As the 1990s dawned, Oldsmobile – then America’s oldest automotive brand – was in crisis. Sales were declining, its buyers were aging, and new luxury import brands threatened the division’s very existence. In response, Oldsmobile developed a halo car – the Aurora – meant to reverse its fortune and steer the brand into the 21st century. A quarter-century after the Aurora’s debut – and 15 years after Oldsmobile’s demise – here’s a look at the car that once carried the hopes of a division on its shoulders.
For decades, Oldsmobile had earned a reputation as a technology-rich, forward-thinking brand. The first fully automatic transmission, the Hydra-Matic Drive, debuted in Oldsmobile models in 1939 – beating Cadillac to market by roughly two years. In the 1950s, its Rocket V8 made Oldsmobiles among the fastest domestic cars on the market, and in 1962 the Jetfire became the first American car powered by a turbocharged V-8. The division also reintroduced front-wheel drive from a domestic automaker in 1965, when the Toronado appeared as a 1966 model.
Sales remained strong through the mid-1970s, but then Oldsmobile made back-to-back blunders that tarnished the division’s reputation. In 1977, short on supply of Oldsmobile V-8s, the automaker substituted Chevrolet engines on certain models without informing consumers. The ensuing outcry ultimately saw the sentence “Oldsmobiles are equipped with engines produced by various GM divisions” added to literature and advertising, but likely cost the brand once-loyal buyers. Two years later, the automaker launched a pair of diesel engines – a 5.7-liter V-8 and a 4.3-liter V-6 – that became infamous for the problems and failures associated with them.
By the mid-1980s, Oldsmobile had clawed its way back to the top, and in 1985 saw record sales of 1,066,122 vehicles. Just four years later, Oldsmobile was again reeling, hit by the counter-punch of competition from other brands within the GM family and threats from new foreign luxury brands Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus. Oldsmobile wouldn’t survive without radical change, and it came in the form of a range-topping luxury car meant to go head-to-head with anything in – and potentially above – its price range.
From the very beginning, Oldsmobile endeavored to distinguish the Aurora from other models in its lineup. Instead of carrying the vertical rocket Oldsmobile logo employed since 1991, the Aurora received a “launching rocket” logo of its very own, which would eventually find its way to all automobiles manufactured by the division. The shape of the Aurora looked like nothing else in GM’s portfolio, and the long-term plan was to introduce a range of Oldsmobile models that shared similar styling.
The logic behind this was two-fold. Mirroring the strategy of the new Japanese luxury brands, the Aurora was meant to attract buyers to the showroom who otherwise would have simply overlooked the brand. Carrying over the Aurora’s sleek lines to new range of cars ensured that buyers with a wide range of incomes could leave an Oldsmobile dealership driving a new car.
But first, the Aurora needed to be a sales success. Step one was to build a platform that was both exceptionally strong and rigid, and here the Aurora excelled. In its roof crush test, the Aurora successfully endured over 8,000 pounds of force, exceeding the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards by a wide margin. The test also exceeded the limits of GM’s equipment, which failed before the roof itself was compromised.
Instead of pulling an existing engine out of the GM catalog, Oldsmobile re-engineered the Cadillac Northstar for use in the Aurora. The Cadillac engine measured 4.6 liters in displacement, while the Oldsmobile L47 V-8 used a smaller bore to create a 4.0-liter (244-cu.in.) engine, also equipped with double overhead-camshafts and four valves per cylinder. Output was an impressive 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, more than one horsepower per cubic inch – without forced induction. This proved competitive with the 1UZ-FE V-8 engine used in the range-topping Lexus LS of the day, which produced 256 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque (also from 4.0-liters) but contained over 550 more components, greatly adding to its complexity.
Befitting a car with luxury intentions, the sole transmission offering in the front-wheel drive Aurora was a four-speed automatic, with both “normal” and “performance” modes. Selecting the latter, Motor Trend determined that the near-two-ton Oldsmobile could run from 0-60 mph in 8.2 seconds when equipped with the optional “Autobahn package,” which included an axle ratio of 3.71:1 (instead of the stock 3.48:1). The quarter-mile went by in 16.3 seconds, at a trap speed of 87.1 mph.
1995 Oldsmobile Aurora interior.
Inside, the list of standard content was a lengthy one. Leather seats were six-way power adjustable, and the driver’s seat included a memory function. Dual-zone automatic climate control was standard, as was burl walnut trim, a six-speaker audio system, and ergonomically positioned switchgear. Other standard features included four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control, and dual front airbags.
The 1995 Aurora debuted with a price of $31,370, making it the most expensive Oldsmobile by over $5,000. Compared to the high-end offerings of the Japanese luxury brands, however, it was a bargain: The Acura Legend sedan was priced between $38,900-$42,000, the Infiniti Q45 between $52,400-$59,350, and the Lexus LS400 at $51,200. In its debut year, Oldsmobile sold 46,000 Auroras.
For its second year on the market, Oldsmobile raised the Aurora’s price by nearly $3,000, to $34,360, and sales declined to 22,349 units. By 1999, the final year of the first-generation Aurora, sales dropped further still, failing to reach 19,000 units.
The second-generation Oldsmobile Aurora, launched in 2000.
The second-generation Aurora was to be a bolder car that the original, taking the brand even more upscale to permit room in the lineup for other luxury and near-luxury models. By launch, however, a new strategy appeared, one that should have been a clear omen of the brand’s future. Instead of becoming more luxurious, the Aurora became more mainstream, offering a budget-friendly V-6 (itself re-engineered from the L47 V-8 and nicknamed the “Shortstar”) to pad the car’s sales.
It was too little, too late. Just 10 months after the second-generation Aurora debuted, GM announced it would shutter the Oldsmobile brand, closing the division over a protracted four-year period. From sales of 28,250 units in 2000 (aided, perhaps by its selection as the 2000 Indy 500 Pace Car), the Aurora fell to 24,928 units in 2001 and to 8,878 units in 2002. In 2004, Oldsmobile’s final year, a mere 206 Auroras left showrooms with new owners.
Could a lower-priced Aurora, launched sooner, have saved the brand? Could the Intrigue and Alero, which both mirrored the Aurora’s sculpted lines, have made an impact if quicker to market? We’ll never know, but as cars of the 1990s grow in collector appeal, perhaps its time to give the Aurora a second look.