Car Show Classic: 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais Quad 442 W41 – Taking Performance To The Nth Degree

(first posted 5/31/2017)     My good friend Jason White was at a Cars and Coffee event out in Saddlebrook, NJ, surrounded by the Porsches and McLarens and supercars that he loves. But when he saw this little red coupe, he had a feeling it would fascinate me more than any of those cars. It’s a 442… An Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais Quad 442 W41, that is.

Really? A GM N-Body catching someone’s eye more than a Lamborghini? Well, like many Curbivores, I have eclectic tastes. And the Quad 442 was quite a rare bird and a surprisingly powerful machine for its time.

The controversially-named 442 was the final sporty Calais derivative, following the International Series and the Quad 4 appearance package. The evolving 442 designation now stood for 4 cylinders, 4 valves per cylinder, and 2 camshafts. This is a 1991 W41 model, making it the wildest of them all as well as one of the rarest: just 241 examples were produced.

Calais International Series

But just how wild can a boxy, 1980s-vintage GM compact be? Well, consider this: the Quad 442 and International-Series used the most powerful version of the Quad 4, GM’s then-new, high-revving, naturally-aspirated, modern DOHC. In High Output LG0 form, introduced in 1989 and offered in sport compacts like the Chevrolet Beretta GTZ, the 2.3 four-cylinder produced a stout 180 hp at 6200 rpm and 160 ft-lbs at 5200 rpm and was mated exclusively to a five-speed manual. The LG0-equipped models were good for a 0-60 time of around 7.5 seconds, thanks also to a 2500-pound curb weight almost identical to that of the Mazda MX-6 and Honda Prelude. Those horsepower and torque figures were also quite similar to the US market BMW M3’s…

Engine and cabin photos courtesy of CarDomain user 3point8tta

The W41 option used an even more powerful version of the HO Quad 4, exclusive to Oldsmobile, with larger camshafts, a modified transmission and the same torque figures but more horsepower (190 hp at 6800 rpm), knocking the 0-60 time down to 7 seconds. Motor Trend also recorded a Camaro Z28-rivalling quarter-mile time of 14.7 seconds at 95.7 mph. The W41 was a homologation special so Oldsmobile could use this particular Quad 4 variant in showroom stock racing, thus explaining the low production numbers.

The HO Quad 4 engines had some pretty impressive horsepower figures for a naturally-aspirated four in the 1980s. After all, a four-cylinder ’89 Accord or ’89 Cavalier produced around 100 hp and 110 ft-lbs, so the Quad 4 engines were a big leap in power and torque and even out-performed most V6 engines (not to mention surpassing some V8s in horsepower, if not torque). But these sporty Quad 4 cars, like the Quad 442, were priced against plenty of other rapid machines.

In 1991, the MSRP of a Quad 442 was just over $13k. That was right up against the Mustang LX 5.0 which had more power and torque and weighed scarcely more. Perhaps it seems unfair to compare such conceptually dissimilar cars. Then again, would a prospective Quad 442 buyer have cross-shopped a turbocharged Eagle Talon/Plymouth Laser/Mitsubishi Eclipse (which cost around $14k) or the less powerful but more refined $15k Honda Prelude?

You could get cheaper Quad 4-equipped cars, as the engine was made available in other N-Bodies like the Pontiac Grand Am. But most of those Quad 4 models used a detuned version with a [still competitive] 150 hp and 160 ft-lbs. You therefore had all the flaws of the Quad 4 – patchy reliability, high levels of NVH, weak low-end performance – with less power and torque.

Motor Trend tested a HO Quad 4-equipped Grand Am and Calais 442 for their 1990 Bang For Your Buck special. The sporty N-Bodies tackled the slalom at a higher speed than the Mustang, Camaro, Talon AWD and Toyota MR-2 and scooted to 60 mph quicker than the turbocharged Ford Probe GT. But the reviewers found these cars simply weren’t as fun-to-drive as they could have been, with safe, predictable handling, a tendency towards understeer and pronounced body roll in turns. Unsurprisingly, these sporty N-Bodies – with their FE3 suspension tune – rode quite stiffly, although this was a common complaint for sporty compacts.

There’s no doubt Oldsmobile’s Quad 4 engine was impressively powerful for its size. But it lacked refinement, the ageing N-Body platform lacked polish, and, perhaps most disastrously for the reinvented 442, the car lacked style. In a fashion-conscious segment, the Quad 442’s boxy, generic 1980s GM styling was a killer. This was borne out in sales figures, which show the more youthful-looking, HO Quad 4-equipped Grand Ams and Berettas sold considerably better.

The real sin here isn’t the use of the 442 name on a FWD, four-banger compact. To Oldsmobile’s credit, they were trying to make their performance heritage relevant in a new era of sport compacts and intense competition from the Japanese. And to GM’s credit, they produced a modern four-cylinder after years of Tech IVs and Iron Dukes, and it was an extremely powerful unit. But GM never sent the Quad 442 – or the other N-Body compacts – to finishing school, leaving it a car in search of greater refinement, more engaging handling, and a more attractive body.

Then there was also the thorny issue of Oldsmobile’s brand identity and cratering sales figures. What was Oldsmobile, again? Was it a purveyor of bargain basement yester-tech like the Cutlass Ciera? Was it the home of upscale full-size sedans like the 88 LSS and Ninety-Eight? Of all of GM’s brands, Oldsmobile had the most jumbled messaging and positioning.

The Quad 442 was replaced in 1992 by the Achieva SCX, which retained the special W41 tune of the Quad 4 engine. The N-Body mechanicals were much the same but were now draped in more modern, if polarizing, sheetmetal. But it took a few more years for GM to refine the Quad 4 engine, by which time Oldsmobile simply gave up on selling sporty compacts.

Related Reading:

Vintage Review: 1985 Oldsmobile Calais Supreme – GM Deadly Sin #26 – Car And Driver Predicts Death

Curbside Unicorns: The Sporty FWD Oldsmobiles of the 1980s

Top 10 Obscure Special Editions and Forgotten Limited-Run Models: Oldsmobile Edition, Part I