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Just Another Average Face in Detroit’s Crowd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s not that the 1992 Oldsmobile Eighty Eight Royale is an awful car.

It’s not ugly, underpowered or unsafe. Nor is it uncomfortable or a sick handler.

It certainly reflects most of today’s technology and customer demands for a driver’s side air bag, anti-lock brakes, an automatic transmission with shifts smoothed by computer, and crush zones for those moments when solid objects might interrupt the daily commute. But the car simply has no personality.

Here is a full-size, six-place, rolling motel room for people who don’t get excited about very much. It has neither gumption nor mechanical innovation. If this is the new generation of Olds, maybe it’s time to think about recalling the era and reissuing the 1963 Jetfire.

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Oldsmobile, of course, is clinging to a established formula--selling full-size, overstuffed interiors and yawning trunk space--because familiarity breeds repeat buyers. It becomes an inescapable, even desperate, sales philosophy when a parent’s finances are face down (General Motors lost $785 million in the second quarter) and building large cars for Mainstream America is about the only niche left uncluttered by imports.

But offering an innocuous update of last year’s unexciting family car is no way to reverse a dwindling proposition. Nor will younger, more perceptive buyers respond positively to purchasing an Oldsmobile-Buick-Pontiac clone.

For apart from a different curve here, a reworked headlight assembly there, the new Eighty Eight remains bolted to GM’s basic H-body design. So the engine, transmission, chassis and primary shape of the 1992 Eighty Eight are shared with the 1992 Buick LeSabre, which is mechanically identical to the 1992 Pontiac Bonneville.

And for this face in the crowd, Royale prices start at $18,495, with a more serious base of $21,000 for the upmarket Royale LS.

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That price structure also sets the Eighty Eight in the near-luxury division with classmates including the Nissan Maxima, Mitsubishi Galant and Diamante, Ford Thunderbird and Taurus SHO, even the upcoming Infiniti 300. All are fun, efficient, eager, distinctive alternatives to just another reshaped conservative from Detroit.

The new Eighty Eight is 4.1 inches longer than its predecessor, 1.5 inches wider and 1.1 inch taller. Power from the V-6 engine has been improved fractionally from 165 to 170 horsepower. Fuel efficiency is up to 18 m.p.g. city and 28 m.p.g. highway, which tops the EPA’s large-vehicle class.

Much bounce has been taken out of the suspension. But that suspension is good only for long, docile cruising and is still a little too floppy when spirited motoring starts changing the weight distribution of a 3,400-pound automobile.

Steering is tauter than last year. But turning the wheel, monitoring the initial direction shift, then having to fine-tune the steering into a precise heading, is not the behavior of a well-balanced automobile. And that steering displays a pushy castering action that is constantly urging the wheel to return to center.

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The exterior styling is domestic generic of the ‘90s, a familiar aero shape that is mildly European with a glimpse of Infiniti to the rear end. The glass is flush-mounted and ruined by faux quarter windows front and rear.

Consider these lines the ultimate understatement: They say very little indeed.

Mechanically, the Eighty Eight is a competent car with acceptable low-end acceleration and some optional touches--such as 16-inch cast alloy wheels--that are quite pleasant.

But again, the car’s mild advantages are canceled by major shortcomings.

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Holes have been cut in the trunk liner to accommodate the lid’s long hinges. They are crude, ragged and a good reason why 9-year-olds should not be allowed to play with scissors.

That trunk lid slams shut with a clatter. Close a door with the window down and glass rattles in its runners. The remote control will activate the central locking only when inches from the car, while better systems happily zap doors from two blocks away.

The interior is a throwback to the ‘70s, with fuzzy maroon linings, carpets with a man-made fiber sheen, and enough dashboard vinyl to cover El Paso. The column-mounted gearshift is too short and can be reached only by fumbling around the back of the steering wheel. The ignition switch is another annoyance that must be located manually instead of visually.

Three instruments--speedometer, fuel and engine temperature gauge--are lonely decorations on a stingy dash. Bogus wood accents are piddling strips accenting their own insignificance.

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Radio and heater controls are an abomination. There are dozens of buttons mounted on a panel that actually slopes up and backward into the darkness of the instrument hood. If it weren’t for duplicate air and radio controls on the steering wheel, a driver would have to settle for uncomfortable body temperatures while listening to the wrong radio station.

Seats (leather trim is the major portion of a $565 option) are OK. Power adjustments to the driver’s seat (the passenger seat must still be positioned by body heaves and butt wriggles) are average.

But for some inexplicable reason, the center armrest has a 30-degree incline. It would appear to have little purpose beyond relieving tennis elbow.

Inside that arm rest is a cluster of spring-loaded plastic semicircles that unfold in a fascinating twisting motion. Metal sculpture? Miniature satellite dish? In fact, nothing more sophisticated than complicated cup holders.

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As a full-size family car of benign design and safe performance, the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight certainly has a place.

We just can’t see it having much of a place in the family of Johnny Rutherford. He’s an Indy winner, discerning artist, spirited P-51 pilot and the senior half of one of those father-son television commercials for Oldsmobile.

Johnny Rutherford III is filmed driving his Olds into a country gas station. Johnny Rutherford IV walks in carrying a gas can.

Dad is clean and cool. Son is scruffy and sweating. Johnny Jr. says that next time, dad can drive the Honda. Johnny Sr. says he’ll stick with his economical Olds.

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Clearly, father doesn’t always know best.

1992 Oldsmobile 88 Royale LS

COST: * Base: $21,395 * As tested, $24,376 (including air conditioning, automatic transmission, power windows, power seats, interior leather trim, touring car handling package, etc.). ENGINE: * 3.8 liters, 12-valves, V-6, developing 170 horsepower. TYPE: * Full-size, front-drive, six-passenger sedan. PERFORMANCE: * 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with automatic, 10.2 seconds. * Top speed, estimated, 115 m.p.h. * Fuel consumption, EPA city-highway, 18 and 28 m.p.g. CURB WEIGHT: * 3,468 pounds. THE GOOD: * Average big car for average big family. * Top fuel efficiency. * Performance and handling up to norms. THE BAD: * Bland styling. * Retrospective, sometimes awkward interior. * No groundbreaking mechanicals. * Poorly positioned controls. THE UGLY: * Eerie cup holders.


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