CC Capsule: 1997-99 Oldsmobile Cutlass – Time To Sheathe The Sword

For a company that was touting the use of unique designs amongst its divisions, the ’97 Cutlass was a relapse back into blatant badge engineering that arrived just in time for Oldsmobile’s centennial. Ostensibly a replacement for the Cutlass Ciera, the Cutlass – yes, just Cutlass – siphoned away sales from Oldsmobile’s existing compact and mid-size offerings, much like its predecessor had.

The Cutlass Ciera had undermined its supposed replacement, the Cutlass Supreme, throughout the first half of the 1990s. Now it was time for this rebadged Malibu to do the same to the Intrigue, one of Oldsmobile’s new, make-or-break models. Priced from $18-20k, the Cutlass slipped into the narrow price band that existed between the ageing Achieva ($15-17k) and Cutlass Supreme ($19-21k), both of which were retired after 1997. The dashboard was changed slightly from the Malibu, while exterior tweaks were limited to taillights, grille, badging and wheels. The Malibu’s four-cylinder engine was not available, Oldsmobile offering only the 3.1 V6 in base and GLS trims.

In fairness, the Cutlass was probably only ever intended as a stopgap. While the ’92-vintage N-Body Pontiac Grand Am was sold right up until its replacement arrived in 1999, its companions the Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Achieva were withdrawn earlier–all 1998 Achievas were sold to fleets. This meant the Cutlass served as an indirect, interim replacement for the Achieva for one year, as well as a replacement for the Ciera.

Cutlass sales were nothing to write home about. Fewer than 20,000 units were produced for 1997, but that was because Malibu/Cutlass production was just starting. For the first full year on the market, 52,864 Cutlass sedans were produced. That was better than the Achieva had, ahem, achieved in 1997, and almost as good as the Cutlass Supreme’s numbers that year. But it was about half what the decrepit Ciera had managed in 1996, and the Ciera had done so with both the Achieva and Cutlass Supreme selling alongside.

While the new ’98 Intrigue was priced slightly higher than the Cutlass Supreme, there was still little breathing room for the Cutlass. Once the new N-Body Alero arrived in 1999, the Cutlass was looking more redundant than ever–1998 had been the only year it didn’t overlap with two different models. GM must have realized the danger to the Intrigue of having a car in Olds showrooms that was almost as big as the Intrigue, looked as nice inside, had a V6 standard, and cost less. The Cutlass wasn’t as fun to drive as the Intrigue, as it didn’t receive the same kind of new Oldsmobile ‘import-fighter’ suspension tuning as the Alero, Intrigue and Aurora. It also lacked the refinement of the Camry and Accord. For most buyers though, especially those who would’ve purchased a new Ciera, the Cutlass was good enough.

The Cutlass was retired after 1999 and the Oldsmobile lineup now appeared a more cohesive whole, while the Intrigue was finally rid of some internal competition (the Eighty-Eight was also retired that year). Alas, the Intrigue’s reprieve and the division’s harmony was short-lived as GM announced the shuttering of the division shortly thereafter. Although the Bravada SUV and Silhouette minivan were simple rebadges, Oldsmobile’s final sedan lineup was uniquely differentiated from their GM platform-mates and were thoroughly “on message”. Fortunately, the last Oldsmobile passenger cars made weren’t lazy rebadges like the Cutlass.

White Cutlass photographed near Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.

Gray Cutlass photographed in Long Island City, Queens, NY. 

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 2002 Chevy Malibu – The Truth Hertz

Curbside Classic: 1998-2002 Oldsmobile Intrigue – Oldsmobile’s Last Best Hope

My Curbside Classic: 1993 Oldsmobile Achieva SC – Underachieva

Curbside Classic: 1989-96 Buick Century & Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera – Sheer Frustration