The Aurora was the last true Oldsmobile, an exhibition of style and bespoke elements that was lacking in almost every domestic sedan of the time. It should have been the start of Oldsmobile getting back on track, but it wasn’t enough to stave off the brand’s demise.
The 90s were a dark period for Oldsmobile. Gone were the glory days of the Rocket engine and the 442, both legacies tainted by shameless whoring of their good name during the even worse decade before. With their remaining customer base dying off or accidentally walking into a Lexus dealership, never to be seen again, an engineer decided they should actually try making a nice, different car again, as they were once known for. Remarkably, the engineer wasn’t thrown out the window, and the idea for a forward looking, distinctive sedan in GM’s lineup was born.
The platform used was the G-Body. At the time it was used exclusively for the Buick Riviera and the Aurora, though it was later co-opted for the Buick Park Avenue in 1997. Properly designed luxury underpinnings gave it an advantage from the start, and the only mistake made in the chassis development was the decision for FWD as opposed to RWD befitting a full size luxury sedan (especially considering the Aurora was to have sporting pretensions). Aside from that, it was strong enough to break a frame crusher, with large yet cleverly shaped pillars that were easy to see around, and had a comfortable multi link suspension setup.
Yeah I didn’t cover up my license plate. It’s not like hundreds of people see it every day.
What’s it like to drive? Well, not as bad as you’d think. Massive overhangs and nose heaviness fight you in the corners, but like every decent big car, once it plants itself it feels confidence inspiring. The main complain is the weight transition in a quick left-right move, the polar moment of inertia is larger than that of your Grandparents views on “the gays”. But really that’s what you expect. It’s not a sporty car, just one that’s capable enough around the corners. Accordingly, the steering is over-assisted enough to be operated with a single pinky. Finally, we have the drivetrain. It’s a 4.0L V8, essentially a detuned Northstar engine. Iron block with aluminum heads, 32v DOHC, and SFI, it made 250 HP and 260 TQ when new. Those numbers aren’t impressive by today’s standards, but the big sedan is easily motivated by the broad torque range, and the V8 feels like it’s making every one of those 250 when you run it up past 4500 on the dual cams. It’s not really about all that though. It’s about getting up to speed without breaking a 2k RPM sweat, and cruising in quiet refinement all day. Again, only one gripe here, and that’s the 4T80E transmission. It’s originally a Cadillac exclusive, and one can’t fault the smoothness of operation, only the amount of gears. A 5th gear could have been worth considerable mileage on the highway, and added to the pep of the V8 engine.
But what really makes this car unique is it’s styling. It’s body curves smoothly, with subtle formed hips over the wheels. The air intake is hidden on the bottom part of the bumper, and the tail light design covers the entire rear of the car (although it is only lit on the sides). The car purposefully had but two badges on the exterior, a small Oldsmobile logo on the front, and “Aurora” on the rear tail light. This separation was intentional. They know people would look at the car, and they wanted them to really appreciate it instead of writing it off on the badge alone. After all, this would be lined upon the lot next to an 88, at that point in time the automotive equivalent of an aging rockstar who’s so washed up even his Vegas show is about to get dropped.
The slight hood over the headlights calls back to the classic Toronados of the late 60s
But the stylists didn’t just make it good looking for an Oldsmobile, they made it one of the most attractive cars in the segment. The understated, yet finely tailored suits BMW was turning out had it beat, but they very well may have been the only ones. Mercedes 90s styling consisted of doing a poor job of smoothing out the hard lines of their design language combined with those ridiculous separate dual headlights. Obviously, the Japanese were copying the Merc but making it look cheaper (but even they had the sense to avoid those stupid headlights). Domestic offerings were the worst, we weren’t even putting out appliances, because those are simple and utilitarian. No, we had cars like the Mercury Sable, a car that appears as though it’s original wax model was left out in the sun too long, and then used anyways. But upon noticing the ridiculous circular control panel, you realize that someone actually thought this was appealing design language, and at no point did anyone stop them. We got cars like the Lincoln Town Car. And all you Panther lovers can put those 400k miles engines up your ass, it was an old car for old people who talked about how they beat the Germans 60 years ago, not how they were doing it today. I would mention Chrysler, but were they even a luxury brand back then? So really the only two things you can compare it to are:
A. Cadillac, at the time only starting it’s Benjamin Button-esque ascent back to the top of American luxury with the Northstar and the still pig-faced Eldorado
B. The Buick Riviera, a sister car that looked much like a coupe version of the Aurora, but with an uglier nose. The interior was even up to par, but the only problem was the engine offered, a whining, supercharged 3800 V6 is great, but the 4.0 V8 beat it by a mile in refinement.
So the Aurora’s appealing design language became the basis for the rest of Oldsmobiles lineup a few years down the road. But cars like the Alero and Intrigue had to be built down to a price, and on existing platforms made for much more conservatively styled cars. Their exteriors almost made the grade, but it was on the interior where they failed. You can’t take a Grand Am and put chrome around the gearshift, a less sporty gauge set, and different stereo and tell me it’s an Oldsmobile while I’m sitting in the same cloth seats. The Aurora had a special feel about it on the inside. It’s one of the rare 90s cars that was actually styled on the interior as well, with the swooping curves of the outside echoed by the unbroken line from the armrest, up across the dash, and down around the HVAC/radio controls, the shifter, and to the other armrest, enveloping the driver.
Getting good interior pictures is hard in cars that have roofs
All of this special interior design would cost more due to production scale, which I believe contributed to the decision to make almost everything standard equipment. Every car came with features like fully powered front seats with dual lumbar zones and heaters, dual zone climate control, a good stereo, drivers information center, wood trim, and leather seats. In fact there were only four options available. You could have a Bose system with a 6 disc changer, a moonroof could be added, chrome wheels, and finally, the Autobahn Package. Autobahn was the only performance change you could get in the car, and the only option mine is equipped with. It added V-rated tires at sale, and bumped the 3.48 final drive of the transaxle to 3.71. This allowed the governor to be raised to around 140 MPH from the standard 110.
This short list of options made the base price around 35k, no small sum back then. You would be getting your money’s worth on the car (A BMW 528i started at $38,900 before options), but the number was enough to scare away many people, thinking it would end up being even more when they were done ticking boxes. Furthermore, the high cost of entry meant that the youths weren’t able to buy them, and the change in reputation that was supposed to accompany it never truly materialized.
Looking at this car now, you can see all the history that put it above it’s peers. There are more ashtrays than cupholders. The seats are overstuffed and filled with little motors to adjust everything. The headlights are slightly recessed behind the line of the hood, like a Toronado. The very idea of a full size, V8 powered luxury sedan. One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the Oldsmobile had continued, it could have become a modern equivalent of the first V8 powered Rocket 88, a car that would pass anything on the highway with power and style. I can’t help but imagine a Chevy SS with beautiful lines and an upscale interior, and if they’d done the same trick on the exterior, who knows, they might have actually sold some.