullsize front-drive cars, the C-body sedans of 1984. Several stiffening programs have been implemented since, all to good effect. But when you hit a series of large bumps, such as a rough railway crossing, you can almost subliminally sense that the car is not as rigid as its sibling, the Aurora, which may have actually taken stiffness a step too far.

The related issue is ride quality. The firmer suspension gives more bump-thump on freeway expansion joints than fans of cloud-smooth cars may like, and the fairly basic MacStrut front and

rear suspensions aren't supple enough to swallow large dips without some disturbance to the passengers.

It's a trade-off to get decent handling, one I am personally more than prepared to accept. It's also something you won't need to deal with very often, unless you drive on rotten roads most

of the time. It's just that the very best cars cars can deliver the ride and handling at the same time.

Other minor gripes about the LSS, most of which relate to the age of the donor platform, include the oldfashioned GM corporate steering column stalk, which combines wipers, cruise,

high beam and turn signals on one stiff lever; the awkward fourway flasher pull-switch on the steering column; the absence of a power fuelfiller door release; the singlesided ignition key that doesn't match the door key, although the standard remote keyless entry system obviates that problem.

GM's entire family of big frontdrivers has the passenger compartment situated well ahead within the chassis — if Chrysler didn't have a lock on the phrase "cab forward", it might apply here. This leaves the front doors rather far back, making it a bit of a squeeze to get in, especially when the Raptorswon'tcomecalling Lady Leadfoot has left the seat jammed up against the steering wheel.

The shape of the front door also doesn't leave room for the entire side window to drop down into it, requiring a fixed quarter pane of glass at the leading edge of the door. This hinders visibility to the corners of the car.

And the sideview mirrors are almost dangerously small for a car this big.

Still, the LSS is an impressive overall package.

So, import sport sedan enthusiasts: you may have to rethink your prejudices against domestic cars. The Oldsmobile LSS may not be quite as sophisticated as a comparably sized, comparably powerful Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes, or BMW.

But is it more than half as good? No question about it. And you could buy two or more of these for the price of one of those ($33,165 for LSS). More to the point, you could buy one of

these and an inground swimming pool, a pretty nice boat, or even a perfect hair weave.

The question: Do you have the courage to tell your buddies down at the squash club that you bought an Oldsmobile?

Oldsmobile LSS

MODELS AND PRICES

Four-door sedan: Eighty Eight LS $30,190; LSS $33,165

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

Eighty Eight LS: antilock brakes; dual air bags; childproof rear door locks; remote keyless entry; PASSKey theft deterrent system; power locks, mirrors, trunk release, six-way power seat

with recline for driver, windows with express-down for driver; air conditioning; trunk cargo net; cruise control; illuminated visor vanity mirrors; tilt steering column; variable intermittent wipers; AM-FM stereo six-speaker cassette sound system with power antenna; front seat armrest with dual cup holder; aluminum road wheels. LSS: as above, plus (or replacing) fog lamps; dual-zone automatic air conditioning; front bucket seats with 8-way power adjustment; centre console with dual cup holder; rearseat armrest with storage compartment, dual cup holder and trunk pass-through; light-sensitive rearview mirror with compass; tachometer; steering wheel controls for heater and radio; magnetic power steering; firm suspension with electronic ride level control; 16-inch aluminum road wheels

ENGINE

Standard: 3.8 litre V6, OHV; 205 h.p. at 5200 r.p.m.; 230 pound-feet 4000 r.p.m. Optional: 3.8 litre V6, OHV, supercharged; 240 h.p. 5200 r.p.m.; 280 pound-feet at 3200 r.p.m.

TRANSMISSION

Four-speed electronic auto overdrive; front-wheel drive

DIMENSIONS

Manufacturer's figures: WB — 2814 mm; L — 5120 mm; W — 1897 mm; H — 1414 mm; front headroom — 983 mm; rear headroom — 972 mm; trunk capacity — 506 litres; fuel tank — 68.0 L; weight 1573 kg

PRICE, AS TESTED

LSS model: $36,835 (excluding extra charges and taxes)

OPTIONS ON TEST CAR

Supercharged engine — $1,330; power glass sunroof — $1,295; sport bucket seats with leather upholstery — $555; traction control system — $230; radio upgrade with single CD player — $260

EXTRA CHARGES

Freight and predelivery inspection — $870; federal air conditioning excise tax — $100; Ontario fuel conservation tax — $75

SAFETY WATCH

Dual air bags — std.; antilock brakes — std; meets 1997 U.S. side-impact standard — yes; theft deterrent system — std.; height-adjustable shoulder belts — std.

TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY

City 14.0 L/100 km; highway 8.6 L/100 km; estimated maximum range (tank capacity x 100 / highway fuel consumption): 791 km

PARTS BASKET

Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler and tailpipe (stainless steel) — $331; front fender — $403; tail light lens: $200

WARRANTY

Entire car — 3 years, 60,000 km (no deductible, no transfer fee); rust-through — 6 years, 160,000 km; roadside assistance — 3 years, 60,000 km

COMPETITION

Mercury Grand Marquis — traditional rear-drive domestic luxobarge can't hold a candle to big Olds; Chrysler LHS — swoopy, roomy, but lacks Olds's power and refinement; BMW 750i –at over twice the price it's nowhere near twice as good

RATING

Bold face denote's Kenzie's rating: 1-4: yeah, it's a car; 5-6: it's got price going for it; 7-8: good value; 9: great value;10: where do I sign?

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

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