This is a Chevrolet Malibu. There is no hiding that fact; there is not even an attempt to hide that fact. Fortune magazine called it in 1983 and we’re seeing the disastrous results in this transparent money-saving exercise. The Cutlass name is but a zombie on this uninspired lump of medium-sized car product and dammit, it deserved better.
Reading all of the Curbside Classic Complete Cutlass Chronicles, one can see what I am on about. The Cutlass survived as long as it did thanks to its ability to adapt to ever-changing tastes. Even I, who wasn’t even alive until the GM-10 models were already in production, can appreciate how the powers that be skillfully steered the model name from a mere trim level to sporty model, to a plush-mobile, to losing its track and being called a Saturn lookalike or A-Body Product number 18-5-15. Or what should’ve been the end. It would’ve been a fitting end for the Cutlass and CCCCC. An ending with variety and some integrity for the Cutlass and an unlucky number 13 ending for the series, reflecting the final misfortunes of the vehicle itself. Alas, it was not to be.
Say whatever you want about the W-Body Cutlasses (Cutlasi?). Yes, timing made them look like large Saturns instead of making Saturns look like mini Oldsmobiles. Yes the interior was somewhat sketchy when compared to something like a Mercury Sable and they may have not been the most dynamic cars on the roads. But they had something that this Malibu in a hat didn’t: a unique identity.
Compare a W-Body Supreme with a Pontiac Grand Prix or a Buick Regal and you can still see some differences between them; they all have unique designs and styling cues that reflect the (alleged) brand values as demanded by their consumers. They at least made the slightest of efforts to try and be different from one another, something to at least say “No, this is not a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, this is an Oldsmobile.” The Cutlass Ciera, less so. Differentiation was never the strong suit of the A-Body but it still managed so sell in very decent numbers and have some variety in the form of a 5-door wagon and the very oddly proportioned and now impossible to find two-door coupe.
Not so with this Cutlass. Even someone who has just had laser eye surgery can tell this is just a Malibu at fifty paces. Not helping matters is the fact that this particular Malibu is one of the most uninspired designs to ever come out of GM. There wasn’t anything specifically bad about it, in fact there wasn’t anything to say about it full stop. At least the K-Body Sevilles had body-shivering awfulness to carry them into the public conscience. This commits the even worse (Deadly?) sin of mediocrity. Doing nothing, achieving nothing, not even trying to do or achieve anything. If it had a hobby it would be water-tasting. Or explaining to people why some sidewalks seem to be filled with little sparkly bits. There was no convertible, no sporty version. No versions for that matter. Just a single note of beige.
It’s the same story inside, where I can say without even the tiniest fear of being wrong that the only thing that’s different between it and an ordinary Malibu is the logo on the steering wheel and perhaps a bit more plastic covering on the gear lever. There were absolutely no mechanical differences between it and the normal Malibu barring the fact that you couldn’t get a four-cylinder engine in the Cutlass. That meant you only had the head-cracking 3.1L V6 as an option, mated to a reliable, if uninspired, four speed Automatic.
This provided a nice contrast to contemporary Honda Accords where you had amazing engines and automatics made out of glass, porcelain and egg shells. This name-defiling only lasted for two years, as the N-Body Cutlass was intended to just be a stopgap model. Something that makes it all the sadder the more you think about it.
It was replaced by the Alero, a car that was considerably more in the mold of what a Cutlass should’ve been. Still based on the N-Body, the Alero had unique styling and a different interior. It was also available as a two-door coupe and with a manual transmission. Alongside the Aurora, it painted a bright future for Olds, one where they weren’t confused about their identity and they didn’t just have hand-me-down cars to show for themselves. But rather, a full lineup of stylish, quick and elegant cars.
So why not call it a Cutlass? Perhaps they wanted to cut themselves away from the mistakes of the past and forge a new path for themselves. Away from underdeveloped diesels and under-inspired Firenzas. And it’s not like the Cutlass name had anything resembling the cachet it had in the early and mid-eighties. Certainly not after this Malibu Mess. The Alero and Aurora were great but they were too late and soldiered on until 2004 when Oldsmobile shut down for good. In fact, the last Oldsmobile was an Alero sedan which now resides in the Ransom E. Olds Museum. Call me an old romantic, but it should’ve been a Cutlass. It would’ve been a fitting end for both the Make and the model.