Review
0 Comment

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

century.

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

Eurotrash?

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

either.

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

absorbers.

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

smooth away.

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

twisty roads.

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

outstanding.

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

entry.

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

fog lights.

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

respects.

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.

    Avatar
    Show Comments