The decline and fall of Oldsmobile. It is a story that has been told so many times here before, so I won’t go into great detail of it. What you need to know is that from the early-1970s to the mid-1980s, Oldsmobile was riding a tidal wave of popularity and strong sales, largely helped by the widespread appeal of the mid-size Cutlass. A car with upscale but not over-the-top for the times styling and many available amenities, it struck a “just-right” spot for millions of middle-class Americans during this period, who kept buying one after another, helping it become one of the best-selling American cars of all time.
But like most tidal waves do, this one came crashing down. The 1980s saw consumer preferences greatly shift, with a large majority of younger, upwardly-mobile buyers taking to import brands. Olds was slow to change its once winning formula of vinyl roofs, loose pillow seats, and wire wheels, and by the time it finally did begin to offer cars aimed squarely at imports, it was a tarnished brand with little meaning and enthusiasm amongst younger buyers, other than the stereotypical cars their parents and grandparents drove.
Yet Olds didn’t go down without fighting, and there was no car that better exemplified this than the 1995 Aurora. A sleek, heavily concept car-inspired luxury sports sedan with an exclusive V8, the Aurora looked, felt, and drove like no other Oldsmobile at the time, so much so that it didn’t even wear any Oldsmobile badges. For the car that was meant to “save” Oldsmobile by injecting into it new life and bringing forth a new direction for the brand, the fact that it bore no explicit Oldsmobile badging only made clear just how much Oldsmobile’s brand equity had diminished.
The Aurora was not a perfect car, suffering from much of the expected corporate generic-ness when it came to many interior materials, despite all the effort made to give it an interior design that was very distinctive from other Oldsmobiles and GM cars. Beginning in early 1994, sales started off to a strong 45,000-unit start, helping Oldsmobile post a an 80,000+ volume gain over 1993. Unfortunately both Aurora and Oldsmobile brand sales immediately trailed off, in the case of the Aurora a victim of the car’s high price tag that climbed from $33,065 to $36,229 (excluding destination) over the vehicle’s life cycle, as well as a lack of any significant enhancements over its five-year run.
Although it was not successful on all fronts, the Aurora did provide a great beacon of hope for Oldsmobile, proving that the brand could again build a car that appealed to contemporary consumer tastes. Although it did not enjoy the level of sales Oldsmobile hoped for, it was at least capable of competing with brands such as Acura and Lexus, and not just Buick and Chrysler. More lastingly, the Aurora single-handedly set the tone for all future Oldsmobiles of the brand’s numbered days.
Which brings us to the second generation Aurora, sold for just the 2001 through 2003 model years (skipping the 2000 model year in favor of an early 2001MY introduction), its early retirement the result of Oldsmobile’s announced death. Had the original Aurora and Oldsmobiles that soon followed been more profitable, it’s highly likely that the next Aurora would’ve been taken further upmarket in size, performance, and luxury, creating more space for an additional Eighty-Eight successor slotted between it and the smaller Intrigue.
Whatever plans for this that were on the table, they were ultimately scrapped due to Oldsmobile’s irreversible sales decline and GM’s own financial imposition. The second generation Aurora was resultantly not as unique of a car as the first, now sharing significantly more with other vehicles that had since been moved to its once nearly exclusive G-platform. Due to this, the second generation Aurora was both smaller and less visually distinctive as the original.
Now depending on the eye of the beholder, these two facts of course can be negatives or positives. Though it did not look as sleek as the original, reduction in size meant that the Aurora was lighter for better handling, and closer in size to competitors including the Lincoln LS, Chrysler 300M, Lexus GS, and Acura RL. Interior space didn’t suffer much either, actually growing in several dimensions. Let’s call the Aurora’s smaller size a positive.
More obviously a negative, was the second generation Aurora’s styling. While the mid-to-large luxury sports sedan segment generally favors a degree of understated conservatism with a hint of athleticism, above all, it was the original Aurora’s dramatic and unmistakeable styling that made it the standout it was, gaining widespread recognition, and likely a primary driver in the purchase of many first generation Auroras.
For a car whose styling was such a key part of its identity, the decision to go with a less emotional, more generic design was somewhat of a tragic move. While the 1995 Aurora was a trendsetting design, spearheading the new “look” of Oldsmobile, the 2oo1 broke no new ground, something made glaringly obvious by the fact that it looked like a lesser Alero or Intrigue to the untrained eye.
Despite the second generation car’s decreases in length, width, and weight, visually the car had a heavier, less athletic look to it. Although it shared no sheetmetal with them, it was obvious that the Aurora shared some relation to its platform mates, particularly the Bonneville, which it shared similar body lines and contours with, a similar dash structure, and the exact same door handles inside and out. Overall, the redesigned Aurora just didn’t project the same premium-ness, exclusiveness, and most importantly, that special feel as the original.
Inside, the Aurora’s dash largely retained the same shape of its predecessor, which wasn’t a bad thing, though the center stack and air vents now sported more whimsical curves for an updated look. Despite the retention of genuine burled walnut trim and addition of chrome rings around the instrument cluster gauges and the gearshift selector, the dash came across as somewhat cheaper, a result of the expanse of cheap looking black plastic and switchgear occupying the center stack, and the wood trim’s thinner, tacked on look.
Door panels thankfully, were more interesting and elegant in their appearance and materials. Seats now featured more luxurious looking loosely gathered leather seating surfaces, and front seats now housed side-impact airbags for the front occupants as standard equipment. Unfortunately, these front seats were also cursed with the same “seatbelts-in-the-seats” as GM’s full-size pickup trucks, which resulted in the unsightly outboard pods atop the front seatbacks, which looked liked vestigial second heads on a body.
Performance-wise, the Aurora was a very competitive front-wheel drive sports sedan, improving on the strong reputation of its predecessor. The standard engine under the hood now was not the aptly-named L47 “Aurora V8”, but a V6. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing however, as that V6 was 3.5L LX5 “Shortstar” that was exclusive to Oldsmobile and found only in the Aurora and Intrigue. Derived from the L47 Aurora V8, itself derived from the Northstar V8, the LX5 featured dual overhead cam design and four valves per cylinder, with output an impressive 215 horsepower and 234 lb-ft torque. The LX5 was easily GM’s most advanced V6 engine for its time, making Ward’s 10 Best Engines consecutively from 1999-2002.
The Aurora’s exclusive L47 Aurora V8 was naturally still offered, making an identical 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft torque as before. Both engines were mated to 4-speed automatics, with features such as a four-wheel independent suspension, speed sensitive power steering, and anti-lock brakes. Standard on the V8 and optional on the V6 were traction control and vehicle stability assist.
As with its predecessor, the second generation Aurora received favorable marks for its performance, especially with less weight to move around. Both engines were praised for their power delivery, though the V8 was clearly the way to go for the enthusiast, especially with its wider aspect-ratio 17-inch wheels which resulted in superior handling versus the V6’s 16-inchers.
Standard amenities included the aforementioned leather and real walnut trim, as well as a 6-speaker AM/FM stereo with CD and cassette, automatic climate control, steering wheel controls for audio and HVAC. Optional on V6s and standard on V8 models were a power passenger’s seat with power lumbar support, driver’s memory seat, dual-zone climate control, universal garage door opener, rain-sensing wipers, while features such as heated seats, power moonroof, and premium Bose 8-speaker sound system were optional on both Auroras.
Starting at $30,619 ($41,366 in 6/2016 USD) for the “Aurora 3.5” V6 and $34,794 ($47,006) for the “Aurora 4.0” V8 in 2001 excluding destination, the second generation Aurora represented a strong value in its class, offering capable performance and a wealth of luxury features at a lower price than comparable import and even domestic rivals such as the Lincoln LS. Helped by an early-2000 introduction and its reduction in base price, first year sales were strong. Unfortunately, long-term success would not befall the second generation Aurora.
Although an overall class-competitive vehicle, the second generation Oldsmobile Aurora failed to noticeably build upon the original’s effort. As a result, the Aurora fell short in offering any truly noteworthy qualities the would’ve helped it gain the widespread recognition and acclaim both it and Oldsmobile so badly needed. If the Aurora wasn’t specifically on someone’s radar, to the untrained eye it looked like just another Oldsmobile or GM sedan.
In light of this, first year sales of the new 2001 Aurora were more than double that of the previous generation’s final year. In fact, at over 53,000 units, Oldsmobile sold more 2001-model year Auroras than any other year, helped by the car’s early-2000 introduction. Unfortunately, this strong start was immediately curtailed by GM’s December 2000 announcement of Oldsmobile’s termination. With V6 models ending production in June 2002, and V8s in March 2003, combined production of 2002 and 2003 Auroras fell to under 18,000 units.
Which still brings me to the unanswered question: Was the second generation Aurora better than the first? I guess it doesn’t really matter now.
Featured silver Aurora photographed at Scituate Harbor, Scituate, MA; September 2015