Curbside Classic: 1998 Oldsmobile Bravada – Lacking Bravado

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SUV sales had begun noticeably taking off by the late 1980s, and by the 1990s began an all-out explosion in popularity. With sales growing exponentially, development of these vehicles typically not requiring a from-scratch effort, and exemption from the stricter fuel economy and safety regulations, the SUV was quickly becoming the cash cow of the American automobile industry. For a faltering brand like Oldsmobile, it only made sense that one be added to its lineup in attempt to bolster falling sales and give the brand some contemporary relevance.

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By the time of the Bravada’s launch, Oldsmobile was in a precarious position. There was major redundancy within its lineup, with at least two different vehicles for every size class — something only confused further by the over-application of the Cutlass name to virtually everything less than full-size.

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Likewise, every Oldsmobile car had at least one (and often more) badge-engineered sibling sold under another GM brand, making the purchase of an Oldsmobile over say, a Buick or Pontiac, largely dependent on brand loyalty or preference of styling. Oldsmobile had peaked in popularity, and what once made the brand so appealing was quickly fading away. In just five years, from 1985 to 1990, sales had plummeted some 58 percent, showing no signs of stopping.

Faced with a bleak image of its future, Oldsmobile began the confusing process of *trying* to reinvent itself and appeal to the demographic that was now buying import cars, SUVs and minivans, and not Cutlass Supreme coupes with vinyl quarter roofs and wire wheels. Oldsmobile had already released their Silhouette “dustbuster” minivan all-purpose vehicle the prior year and their anticipated import-fighter Aurora sports sedan was well under development. Was it really any surprise that for 1991 Oldsmobile came out with an SUV?

Actually, depending on whom you ask, the answer might likely still be “yes”, as in the minds of most, Oldsmobile was still their parent’s, or even grandparent’s Oldsmobile. No matter how sleek and space-age the Silhouette was, it would appear that Olds was just going through the motions like they were with most of their other vehicles, introducing minimally different version of a corporate vehicle.

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In execution, the Bravada was no different, itself little more than a mildly altered and upgraded version of the new 4-door Chevrolet S-10 Blazer/GMC S-15 Jimmy, whose 2-door models had been around since 1983. But in theory, the Bravada could be described as ahead of its time, as apart from the significantly costlier and league-of-its-own Jeep Grand Wagoneer and the ultra-premium Range Rover, the idea of an SUV sold exclusively as a luxury vehicle was practically unheard of.

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Other SUVs such as the Jeep Cherokee (and later, Grand Cherokee) and Ford Explorer offered comparable luxury features at extra cost, but these were only available in higher trim levels, and not standard on all models. What’s more is that every other SUV on the market at the time was sold by a brand specializing in trucks/SUVs, or at least one that had had considerable experience building SUVs. Oldsmobile on the other hand, had never sold a single SUV before, and hadn’t sold a truck-based vehicle in nearly three-quarters of a century — before many of its stereotypical buyers were even born.

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Despite its forward-thinking nature, the original Bravada wasn’t a perfect vehicle. As stated, its styling was little-changed over its Chevy/GMC siblings whose 2-door variants debuted eight years prior. Versus its more humble siblings, Oldsmobile gave the Bravada lower body cladding and eschewed all traces of chrome in favor of body-colored trim for the monochromatic “cladded” appearance then in vogue.

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Inside, the Bravada received a complementary list of standard convenience equipment, unique center console, along with upgraded upholstery in either standard velour-like cloth or the more commonly seen extra-cost leather. Still, the dash with its somewhat unusual digital gauge cluster, column shifter, and most other materials were carried over from the Blazer/Jimmy and S-10/Sonoma pickups, making for a somewhat compromised take on luxury.

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In an age when similarly-sized SUVs were selling hundreds of thousands of units per year, at less than 45,000 total sold across four model years, first generation Bravada sales were nothing impressive. Even just looking at competitors’ comparable trim levels, such as the Ford Explorer’s Eddie Bauer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s Limited, Bravada sales were significantly less, doing little to aid Oldsmobile’s sinking fortunes.

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The Blazer and Jimmy were redesigned for 1995, but a redesigned Bravada was curiously absent. It was blatantly clear that the first generation was a hastily-rebadged, testing the waters entry into the SUV segment, but the second generation could’ve been Oldsmobile’s real chance to offer something unique and noteworthy in the fastest-growing segment of the decade.

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According to MotorTrend, initial plans called for the second generation Bravada to be based on the Isuzu Trooper, but ultimately these plans fell through (maybe because of the Acura SLX?). Consequently, the Bravada took a forced hiatus as a Blazer-based second generation model was quickly readied. The resulting car was, while improved over its predecessor, still a vehicle that failed to make a significant impact both in the market, and for Oldsmobile.

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Visually, the second generation Bravada was still largely just a 4-door Blazer/Jimmy with a different grille, lower body cladding, and a monochromatic color scheme. The Bravada did gain body-colored D-pillars, a rear spoiler, tidier-looking roof rails, fog lights, front tow hooks, and unique alloy wheels. The look was decidedly more upscale, but headlights and taillights were still interchangeable, keeping the strong visual resemblance among the three SUVs.

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Likewise, Oldsmobile designers gave the second generation Bravada’s interior a bit more pizazz than before, with upgraded leather upholstery, unique front bucket seats similar to those in the Aurora sports sedan, once again an exclusive front center console but now with a floor-mounted leather-wrapped shifter, and faux but nonetheless attractive woodgrain trim.

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While appreciated enhancements, unfortunately, like the exterior, the interior was not all that distinctive, merely coming across as a mildly enhanced Blazer/Jimmy. For a “luxury” vehicle, there were still hard plastics galore, as once again the Bravada shared the same dashboard as its SUV and pickup truck siblings. Additionally, as far as luxury features were concerned, the Bravada failed to offer much beyond what could be had at extra cost on its siblings. Automatic climate control still wasn’t even an option on the new 1996 models.

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Mechanically speaking, the Bravada was powered by the same 4.3L Vortec V6 as its siblings, making an identical 190 horsepower and 250 lb-ft torque. Unlike Chevy and GMC, the Olds once again was unique in offering “Smart Track”, its full-time intelligent all-wheel drive system. Using a computer-controlled transfer case, Smart Track decided how much power to send to each axle based on driving conditions.

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Sales, however, remained relatively disappointing following the 1996 redesign, with only 15,471 Bravadas going out the door that year. Although these figures would increase and hover around the 30,000 mark for the next several years, Bravada sales were still only about two-thirds the volume of its nearest competitor, Mercury’s Mountaineer. Compared to its siblings, the Bravada sold considerably less than 50% GMC Jimmy volume and less than 10% that of the Blazer during these years.

A few welcomed improvements came over the next few years, chiefly a 1998 facelift that smoothed out the overall exterior design, making it look marginally less truck-like. New headlights, new bumpers, smoother lower bodyside cladding, and a new grille with Oldsmobile’s updated “Aurora” logo completed the exterior design. Curiously, the rear spoiler was deleted.

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The interior was also given a minor makeover with a more user-friendly dashboard, as well as a few extra luxury and convenience features such as automatic climate control, optional heated front seats, and later, steering wheel redundant audio controls. Features such as a moonroof, CD player, and power passenger seat were still optional, however, and unfortunately these little improvements never made a difference in making the Bravada more popular.

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For Oldsmobile, the Bravada was just another in a series of misses that had plagued the ailing brand since the 1986 Toronado. Be it a victim of ineffective badge engineering, lack of expected luxury features, poor marketing, Oldsmobile’s general mark of death, or most likely, a combination of all four, the Bravada never resonated with buyers enough to positively impact Oldsmobile’s wavering relevance, and worse, help the case that Oldsmobile was worth keeping around.

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As revealed in a November 1997 MotorTrend conducted survey of 1996 Bravada owners, fully 54-percent of buyers were over age 50 and 53.5-percent had owned an Oldsmobile before. For a vehicle that was meant to bring new life and younger buyers to Oldsmobile, the Bravada succeeded to some degree, but in most respects came up short.

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Its third, and arguably most optimistic generation yet, arrived as a 2002 model rather early in the 2001 calendar year. However, it was merely too little, too late. The announcement that GM would be phasing out the Oldsmobile brand had already come several months earlier, and Bravada production wound down nearly as fast as it had started up. The last Bravada rolled off the assembly line in January 2004, ending Oldsmobile’s first and last SUV. The former Bravada was hastily restyled and rebadged as the Buick Rainier, sold from 2004-2007, front bumper gaps in all.

White 1998 Bravada photos by Will Jackson

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1990 Oldsmobile Silhouette

Curbside Classic: 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee Orvis Edition

Curbside Classic: 1997 Mercury Mountaineer

Future Curbside Classic: 2003 Isuzu Ascender