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1999 Pontiac Grand Am, Oldsmobile Alero

Can two chefs bake different cakes from the same ingredients?

That's the theory behind General Motors' brand management strategy, that two car divisions can use the same structural and mechanical pieces to build distinctly different cars for

distinctly different slices of the market.

The current Pontiac Grand Am and Oldsmobile Achieva were already sisters under the skin. But according to Gene Stefanyshyn, vehicle line executive for GM's compact cars, their

replacements, the 1999 Grand Am and Oldsmobile Alero, are "more similar technically, but more different in areas which the customer actually sees and feels."

In profile, the cars look quite similar. Both are offered in two-door coupe and four-door sedan body styles sharing a low nose, gently rising belt line, and wheels pushed to the corners

of the car.

The Grand Am is 91 mm longer in wheelbase than its predecessor, and 84 mm wider in track, but is 13 mm shorter overall.

Oldsmobile, trying hard to make everyone forget about the underAchieva, hasn't published comparative numbers for its models.

Unique sheet metal, apart from door skins and roof, plus detail differences make Grand Am and Alero look almost unrelated. EASILY IDENTIFIED STYLING

Of all GM's divisions, Pontiac has the most easily identified styling cues. John Manoogian II, chief designer of Grand Am, says the twin port grille; the dihedral lines of the grille, trunk opening and licence plate housings; the cat's eye headlights; the round driving lamps and the ribbed bodyside mouldings are all design elements that scream "Pontiac" from a hundred metres.

Oldsmobile, on the other hand, has struggled for the past few years to match an image to its brand name.

The Aurora, the mid-size Intrigue and now the compact Alero all share clear headlamp lenses, low-mounted dual air intakes split by a body colour centre panel, and large wheel openings

filled with chunky tires mounted on husky six-element wheels.

The differentiation between Grand Am and Alero continues inside.

Circular gauges and red illumination are strong Pontiac traditions.

CIRCULAR THEME

Grand Am takes the circular theme to the edge, with massive dual tunnels for the instruments whose needles all swing full right when the ignition is switched on (Pontiac people call

that the "Pontiac WOW!"). Three smaller circular "eyeball" air vents are immediately to the right of the instrument cluster, with two more at either end of the dash.

SCULPTED DASH

The dash top is a deeply sculpted plastic moulding that must be very difficult to manufacture, but which was well done in the test cars available on the preview ride and drive.

Alero's much more discreet design was lifted from the mid-size Intrigue. Think Toyota, actually.

Both cars are built on GM's X130 platform, a shortened version of the Chevrolet Malibu's P90 chassis.

Sheet metal, apart from door skins and roof, is unique to each car. The underbody and all glass pieces are shared, except the rear window of the Oldsmobile has a built-in radio antenna.

STIFF STRUCTURE-

A stiff structure was the primary goal of the X130 design team.

A full-frame engine cradle with hydro-formed elements bolted to the floorpan, front chassis rails extending halfway back in the floorpan, five large crossmembers with extensive gusseting where they meet the rockers and door supports, one-piece side frames and inner rear wheelhouses all help raise stiffness of the structure to rank among the best in the world.

IMPROVED RIDE AND HANDLING

Structural rigidity not only contributes to durability and freedom from squeaks and rattles as the car ages. It also means the suspension engineers can be assured that any vertical

movement of the wheels is a result of movement of the suspension components, not flexing of the body. Thus ride and handling can both be improved.

The longer wheelbase and wider stance of the new cars translates into important increases in interior room, especially in the rear seat. Trunk space is a healthy 413 litres in Grand

Am, 433 litres in Alero.

Both Pontiac and Oldsmobile focused on seat comfort. Since the seat is the last link in the ride control system, the seat design was calibrated in conjunction with the suspension.

Cathy Turzewski, the vehicle development team leader for the Grand Am and Alero, noted that every time the suspension engineers came up with a change, she called the seat design

people back in to make sure the seats were modified to suit.

Two seats are offered. The up-level unit on the pricier trim levels gets higher quality foam and adjustable lumbar support, with either power height adjustment or six-way power.

2.4-LITRE TWIN CAM

GM has stayed with tried and true power trains.

The base engine is the 2.4-litre Twin Cam 16-valve son of Quad 4 four-cylinder, producing 150 hp at 5,600 r.p.m. and 155 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,400 r.p.m.

These are class-leading numbers for a base engine, and comparable to the optional engines offered in some competitors.

Ever since GM engineers added dual balance shafts and the torque axis mounting system, wherein the engine mounts are aligned with the crankshaft centre line, this engine even has

acceptable if not Honda worrying levels of noise, vibration and harshness.

The optional 3.4-litre pushrod V6 is lifted from the Chev Venture/Pontiac Trans Sport/Oldsmobile Silhouette minivans.

Horsepower is 170 at 4,800 r.p.m., down 10 from the minivans due to a more restrictive exhaust system.

Torque is 195 lbft at 4,000 r.p.m., that relatively high torque peak rev number belying the fact that there's all sorts of bottom-end urge.

FOUR-SPEED AUTOMATIC

Different iterations of GM's excellent four-speed electronic automatic are fitted, depending on engine choice.

The independent front and rear suspensions, featuring extensive use of aluminum in the unsprung bits, are identical to Malibu, but shocks, springs and bushings vary.

Two degrees of tuning are offered: a "Sport" setup, with solid (as opposed to hollow) front stabilizer bar, higher rate springs front and rear, harder front strut mountings and firmer

strut/shock valving, is optional on Alero GLS coupe and standard on Grand Am GT.

All other variants get a softer "Touring" configuration.

The power assisted rack and pinion steering gear is rigidly bolted to the engine cradle. Vehicle speed variable assist comes on V6-equipped Grand Ams, and on all but base level Aleros

regardless of engine choice.

STANDARD ABS

All Aleros also get four-wheel disc brakes; base level Grand Ams have rear drums. Anti-lock control is standard across the board.

Continuing the standard set by Malibu, bigger than expected tires are fitted on the new GM compacts: P215/60R15s on steel wheels on the base cars and 225/50R16s on alloys on the sportier versions.

The big engine output numbers, auto tranny and ABS aren't the only areas where Alero and Grand Am's equipment lists shine. Air conditioning, AM/FM stereo radio, power trunk lid release,

programmable power locks, tilt steering wheel, solar heatrejecting glass and front and rear floor mats are among the standard items that you'll pay extra for on cars like Ford Contour, Dodge Stratus or Nissan Altima.

Canadian prices haven't been released, but when the Grand AM SE arrives in dealerships in May, expect prices to start around $20,000, with three option groups with three "popular equipment" packages moving it up into the upper mid 20K range. The GT will be launched in summer.

Alero is a slightly more up-market car, likely starting in the mid 20s and running to the upper 20s. It's a real 1999 model, coming in October.

VASTLY BETTER CARS

Two days of driving the newcomers, separated by several weeks and several hundred miles (Alero around Little Rock, Arkansas, in November, Grand Am in southern Florida earlier this week) suggest that not only are these models vastly better than the cars they replace, but leap to the head of the class.

A Grand Am that's quiet in the back seat? A compact Oldsmobile with surface fit and finish that rivals a Toyota?

Hard to believe, but that's how it looks from here.

The body rigidity is evident everywhere, in the quietness of the Grand Am on wet pavement (it poured in Miami, thanks very much) and in the crisp handling of the Alero in the hills around

Little Rock.

The seats really are comfortable and supportive, the ergonomics very good, performance is fine, and the quality really appears to be there.

Jim Bunnell, brand manager on Grand Am, says, "The essence of the value story is the Grand Am looks and feels much more expensive than it really is."

Bob Clark, Bunnell's Alero counterpart, concurs: "In clinics, prospective customers guessed Alero's price at some $10,000 more than it actually is" and those are real, American, one hundred and forty-five cent dollars.

Now, these two guys are paid to say things like this. Coming from me, who would have had to think twice about taking an old Grand Am or Achieva, even as a gift. I think you can take it

to the bank.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to Arkansas and Florida, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by General Motors. You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon. Email: jbkenzie@interhop.net

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