1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue
CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — A North American-designed and built
sedan that can take on the Japanese and Europeans in the
near-luxury class. Sound Intriguing?
(I promise you, that will be the last double entendre you'll
read here on the name of the newest Oldsmobile.)
Intrigue is the latest and last iteration on the General
Motors W-car platform, which also underpins Buick Regal and
Century, Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevrolet Lumina and Monte Carlo.
Each brand has tailored the car to its own purpose, as GM tries
to re-establish distinct identities for each of its nameplates.
Oldsmobile is now trying to be GM's Euroclass division. The
impressive Aurora, which only barely admitted to being an Olds,
started it. Intrigue is arrow No. 2. Next year's Alero, the
long-awaited replacement for the under-Achieva, completes the
three-sedan strategy that will carry Oldsmobile into its second
It's not as radical as this fall's new Intrepid, but it's a handsome shape.
Can such an American nameplate really take on BMW, Mercedes,
Lexus or other foreign brand? Is Intrigue really Euroclass, or
To start with, they've got the styling right. It's a sleek,
virtually chrome-free car, with clean crisp lines, nice tight
wheel openings and a distinct Aurora look to the front end.
From the rear, Intrigue has hints of Dodge Avenger and
Intrepid, not an all-bad idea. Intrigue is not as radical as
this fall's new Intrepid or Chrysler Concorde, but it's a
handsome shape that should wear well.
Two impromptu microfocus groups, one conducted by my
codriver Marc Lachapelle in the parking lot of a Charlottetown
mall while I was shopping for a CD, another while we were
stopped at a road construction site, suggest the buying public
not only loves this car's looks but, somewhat surprisingly (to
us anyway), recognizes it as an Oldsmobile.
Inside, there's plenty of room, large, comfortable yet
supportive seats, simple, almost elegant decor and good
ergonomics. I must confess, a couple of times I went to
downshift the automatic transmission and, knowing I was in an
Olds, reached for the rightside steering column stalk. That's
wipers on this car. (Hallelujah!) The shifter is on the floor.
The interior trim materials and assembly quality varied a
little on our regular-production test cars. The tone-on-tone tan
plastics and (optional) leather upholstery on the upmarket GL
looked very good, but there were unseemly gaps between the dash
and right front door, and between the headliner and right-front
upper door trim.
The baselevel car's gray plastics didn't look as rich — maybe
it's all in the color — and again, a few bits weren't glued down
tightly. That said, both cars felt solid and were largely
rattle and squeak-free.
Intrigue is built in Fairfax, Kan., source of the Pontiac
Grand Prix. The farmboys seem to take a few months to get their
ducks in a row; early GPs weren't as well built as later cars
Currently, the only engine available in Intrigue is the 3800
Series II V6, in naturally aspirated form. Despite (or perhaps
because of) its age — it dates back to 1962, the Golden Age of
domestic engine development — this remains an outstanding motor.
The 195 horsepower and, more importantly, 225 footpounds of
torque at 4,000 r.p.m. (and close to that peak available
virtually from idle) make this pushrod powerplant ideal for our
driving conditions. Lots of bottom end, decent onramp and
two-lane passing potential, low noise and outstanding real-world
fuel economy, thanks to tall gearing, which means the throttle
is barely cracked open in highway cruising.
The engine runs out of puff above 120 km/h. Since ten klicks
over the speed limit is a capital offence in the Maritimes,
that's no big whoop.
Next February, a new GLS Intrigue will launch with a 220
horsepower 3.5 litre four-cam 24-valve V6. This son-of-Northstar
(Cadillac's multi-valve V8) should be a beauty.
The chassis starts with the same independent strut front and
rear setups as all Wcars. GM's unique Magnasteer power
steering, whose assist level is governed magnetically, is
standard across the board, as are four-wheel disc antilock
brakes and P225/60R16 Srated Goodyear Eagle LS tires on
six-spoke alloy wheels.
An optional Autobahn package upgrades the tires to H-rated
RSAs, and increases front disc rotor size.
GM says the larger rotors don't affect stopping power as such,
but do increase fade resistance. It seems weird to me that they
don't make the larger rotors standard. The best excuse they had
was that the weight increase could affect the car's Corporate
Average Fuel Economy rating in the United States, in which case
either the company or the U.S. federal government has a lot of
'splainin' to do.
If there's one thing that sets Intrigue apart from other GM cars, it's the shock absorbers.
If there's one thing that sets Intrigue apart from all other
GM cars indeed, from most cars in this class — it's the shock
Everybody in the industry knows that the French do "dampers"
(to be technically accurate) better than anybody. We don't
get French cars here any more, but Peugeots and Renaults have a
combination of ride isolation and body roll control that no one
else can match.
If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. GM bought de Carbon, the
French shock absorber company, and used their expertise to good
effect in Intrigue.
GM engineers told me they used the Lexus ES300 as their
ride-and-handling benchmark. I don't know why they would aim so low,
but they blew that target away anyhow. Intrigue rides with a
firm, poised capability that's rare in any car.
On only two occasions did the road catch the car out. In both
cases, it was a sharp impact, caused in the first instance by a
pothole and in the other by a new stretch of pavement (we should
have noticed the locals slowing down). A sharp, hard bang
stirred but did not shake the car.
With no other car to calibrate these bumps against, I can't
say how bad it might have felt. Some hits even a Peugeot can't
Intrigue's cornering is flat and stable, the car takes a firm,
confident set in fast curves, and it's a joy to wind it down
I feel the Magnasteer isn't yet perfectly calibrated. It's a
shade too light at parking-lot speeds and it gets a little
wooden and vague as the assist level drops. It's at its best at
highway velocities. Aurora took a couple of iterations to get
this right too, and it is dealer programmable.
Understand that this comment comes under the heading of, "You
always criticize your best students the hardest". Intrigue's
steering is very good, yet it has the potential to be truly
If I was a bit disappointed by the base model's brakes, a
bunch of delightful details help make up for it. A dead pedal to
rest your left foot on. That right-side steering column stalk
for wipers. Battery rundown protection — leave a light on, the
car switches it off for you. German-style lockout protection –
you can't lock the doors with the key in the ignition. A setting
on the dashboard light dimmer that allows setting the digital
readouts to maximum bright even with the headlights on, so us
lights-on-all-the-time guys can read the odometer during
daylight without flicking the lights off.
Plus more obvious good things, like GM's effective PASSLock
theft deterrent system, a high-threshold-of-activation traction
control, which works only when desperately needed, an interior
air filter, and low-to-zero maintenance items.
I usually come pretty close to guessing the price of a car. I
had $33,000 in mind (so, interestingly, did our microfocus
group attendees). But the base Intrigue starts at $27,998, which
looks to be a fine bargain.
I doubt GM will sell many base models, though. The GL, at just
$1,700 more, brings such good stuff as a radio antenna embedded
in the rear window, heated bodycolor sideview mirrors (the
black ones on the base car look really ugly with silver paint),
dual-zone instead of regular air conditioning (even if there is
no digital readout for the passenger's side), six-way power
driver's seat, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob, illuminated
visor mirrors, splitfolding rear seat back and remote keyless
Plus, you can't get some of those bits, nor such desirable
options as the Autobahn package and steering wheel radio
controls, on the base car. Nor things I could live without but
which the market likes, such as leather, chrome-alloy wheels and
This puts Intrigue thousands below a comparably equipped
Nissan Maxima, Oldsmobile's prime target car, and more like
$10,000 below a Lexus or BMW 328, cars that Intrigue can't match
in image, perhaps, but it equals or betters in most other
The automobile journalists of the world have always felt there
is a market for an attractive, intelligently designed, nimble,
smoothriding, full-featured, affordable car, and have been
whining at GM for years to build such a car. We — or at least
some of us — have always felt they could.
With the Intrigue, Oldsmobile has come pretty close. Now it's
up to you, the car buyers, to prove we were right all along.