1996 Oldsmobile Aurora

By November 10, 1999
1996 Oldsmobile Aurora

When the Oldsmobile Aurora was unveiled in May of '94, it faced a formidable mission: To revive the moribund image and slumping sales performance of the Olds division–General Motors' weakest-performing division.

The knock on Olds at the time was that it was slow to react to changing tastes in luxury-line styling and sporty performance–the kind of sporty performance and styling offered by Mercedes, BMW, Lexus and Infiniti.

But the Aurora proved to be equal to its mission. Equipped with a modified version of the front-drive Northstar powertrain that gave more oomph to GM's new generation of Cadillacs–with maneuverability and responsiveness to match–the Aurora came out of the blocks with a full head of steam.

When the 1995 model year tally was completed, Olds had sold 26,544 Auroras, and buyers were lining up for more.

Adhering to the old axiom that warns against fixing something that ain't broke–er, isn't broken–Olds designers have made only minor changes for the '96 model–tweaking the climate control and safety alarm, and expanding the list of optional equipment.

Not that you need options to make this car liveable. As the data panel shows, the Aurora's standard equipment list is long and sumptuous, and the basic car is seductive in virtually every respect.

The Aurora comes with a base sticker price of $34,360. Our test model was equipped with two add-on options–a $995 sunroof and $395 Autobahn package, which includes P235/60R16 Michelin V-rated Michelin tires and a 3.71:1 axle ratio–an improvement over the standard Goodyear Eagle GA P235/60R-16 tires and the standard axle ratio of 3.48:1.

Walkaround

Sleek and aerodynamic, with windswept lines and sculpted corners, the Aurora is light years removed from the Delta Eighty Eights and Ninety Eights of yore. The Aurora looks especially impressive from a three-quarter angle, front or back.

Recessed door handles, monochrome trim, tinted windows and aluminum wheels announce that Oldsmobile is serious about competing with the upscale European and Japanese imports. The catlike headlights and low-slung foglights peered out from our Aurora's silver metallic finish.

And, as with the '95 debut, the '96 Aurora shuns the venerable Oldsmobile rocket-logo hood decal in favor of an elegant “A” logo–revealing that Oldsmobile is still taking great pains to distance the Aurora from the more matronly models from the division's past.

Rearward, the expansive taillights stretch all the way across the trunk lid, ensuring high visibility after dark. One press on the keyless remote fob pops the trunk lid open, revealing 16.1 cu. ft. of cargo space.

Interior Features

The Aurora's flair for styling extends into the cabin, evidenced by the modular instrument panel, supremely comfortable leather bucket seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel. Luxury-line amenities include the 8-position power seats, lumbar support and the memory switches that permit the driver to program his or her preferred seat and outside-mirror positions–and then return them to those positions with a simple push of the button. The ceiling and inside-door fabric is plush and tasteful.

Let's take a moment to discuss the little touches that mean so much to a car buyer who is spending $36,000-plus. Anyone knows how maddening it can be, on a sunny day, to have to keep flipping the sun visor from the windshield to the side window after every turn.

Well, the Olds designers have solved that problem with a seemingly minor addition that we'd like to see as standard equipment on all cars: A dual visor. A flip of the main visor to the side position reveals another, smaller visor underneath–which means the driver gets simultaneous front-and-side protection from potentially dangerous glare. Plus, the main visor is equipped with an extender, offering even more sun blockage when the main visor is in the side-window position. Kudos, Olds designers.

The driver's information system, located in the middle of the sweeping dashboard, is also quite civilized. Upon pushing a tiny button, a small door hovers open–in the manner of a miniature garage door–revealing the 12-button, computerized digital info system. This baby not only keeps track of oil life, fluid levels, engine temp, airbag function, battery charge level, etc., it also notes time, date, average speed, miles to destination, duration of trip, fuel economy, and the number of miles remaining until the gas tank is empty.

Another nice interior touch is the hanger hook that snaps down above the rear passenger-side door. The grab handles above the passenger doors are recessed, and can be flipped down when needed.

The climate control system is operated by two very large knobs, with illuminated dials for easy adjustment. The floor vents took longer to produce sufficiently warm air than we would have liked–but then, this was Detroit in February.

To head off potential spousal bickering over interior temperature, the front-seat passenger has been afforded with his or her own climate control system, which sets the temperature on that side of the cabin–even if it's different from the driver's side.

The stereo system delivered some impressive sonics, although this driver is a stickler for separate bass- and treble-control knobs: On the Aurora, one tiny spindle operates both–requiring incessant pulling and pushing of the knob to figure out which position controls which mode.

Above the rearview mirror is a homing transmitter that allows the consolidation of three separate hand-held transmitters into one device–such as garage door opener, exterior light switch, etc.

For a vehicle that offers luxo-sport performance, the Aurora is just roomy enough. Five adults can sit comfortably in the Aurora, as long as the middle person in the back seat is petite. Otherwise, there's sufficient hip, head and legroom for four fully grown homo sapiens.

Driving Impressions

Aurora's advantage over the imports in its price class boils down to cylinders–two of them. While its rivals are powered by 6-cylinder engines, the Aurora boasts a 4.0-liter all-aluminum V8, adapted from Cadillac's lauded Northstar 4.6-liter powerplant. The Aurora's V8 produces 250 horsepower, compared to the 275 ponies in the standard Seville 4.6-liter engine. But the Aurora is quick off the mark, posting a zero-to-60 time of 8.2 seconds, even though it weighs a hefty 3970 lbs.

Hitched to the Aurora's 4.0-liter V8 is one of GM's silky-smooth 4-speed electronically controlled Hydramatic transmissions, which operates so smoothly that the driver can barely discern shifts in gears during normal acceleration. Of course, when making getaway bursts from a dead stop–or summoning all of the V8's freeway passing power with a heavy stomp on the pedal–the transmission announces its presence with authority. And that's a good thing.

Meanwhile, the Aurora's exceptionally sturdy body structure and gently tuned suspension makes for a hovercraft-plush ride, whether hustling down the interstate or darting through crosstown traffic.

In one situation–in which bone-rattling railroad tracks intersected a hairpin curve on a rough, crumbling road–the Aurora rose to the occasion. Body roll and bounce were relatively minimal considering such a rude combination–while the speed-variable-assist steering effortlessly navigated the maneuver with precision and grace. And freeway traffic-sorting maneuvers can be executed with just a single digit on the wheel.

The Aurora's brakes are equally alert, bringing this massive vehicle to a controlled stop without a hint of swerve or fade. Antilock braking is, of course, standard.

Summary

Oldsmobile endured considerable ribbing for–and endless parodies of–the “It's not your father's Oldsmobile” campaign of a few years back. But that was in the B.A. (Before Aurora) era. Rolling out a Eurostyle vehicle like the Aurora–and positioning it to compete with the higher-priced imports–was critical to remaking Oldsmobile's image for the '90s.

With the Aurora, Oldsmobile designers not only demonstrated that the division still had a lot of life in it. They also proved that virtues like performance, sportiness, style and luxury-level amenities could be had for a lot less than the $45,000-plus pricetags affixed to the fancy imports. When the Aurora is matched up against those big-ticket competitors–and value for the dollar is factored in–the Aurora wins, hands-down.

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