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1995-1999 Oldsmobile Aurora

Aurora1 This week has taken on a bit of a General Motors theme; Anthony Cagle started off by honoring the Chevy Nomad, I waxed ecstatic about the GMC Syclone and Typhoon, I perhaps unfairly castigated an old Oldsmobile-centric video, and even the Stutz Blackhawk Cookie the Dog's Owner featured yesterday was based on a Pontiac Grand Prix. Since Mochi Mochi's post for tomorrow also has a GM angle, I figure we should just go with it.

When GM shut down Oldsmobile in 2004, I thought it was a crying shame. Not only was GM ending Olds' proud run of 107 consecutive years of car production, but after a fallow late 1980s and early 1990s, Olds finally seemed to be getting its act together.

The division that had put out the 442, the Toronado, the F-85, the 88, the Cutlass, and the Rocket V-8 had by the early 1990s become a junk drawer for assorted character-less brand-engineered versions of General Motors cars. With Buick and Cadillac oriented towards the luxury car buyer, Pontiac oriented towards the performance market, Chevrolet as the value leader, and Saturn as the import fighter, Oldsmobile was left without a market, a purpose, or a unique car of its own. The once-proud name had become irrelevant.

Aurora2 The debut of the Aurora in 1995 didn't save Oldsmobile and didn't clearly define the marque's role. Still, Aurora served as Oldsmobile's one last shining moment of relevance, the brand's final truly unique world-class car. Too late? Perhaps, but at least Oldsmobile had one last highlight.

The Aurora was about as unique as a mid-1990s General Motors car could be. The Aurora was built on the brand new G-body platform that also served as the basis for Buick Riviera and Park Avenue; this platform was renowned for being incredibly strong and stiff for the time. Power came from a revised 4.0-liter version of Cadillac's impressive 32-valve DOHC Northstar V-8, GM's most modern and technically advanced powerplant. The net result was a rock-solid luxury sports sedan, motivated by 250 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque--impressive numbers even today, and world-class for the time. The Aurora was instantly one of the most capable cars in the GM lineup.

The look was also unique--sleek, muscular, and completely different than its contemporaries. Okay, its big-brother similarity to the Saturn SL2 rankles a bit, but to these retro-weary eyes, the Aurora looks bold, strong, and, above all, original. On the other hand, my wife thinks it looks like an insect. So there's that. ...

Aurora3 I got some Aurora seat time about a decade ago at the launch of another Oldsmobile, and my impression is of a uniquely American sports sedan. It wasn't as light on its feet or as agile as a BMW 5-series, for example, but it was solid, powerful, and direct. Big, fast, quiet, and comfortable on the freeway, the Aurora felt bulky but eager in the twisties--like a sophisticated modern sports sedan with Olds 442 muscle car genetic material spliced in. It was certainly light-years ahead of most domestic sports sedans of the time.

In an unlikely development, the Aurora name became a well-known one around the motorsports world. Aurora engines were completely dominant at the Indianapolis 500 and in the Indy Racing League after that series split from CART in the late 1990s. The Aurora also made the base for a successful sports racing car that won its class in the 1996 24 Hours of Daytona.

Sure, the Aurora didn't save Oldsmobile, but there is a silver lining. Now that Olds is dead and Olds resale values plummet, a used Aurora represents a fantastic budget purchase. Kelly Blue Book estimates that a 1997 Aurora in excellent condition with 80,000 miles could be had for right around $4,000. That's a deal, folks.

Aurora4 The first ad is hilariously quasi-pretentious--I love the idea of an Aurora being assembled in spacedock just like the USS Enterprise. And the guy laying on the couch drifting slowly through space? Pure genius. I'm not sure why that image isn't iconic, but it should be--sort of a 1990s ennui-filled Gen-X answer to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. When he touches the car and gets rebirthed into the Star Child ... I mean, the driver of the Aurora ... it's a fantastic moment. When he sits in the Aurora, still drifting in space, I'm surprised the Aurora doesn't go into warp. You know, like a Rocket or a Starfire might.

The second ad is an excellent example of why the Aurora never really captured the popular imagination. GM just produced a fantastic sports sedan, a uniquely American car finally capable of competing with the best from overseas, and the ad department spends most of the commercial talking about the headlight covers? The Aurora was expensive, it looked different, and wasn't at all what the American consumer expected. It needed explanation, and so the throwaway line "You can imagine how advanced the rest of the car is," just didn't cut it.

These photos all come from Flickr user gorbidog's photostream; he has a lot of great images of the Aurora.

--Chris H.

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The Aurora is a fine example of how GM has mismanaged its brand identities. In the 1970s and 1980s, Oldsmobiles were pitched to the personal luxury market segment, given formal rooflines, landau-vinyl treatments, and enough brightwork to make them eligible for junior-auxiliary membership in the Stutz Owners' Club. Oldsmobiles were cars for people who were, well, *old*. At the same time, the distinction between a Buick and an Oldsmobile, which wasn't all that great to begin with, was getting finer and finer with every passing year.

Comes the 1990s, and GM designs a "fantastic sports sedan, a uniquely American car finally capable of competing with the best from overseas," as you put it, and what name do they put on it? "We build Excitement!" Pontiac? Import-fighting Saturn? Could they at least make it a Chevy and put an "SS" badge on it? No, they make it an Oldsmobile--and there it sits in showrooms where the bulk of the customers are non-pistonhead AARP members and the salesmen are wondering why there's no vinyl roof on the option sheet.

Performance luxury. That's what they should have gone with at Olds. Performance like Pontiac and luxury like Buick, only sportier. Think early 80s Cutlass Supreme coupe, which was my favorite of that particular body type (Buick Regal was a close second), and a car I lusted after until gas went past $3 and stayed there. Sporty on the outside, cushy on the inside, this was a car I could fall in love with.

I moved my blog, so now I'm Nathan of "Chiefly Musing" Fame.
Just so you know.

With that out of the way, I actually had a strategy for GM:

Pontiac: Challenge BMW
Buick: Challenge Lexus
Oldsmobile: Challenge Benz
Saturn: Challenge Honda, Subaru, VW and Scion
GM: Challenge Ford, Dodge, Toyota, Mitsubishi
Cadillac: kill it. (has negatives for many people equal to Rob the SVX Guy's hatred of SUVs)

They would have kicked ass if they'd listen to me.
Instead, they let Cadillac attempt to take on both Lexus *AND* BMW with styling rejected by Scion.

Schizophrenic, if you ask me.

Funny you posted this Chris. With graduation looming a mere 7 months away, I've been considering my next car in the back of my head. The Aurora kept popping into my head... for reasons I'm not real sure about. I like small cars, but I also like large cushy cars for completely different reasons. I recently saw an Aurora on craigslist for a mere $1800 with only 110,000 miles. It'd be safe, reasonably fast, and not absolutely horrible MPG.... but I'm left wondering about the actual driving experience. I'll probably check them out eventually. :)

I'm on my way out of here for a few days, but before I forget, Rob: remember that the second generation Aurora was a very different -- and much less desirable -- vehicle. Also know that the first year of the first generation had some serious windshield (or maybe it was backlight) distortion that was fixed for the next model year (or maybe as a running change; I can't recall). I'd buy one, if it came my way and the circumstances were right.

While I'd agree the Aurora was a ray of hope for GM in the '90's, it was squandered by the poor marketing on display in the second commerical for sure. As far as a used car buy, even $4000 sounds steep for a mint one. I know these things clutter up auto auctions across the country and sell for pennies on the dollar. I think the electronics weren't quite up to snuff with the rest of the car and now they're incredibly hard to sell due to actual or perceived unreliabilty and cost to maintain.

Unfortunately, Oldsmobile and Buick both occupied (and, in the case of Buick, "still occupy", in much the same way that Argentina still "occupies" the Falklands) some rather tenuous marketing ground. They're supposed to be personal luxury vehicles for people that are too poor to want real, honest-to-goodness European luxury... or something. I'm not entirely sure, and, like you said, by the late '90s, nobody else was sure, either.

Personally, if I was playing GM Manager, I'd probably pull something like this:

Buick -> Gone. Who buys them?
Pontiac -> Gone. No real point anymore; I think the Aztek and Montana killed it.
Saturn -> Small cars, along with higher-performance versions. No minivans.
Chevrolet -> Mid-size cars, minivans, and performance (i.e. all the cars that Buick and Pontiac play with). No Aveos or Cobalts; those would be handled by Saturn, even the sportier ones. Performance cars would be of the Corvette/Camaro ilk. No trucks or Suburban-style SUVs. Maybe throw some "XUV"s in the mix (RAV4-style).
GMC -> Truck & SUV division.
Cadillac -> Luxury - too iconic to kill, I'm afraid. Plus, its brand has improved dramatically over the last few years.

Of course, I'm ignoring all of the random GM acquisitions over the years, including Saab; I'm not sure what the heck I'd do with them. Come to think of it, I'm not sure anybody else knows, either.

I have a question about the Aurora. I've heard that replacing the plugs requires a tremendous amount of work, either dropping the motor or removing the intake manifold.

Is this correct?

@DC - I'd also make sure Cadillac makes cars that look like Cadillacs. No more SUVs, no more weird angles, just big, cushy, American cars with American styling and big engines and let the consumers pay the CAFE fines.

Shawn: My father owns a 9? Supercharged Buick Riviera.... no problems so far. >shrug< An aurora would be a nice cruiser... in town it would probably suck, much like my SVX.

I owned a 66 Toronado in high school, park a toronado and an aurora and just squint, lose the sharp creases and the tomahawk leading edge on the front fenders, and then look at the rears, its uncanny.

I've owned 5 olds in my life, (yeah I'm 49)
actually owned a vega first, share that nightmare another time,
a 66 toronado, damn lucky that thing had the divine intervention option or i'd be dead,
73 cutlass s,
one x body omega,
one ford bronco, bitchn farm truck,
83 hurst olds, loved that thing, (someone do a lust please I'm not a good writer)Got me a wife with that thing.
Then she rolled it,
86 calais,
had a kid and traded on one of the first front driver 88's, I believe 84 or 85, good car, crappy engine

I liked the Aurora, but like you say, it wasn't enough to save the dying brand. We will occasionally get one in on trade here at one of our lots, and I like to see them come in myself, just to see how well-maintained they are. Olds owners are pretty meticulous folks and do a great job keeping up with service and interiors. I'm rather partial to the 70 Cutlass in my garage though. That reminds me...I need to get some drive time in before the snow flies!

Steaming Pile - I actually don't mind the weird angles and the SUVs, at least not terribly much; they do sell well and are rather profitable, so I'm not going to argue. Using the outline I threw together, it'd be rather difficult to justify creating a luxury SUV and cramming it in the industrial GMC brand. Plus, a lot of people like European-style luxury; why not get in on that action if we're capable of it?

As for the large Cadillachts, well, my understanding of the new CAFE rules is that they don't punish individual models anymore; it's now all about group gas mileage, meaning that the big Caddys would eat into GMs cumulative numbers and raise the prices of all of their cars. Bad news, that.

I always thought that the Aurora and the Riviera that came out at the same time were the last of the great, extravagantly styled GMs - a line of cars going way back to the big Harley Earl mobiles of the '50s. Cars which laughed at practicality, being longer and wider than they needed to be, but using every inch of that extra length to make them more beautiful. Space utilization? Bah! Beauty!

Sadly, no one thinks that way anymore, and cars all look the same with high rear ends, smooth snouts (though the last Riv and the Aurora I both had gorgeous smooth snouts on 'em), and a high beltline. ZZZzzZzzzZzzzz . . . . . .

Anyone think going back to great styling, even if it impinges on style, would be a winning strategy for GM?

Maybe this is just obvious, but I think what killed Oldsmobile was simply the fact that "old" was part of its name.

GM should consider short "one off" Oldsmobile runs, like a Toronado based off the upcoming Camaro and sell them thru any dealer that wants them.

Its too bad that GM shut down the Olds division, at the time it was the most thoroughly revamped line up GM had and all its cars shared a common look.

There is a rumor that the Aurora was never supposed to be an Oldsmobile... that it was meant to be a Saturn. Chris, you saw the familiarity in your review! The problem was that a loaded Saturn, at the time, was about $18,000, and the Aurora was twice that. There was by far too much of a price gap for the two cars to be in the same "division" (Saturn wasn't a recognized GM Division at that time).

I've never found the name "Oldsmobile" on any first-generation Aurora. Can somebody help me with this?

Oldsmobile was named after Ransom E. Olds, who also made a speedwagon (Fire apparatus), the REO Speedwagon.

oldsmobilleri pek iyi tanımıyom.
ama olsun güzele benziyo.

I've always loved the Auroras of this kind.

I especially love the taillights. They're so unique, and when you look at it, you know it's an Aurora (or at least I do).

The styling is just so awesome, and the numbers are pretty good, even by today's standards!

There's one sitting on a car lot near me this exact same color; I may be forced to buy it.

I own one at the moment, a 1998 with 165,000kms (103,000mi). I'm 18, and I bought it when I was 17. To me, this car feels so comfortable to get into. Yes, repairs can be somewhat expensive, but less, relative to other vehicles of similar features. I think that had more people tried the Aurora, they'd have loved it. I've had multiple people think my car was new. I hvae no rust issues, A buttery smooth engine and tranny and a great cockpit-like feel. I feel in control. There actually is an Oldsmobile logo on the car...on the radio. visit the ACNA (Aurora Club of North America) and you'll see how much people love these cars.

The 2nd Generation wasn't actually intended to be an Aurora. It was called the Antares until Buick scrapped the new platform for the Riviera, which the Aurora was once again to be based off of. Instead, the Antares, built off the Bonneville platform, was forced to be switched to the Aurora. Quality is somewhat lower, with some advantages and some disadvantages to the first generation.

I wish that Olds made new models. The intrigue was a wonderful car to drive. The Alero a luxurious alternative to the Grand Am, and the real Aurora a powerhouse; above every sedan in the GM fleet except Cadillac. I hope to keep my car as long as possible because it is such a great vehicle. I paid $5200 Canadian for a Luxury car with a V8, Heated Seats and a Bose sound system. Even throwing in the cost of repairs (little stuff except a damaged A/C Compressor), I still think that it was a tremendous value. GM should have killed Buick. What do they offer right now? 3 vehicles. Olds could have easily absorbed the Buick crowd, but Buick can't absorb the sport/luxury crowd of Oldsmobile.

It's too bad Oldsmobile is dead. I have always loved their cars. I've never owned one, I'm sorry to say, but I've always admired Oldsmobile cars.

I purchased a new 1998 Aurora, and still own it after 198,000+ miles. It’s not worth anything on the used car market, so I plan to drive it ‘til it drops. I drive it about once a week, now, but what fun. Stomp on it, and it moves. And handling! They got it right on this baby!

My best mileage, without air conditioning running, was 30MPG highway. This is with a 4.0L V8! Typically, I'd get 25-27mpg on the interstate. And GM continues to make gas guzzlers. Go figure.

This model was not without problems.

1. It took three trips to the dealer to figure out why the horn wouldn’t work. (Cancel cam in the steering mechanism.) Under warranty.

2. It took many trips to the dealer, and some unpleasant conversations with a service manager (can we say cussing?) to figure out why the car would stop running at traffic signals. I’d stop at a red light, and after several seconds, the car died. The dealer tried several ‘fixes’, but none of them worked, until the car was out of warranty. Then, the problem was diagnosed as a faulty cam sensor. What really bothered me was the dealer’s comment “Oh, we have that problem all the time with Cadillacs”. In fact, I talked to a friend of mine who owned a Cadillac at the time, and he said, “Oh, yeah, I had the same problem.” (As I understand it the Aurora 4.0L is a downsized Northstar. Thank goodness the Aurora only has two cam sensors, compared to 4 on a Cadillac. At $525.00, that was one expensive repair.)

This is my sixth Oldsmobile: 1958 Super 88 4-dr Sedan, 1961 98 4-dr Sedan, 1964 JetStar 88 convertible, 1968 98 convertible, 1972 Cutlass Supreme Coupe, and 1998 Aurora. I was sorry to see the brand disappear. But, I think the Aurora lives on under a different moniker. I haven’t investigated too much, but look at the Buick Lucerne and a late model Aurora. Can we say new sheet metal?

So it doesn’t really matter. But, I’d really like to see GM file for bankruptcy, primarily because they had great brands, but thanks to incompetent management they blew it.

Great car....JUNK, and I mean JUNK electronics. Every possible electronic problems this car can have...it WILL have.

My mom had an Aurora once and I was young though I remember the car vividly. I must've been 10 and I just remember feeling very safe and comfortable in this car. As it turns out, after reading the Wikipedia reports of this car, it was so safe that it actually BROKE the frame crusher machine GM used to test it. They had to use the one for trucks and it passed with more than twice the standard.

Yesterday I got a phone call suggesting that my last chance to extend the warranty on my Oldsmobile had come, but I lost the connection, and the phone no. called from was not callable to. I'd like to know more about whatever someone was offering... Can you help? -Kris Klocke,Carlinville IL

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