Curbside Classic: 1997 Chevrolet Lumina – GM’s Deadly Sin #28 – The Re-Gifter

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The year was 1995. Seinfeld was the number one show on Televison. “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio was the #1 song of the year, and the highest-grossing film of the year was Toy Story. “The Rachel” was the hottest woman’s hair style, and O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the double murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. 1995, model-year speaking, was also the year that the second generation Chevrolet Lumina sedan debuted, to very little excitement and expectations.

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Up until a few years ago at least, when combined sales of CUVs/SUVs overtook cars in total sales, the mainstream midsize sedan segment was the most important, and the fiercest segment in the automobile industry. Despite its slightly lower volume, this largely holds true today, as really, how hard is it to make a successful crossover? But today, the top three best-selling midsize sedans in the U.S. hail from Japanese brands. Although this wasn’t such the case two decades ago, GM still blew its chances with the 1995 Lumina.

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Backtracking a bit, the first generation GM W-bodies/GM10 (whatever you want to call them) that were produced sold for the 1988-1996 model years for most brands, were one of General Motors’ biggest f*ck-ups of all time, and an issue that comprehensively-covered, would result in an article of many thousand words taking 1-2 months to write.

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These cars have been covered numerous times on an individual basis before, so I’ll just give you the takeaway: GM smartly sought to introduce modern midsize cars across its non-Cadillac North American brands that were thoroughly different from one another, and ahead of the competition. But of course, in typical GM fashion, the W-bodies were numerous steps behind the competition. Development ran behind schedule and the monetary costs of the project, at some $7 Billion, were astronomical.

Adding insult to injury, only coupes in Pontiac-Oldsmobile-Buick guise arrived for the W-body’s launch in 1987 as 1988 models. Due to the platform’s lengthy gestation period, GM was a few extra years behind the market shift to sedans. Consequently, these brands’ higher-volume sedans and both Chevrolet body styles didn’t appear until the 1990 model year, already feeling dated. Lacking refinement and key features such as a driver’s-side airbag, the first generation Lumina in particular was a big disappointment for GM and Chevy dealers.

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By the mid-1990s, it was clear that the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry were steadily building their loyal customer base, and were ever closer to overtaking the top-selling Ford Taurus as best-selling car in America (this would occur in 1997). Having failed so miserably with their first attempt at a car that could honestly compete with the Taurus, Accord, and Camry, you would’ve thought that the largest automaker in the world would have put forth a better effort for the most important car of its highest-volume brand. The answer of course, is sadly another “no”.

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Rather than putting a serious effort into making improvements and refinements, GM took the “re-gifter” approach, giving us mostly the same car as before, just wrapped in a new, rounder package. The decision to stick with an update that was almost exclusively cosmetic, was no doubt a result of GM devoting the bulk of its concentration to higher profit big SUVs and pickups. Though styling was new, it was hardly eye-opening or even all that attractive. Ditching the previous generation’s wedged-shaped styling for round, bulbous curves, the Lumina’s visual transformation was akin to someone leaving the old Lumina in the oven a few minutes longer, letting the dough rise up further.

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Remaining as sedate-looking as its predecessor, the 1995 Lumina followed in the footsteps of cars such as the 1992 Camry, 1992 Taurus, and 1993 Chrysler LH sedans with very rounded sheetmetal. It likely would’ve made more of a buzz had it hit showrooms in 1992, as originally planned. Either way, any attractiveness in its very forgettable design was marred by its ungainly proportions. With colossal overhangs (46.5% of overall length; its front very massive in particular), the square-shaped wheel arches of its predecessor, large rear doors that awkwardly cut into the roofline and went all the way to the rear wheel well, the Lumina had a rather clumsy, dowdy appearance.

Additionally, its relatively long length (some 12 inches longer than both the ’95 Camry and ’95 Accord V6, and even 9 inches longer than a ’95 Taurus) contributed to a very “pancaked” look, as if it was flattened down by a press at the final stage of production. I know I’m getting nitpicky here, but GM very easily could’ve made a tidier looking midsize sedan. Just look at the Lumina’s platform mate, the Oldsmobile Intrigue. I won’t even touch upon the horrendous looking Lumina Coupe Monte Carlo. Thankfully, Will Stopford already has.

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Inside, things were just as disappointing. Much like the exterior, the interior received a visual makeover, replacing the previous Lumina’s straight lines and angularity with scattered curves here and there just for the sake of it. Front seatbacks aimed for a more contoured look, but looked out of place with their standard bench seat bottoms. And yes, in another example of being out of touch with consumers, an old-fashioned front bench seat and column shifter were still standard. Apparently GM though all the cool kids wanted to feel like they were driving Grandma’s car… “Ugh! As If!”

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In any event, the Lumina’s interior was hardly an inviting environment, and one that was not easy on the eyes. Unsupportive seats in which one uncomfortably sunk into (from personal experience), flimsy feeling switch gear and controls, dated looking seat fabrics, and a mishmash of hard, hollow, and textured plastic. Apparently there was a shortage of half-acceptable plastic during the mid-1990s and Little Tykes outbid GM for the use of it in their Cozy Coupes. Overall, the Lumina’s interior oozed cheapness, blandness, and despair.

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Now it’s not like the Lumina needed an interior for the masses to ooh and aah over as, after all, it was an affordable midsize family sedan. Yet as a midsize family sedan, the Lumina’s interior should have been a noticeable cut above that of penalty box cars like the Cavalier, or a ten-year older Celebrity. Every car it competed against, from the Dodge Intrepid to the Ford Taurus to the Toyota Camry and many more, treated buyers to more inviting interiors in one way or another. Even its older siblings’ interiors were all marginally better.

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That’s not to say all competitors’ interiors were perfect, with cheapness and other flaws here and there in many. But the Lumina’s was substandard in every area. The least GM could’ve given it was an interior that didn’t make occupants want to open the door and jump out while the car was in motion.

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Underneath it all, the Lumina rode on the same chassis as before. Power now came from V6s only, initially in the form of either a standard pushrod 3.1L or an optional dual-overhead cam 3.4L, the latter producing respectable output of 210 horsepower and 215 lb-ft torque. Of course, the 3.4L was replaced with the ubiquitous pushrod 3.8L V6, which made less horsepower but more torque, and increased fuel economy by a few MPGs.

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Now before half of our readers start lashing out at me for “attacking” a car that they believe “succeeded in its intended mission in life”, let me remind you that the GM Deadly Sins are not meant to offend anyone who may ever have owned one of these cars or have had experiences with them. As evidenced by this 19-year old example, many of these Luminas probably gave their owners many years of affordable service, played a memorable role in their lifetime, and and some may have even brought these owners a little bit of joy.

What makes this car a Deadly Sin is that it represents the missed opportunity for GM at regaining some control of the midsize class with a strong entry, in turn handing over the market to Honda and Toyota on a silver platter, all a direct result of GM’s sheer negligence and unwillingness to make an effort in this more challenging, but nonetheless important segment. The Lumina was a somewhat outdated, outclassed car when it arrived for 1990. By its second generation, it was a highly outdated, outclassed car.

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GM of course, was not alone in ceding the midsize segment to the aforementioned Japanese brands. Ford was guilty too, with its totally botched 1996 Taurus. Yet the difference with the Taurus is that Ford’s investment and effort into the new Taurus yielded a much more competitive car with numerous thoughtful innovations, up-to-date features and decent quality. It was only designers’ fetish for ovals which permanently doomed the Taurus as a midsize car.

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As a result, the Lumina never achieved noteworthy sales figures, especially considering Chevrolet’s overall volume. Second generation Lumina sales topped out at just over 264K units for the car’s extended introductory year (going on sale in June 1994) and trailed off at a steady pace. By contrast, the Toyota Camry sold over 326K for 1995 and reached over 445K by 1999.

Now of course the argument can be made that GM also had three more W-body sedans to bolster their total midsize sedan sales. While true, Chevrolet had just as many if not more dealers than Honda, Toyota, and Ford, so really there was no reason the Lumina should have sold in such fewer numbers, other than the fact that it was an inferior car. Furthermore, with the large percentage of Luminas going to fleets and the steep incentives, GM still lost money on each Lumina sold.

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Which brings me to the question: Who in fact bought 1995-2001 Chevrolet Luminas? As far as I’m concearned, the Lumina appealed to three types of customers:

  1. Die-hard brand loyalists who did not cross-shop with other brands and would’ve drove off in a new Lumina even if it was on fire
  2. The very price-sensitive consumer who cared most about their payment number and would buy one car over another based on an extremely nominal amount, even if it meant they’d be settling
  3. Fleets, fleets, and more fleets

It appears that Chevy even had a hard time unloading Luminas on the rental companies as, by and large, the majority of Luminas I ever saw were in some type of government or other commercial fleet.

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Slacking off and not giving it one’s all is never a smart move, but it is an even greater offense when one does this in the championships when all is at stake versus a pre-season practice. General Motors made a lot of mistakes in the 1990s, and a lot of pretty weak efforts as well. In some cases, GM could afford to cut corners. With its midsize volume sedan, this was not such the case.

Featured car photographed at sunset: Hewitts Cove, Hingham, MA – November 2016

Campus Police Lumina photographed: Georgetown University, Georgetown, D.C. – May 2009

Related Reading:

1990-1994 Chevrolet Lumina

1991 Chevrolet Lumina Euro (GM Deadly Sin)

1995-1999 Chevrolet Monte Carlo