In the battle between the Chevrolet Lumina and the Ford Taurus, the latter not only sold better, it was almost universally considered to be the superior car. The Lumina wasn’t a bad offering, per se: the basic platform was sound, the styling was contemporary, the prices low and the powertrains mostly reliable. But there was one reason the Lumina’s inferiority against its crosstown rival was so disappointing: GM didn’t launch the Lumina until 1990. The Taurus had been on sale for four years, and GM’s much-touted Lumina couldn’t best it.
The Lumina was arguably the least compelling of the four GM-10 (1st generation W-Body) cars. The GM-10 program represented a $7 billion dollar investment in seven factories that were supposed to produce enough sedans and coupes to account for 21% of the American auto market. The Lumina range was also the last to arrive: the Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Pontiac Grand Prix coupes were launched in 1988, although their sedan models arrived in 1990.
The Lumina replaced Chevrolet’s aging Celebrity, which had launched in 1982. It was a bigger car overall: 10 inches longer with a 2.6 inch longer wheelbase, and 350 lbs heavier. It was a more modern car, too: the W-Body platform had four-wheel disc brakes and four-wheel independent suspension. Up front were McPherson struts, coil springs and a stabilizer bar, while the rear had McPherson struts, a stabilizer bar and a plastic transverse leaf spring à la the Corvette. There was no wagon version, unlike the rival Taurus: the Celebrity wagon was replaced by the Lumina APV minivan.
The Lumina’s aerodynamic design didn’t shake up the mid-size sector like the slick Taurus had in 1986. This was because the design had actually been penned seven years earlier, according to the late head of design at GM, Chuck Jordan. It also had some odd elements to it, like squared off wheel arches and a lengthy front overhang.
Of the GM-10s, the Lumina was targeted at families and value-conscious buyers: there were promotional tie-ins with Disney, including TV commercials with Disney characters jumping around the Lumina, and Chevrolet general manager Jim Perkins had declared Chevrolet a “value” brand. To support this, Lumina MSRPs were below those of the Taurus.
The engine lineup started with the venerable Tech IV 2.5 four, with 105 hp and 135 ft-lbs. This was the only W-Body application of the engine: Grand Prix and Cutlass Supreme were available with four-cylinder power for two years (1990-91), but used the much more powerful Quad 4. For 1993, Chevy replaced the Tech IV with the 2.2 four (110 hp, 130 ft-lbs) used in the Cavalier, Beretta and Corsica, before dropping that for the Lumina’s final year. Neither four-banger was especially refined or powerful, and this underscored GM’s lack of enthusiasm for creating competitive four-cylinder engines in the 1980s and early 1990s (the Quad 4 was more modern, sure, but flaky and unrefined.)
The ubiquitous 60-degree Chevrolet V6, now displacing 3.1 liters, was available throughout the Lumina’s run. It had 135 hp and 175 ft-lbs, and 0-60 was accomplished in 10.5 seconds. This was a far superior choice to the four-cylinder, as a four-speed automatic was optional; as with the Cavalier, Corsica and Beretta, the four-cylinder Lumina was saddled with a three-speed automatic. This meant fuel economy was scarcely better in the I-4: gas mileage was 21/28 mpg, while a 3.1/4-spd achieved 19/29 mpg. The bigger engine was standard in the mid-range Euro, which for an extra $2000 over a base four offered a firmer suspension tune, larger 15-inch wheels, standard air-conditioning and an attractive monochromatic exterior treatment.
A standard four-speed automatic wasn’t the only unfortunate omission. During the Lumina’s run, a driver’s airbag was never available despite the increasing number of cars so equipped. Instead, GM used frustrating door-mounted seatbelts.
For 1991, Chevrolet added GM’s first double overhead cam V6, the Twin Dual Cam 3.4 V6. Based on the 60 degree Chevy V6, aluminum heads with belt-driven twin camshafts were grafted onto the old cast iron block. Performance was impressive, with 210 hp and 215 ft-lbs (200hp with the automatic); in contrast, the Taurus SHO’s Yamaha V6 had 220 hp and 200 ft-lbs. Allegedly, the Dual Twin Cam was capable of a lot more power – potentially 275 hp – but GM’s transmission division wasn’t able to engineer a tough enough transmission for a FWD car, or so the rumor goes. Incidentally, the W-Body would eventually receive an engine that had 300 hp – the 5.3 V8-equipped models of the 2000s – but their transmission couldn’t handle that much power, either.
The 3.4 was available in flashy Z34 coupe form, replete with sporty visual additions like ground effects, a unique grille, 16-inch alloy wheels and a louvered hood. Transmissions were a standard five-speed Getrag manual or an optional four-speed automatic. From 1992, an automatic-only Euro 3.4 trim was available for those who preferred a more subtle appearance.
The Z34 was pitted against the Taurus SHO, naturally, in various magazine comparison tests. The results? The Chevy was generally said to be slightly less refined and rev-hungry than the Ford, but with a better stickshift and more low-end torque. The 3.4 revved smoothly up to its 7000rpm redline, but 0-60 times were slightly slower than the SHO (7.1 seconds vs 6.6). The Lumina 3.4 did have a few tricks up its sleeve, though: it ran on regular unleaded, an automatic transmission was optional (the SHO didn’t get one until 1993), and the price was lower. A Z34 coupe retailed for around $17k, while the SHO started at $22k.
Although GM had apparently ordered a detuning of the engine to avoid warranty claims on failed transmissions, they still did not engineer enough durability into the engine itself. It was a shame, as both the engine and the sporty Luminas that featured it were generally better-received by critics than lesser models, although Z34 and Euro 3.4 model sales represented only a fraction of Lumina volume. The Twin Dual Cam V6 was axed from the entire GM lineup in 1997, as GM had a much sturdier engine in its stable that could be fettled for higher performance (the 3800 V6).
Dynamically, lesser Luminas were a mixed bag. Torque steer had been nicely quelled and the W-Body platform was praised for its rigidity and handling ability, but some criticized the poor bump absorption in Euro models. The Chevy was also noisier than its rivals, which contributed to the overall feeling of lower quality and refinement.
Perhaps the Lumina’s greatest flaw was its interior. The dashboard was very horizontally-oriented, making it much less ergonomic than the Taurus’ neat center stack, angled towards the driver. The Lumina’s instrument cluster was oddly scooped out and somewhat hard to read, and the seats were regularly met with criticism for being too flat, firm and unsupportive. Like many other GM sedans, the rear bench was positioned quite low to the floor. There was a nice, low belt line and a low cowl, but forward visibility was hindered by chunky A-pillars. Despite being 9.2 inches longer (1.5 inches in the wheelbase alone) than the Taurus, the Lumina was scarcely more spacious.
Perhaps Car & Driver’s Phil Berg put it best in the launch review of the 1990 Chevrolet Lumina Euro. He said: “What bothers me is that the Lumina performs only slightly better than a Celebrity – a car that was introduced more than 6 years ago. That’s a long time to wait for such an uninspired automobile.”
Despite its late arrival, the Lumina clearly still needed some more work. Buyers agreed. The Lumina may have entered the top 10, but it couldn’t topple the Taurus. Rather than leaving it to linger until 1996 like the other W-Bodies, a completely restyled Lumina on the same platform arrived mid-1994 as a 1995 model.
While Ford extensively and exhaustively benchmarked the Camry and Accord for its new Taurus, Chevy took the budget route. There were low list prices, but rear disc brakes became an option. There was plenty of standard equipment, but the interior was even uglier and scarcely better built. Chevrolet would end up refocusing on the slightly smaller 1997 Malibu, which although riding on the “compact” N-Body platform, was more size appropriate for the segment. The next Chevy W-Body was the 2000 Impala, positioned as more of a full-size offering.
GM had bungled the launch of its first new mid-size Chevy of the 1990s, and despite lengthy delays, the end result wasn’t terribly impressive. It wasn’t a bad car, per se, but it lacked the finesse of a Taurus. The subsequent Lumina was even more of a disappointment because it resolutely showed that Chevrolet wasn’t aspiring to have the best mid-size sedan on the market. It’s no wonder that after two disappointing generations, Chevrolet retired the Lumina nameplate in North America.
A very special thanks to Curbsiders “A Guy In Vancouver” (red Euro coupe) and “Matthew with two T’s” (white base sedan) for their excellent Lumina pictures, obtained via the Curbside Classic Cohort. Blue sedan photographed in the Lower East Side.
Paul Niedermeyer’s more caustic take on the Lumina: CC: 1991 Chevrolet Lumina Euro – GM’s Deadly Sin #18