Curbside Classic: 1985 Oldsmobile Toronado Caliente – Middle Ground Never Looked So Good


(first posted 11/29/2016)    General Motors has produced quite a few deadly sins, as well as numerous greatest hits.  Then there are the cars in between.  Neither trend-setting nor fatally flawed, these cars occupying the middle ground were nonetheless popular with their intended audience, sold in reasonably robust numbers, and were considered well-built for their times.  The 3rd generation Oldsmobile Toronado was just such a car.  It was average in many ways, but had enough flair and distinctiveness to succeed for seven years.  Had all of GM’s cars met those qualities, the company would have left the 1980s in far better shape than it did.

This particular car is a 1985 top-of-the-line Toronado Caliente, complete with every significant option that Olds offered at the time.  However, the 1985 models seem cloaked in a veil of sadness.  The very next model year marked one of GM’s greatest missteps in the form of the 1986 Toronado – a car that sent the Toronado nameplate and GM’s personal luxury offerings crashing to the ground.  But in 1985, the precipice ahead was not yet visible, and the Toronado was able to enjoy one final year as a popular car.  Let’s take a look at how it got there.


Oldsmobile’s Toronado needs little introduction, with the original 1966 model being one of the landmark cars of its decade.  With front-wheel drive, and the resulting flat interior floor, the ’66 Toronado was a technological marvel (or at least a curiosity) – and importantly, this technology was wrapped in a beautiful design.  But after the initial novelty wore off, sales dropped by about half for 1967.


For the remaining four years of the Toronado’s first generation, GM still emphasized the benefits of front-wheel drive and a flat floor (you can sit in the center like a lady!), but innovation clearly took a backseat to style.  Advocates for large front-wheel drive cars must have been dismayed that among GM’s E-platform coupes in the late 1960s, the rear-drive Buick Riviera outsold the front-drive Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado combined.


For its 2nd generation (1971-78), Toronado followed the general trends of the times – that is, it grew larger and more ornate.  Although it seemingly disregarded the classic and innovative design of the ’66 model, buyers didn’t care: Sales boomed for the early 2nd generation cars, though this boom was cut short by the energy crisis.  Still, over 267,000 were sold during an 8-year run.  By the late 1970s, General Motors’ downsizing efforts were in full swing, and the unchanged Toronado and Eldorado were briefly the largest cars in their respective GM divisions.


GM’s successive rounds of downsizing finally reached these personal luxury coupes for 1979.  The 3rd generation Toronado lost more than 900 lbs., 8” in wheelbase and a whopping 8.7” in width from its bloated predecessor.  But while exterior dimensions shrank, interior dimensions (except width) grew, particularly rear seat room, which benefited from the high, formal roofline.


The E-body coupes were GM’s only set of completely new cars for 1979.  In a break with the past, the Riviera joined the Toronado and Eldorado as front-drivers.  All three coupes shared the same 114” wheelbase, body-on-frame construction and most mechanicals.  While GM stressed the technological advancements of front-wheel drive and fully independent suspensions, there was little else that was unusually advanced about these cars.  The extreme diet due to downsizing was enough innovation for the time being.


All three E-body coupes received the same styling theme – a long(ish) hood followed by an unusual combination of a steeply raked windshield and a virtually vertical rear window.  The triplets also featured thick C-pillars of various shapes.


The three divisions’ offerings were most readily distinguished by their front and rear clips, and it was here that Toronado showed some design continuity with the 2nd generation cars.  Quad headlights situated over horizontal turn signals, a long and low rectangular grille with a painted strip atop it, and thin horizontal tail lights made the new car clearly identifiable as a Toronado – just on a 4/5ths scale compared to the previous year’s car.


From the outset, the Toronado was praised as being smooth and quiet, qualities highly valued in its market segment.  Performance improved as well – with more responsiveness and less understeer than its enormous predecessor (whose size was not particularly well suited to front-wheel drive).


Like most cars, the 3rd generation Toronado wound up being a compromise – distinctive but not daring, contemporary but not pioneering, elegant but not flamboyant.  In this case, GM hit the balance just right.  Sales of the 1979 Toronado doubled over that of the ’78 model.


Equally impressive is that sales of the 3rd generation Toronado remained strong during its entire 7-year lifespan.  Four of the Toronado’s top six all-time sales years occurred during the 3rd generation, and altogether 300,000 Toronados rolled off the Linden, New Jersey production line between 1979 and 1985.  In its final year of 1985 alone, over 42,000 Toronados found homes.


During those seven model years, the car itself changed very little.  Engine availability and options evolved, but the overall design remained so similar that it takes a dedicated Oldsmophile to spot the differences between individual years.  The car pictured above is from 1983, but it would look perfectly at home in a 1979 or 1985 showroom.  Grille design is the best way to estimate a 3rd generation Toronado’s year, as the car sported 4 different grilles in its 7 years.


Our featured car is a 1985 top-line Caliente model.  The Caliente was offered only in 1984 and 1985, and featured brougham-level trim characteristic of its day.


A padded landau roof was accentuated by a stainless steel belt molding separating the padded and metal portions of the roof.  Further exterior brightwork on Caliente included rocker panel moldings and an extra chrome strip above the grille.


Foam-cushioned seats, simulated walnut woodgrain trim, and full power accessories greeted passengers in all Toronados.  Calientes added standard leather upholstery, an electronic instrument panel and a sporty leather-wrapped 3-spoke steering wheel that looked oddly out of place in a broughamy interior.

If potential buyers didn’t think that the Caliente spoke to them, then… well, maybe they weren’t listening closely enough.  Calientes came equipped with a “voice information reminder system.”  Yes, this is a talking car.  Unlike other examples of the talking-car-reminder era, Caliente’s system could be quite longwinded.  With some notifications, the system would describe the problem, its importance, and what should be done.  Such verbosity probably became quickly bothersome.


Toronado’s rear seat was spacious, though the small side windows provided a somewhat confining feel.


For 1985, two engines were offered – the 5-liter gas V-8 that this Caliente came with, and GM’s ill-fated 5.7-liter diesel.  The gas engine developed 140 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque, enough to give the Toronado satisfactory, but not exemplary acceleration.


But even the relatively modest engine was enough to outrun the very softly sprung suspension.  Toronados would float and sway in even routine handling maneuvers.  While Buick’s Riviera E-body offered the performance-oriented T Type, the only high-performance 3rd generation Toronado was the short-lived (1980-81) XSC.  Slow sales probably convinced Oldsmobile that its main market lay elsewhere.


Our featured car is a fully-equipped Toronado that included most major options, including the $2,195 Caliente package and the $1,195 astroroof.


Adding on to a base price of $16,798, this Toronado likely came with a sticker price of around $21,500 (around $48,000 in today’s dollars).  Compared to the mechanically-identical Cadillac Eldorado, it must have seemed like a great value.  $21,500 is just about where Eldorado pricing started – without leather upholstery, an astroroof, vinyl roof or wire wheel covers.  However, despite its higher price, Eldorado outsold Toronado by 50% during the 1979-85 model years.  In the personal luxury market, prestige could easily trump value.


Perhaps the scenario of being outsold by the costlier Eldorado prompted Oldsmobile to offer the upscale Caliente package in the first place.


Nevertheless, the Caliente’s presence in Oldsmobile showrooms didn’t dramatically affect sales – in the two years for which it was offered, Caliente accounted for just 14% of Toronado sales.  Our featured car is one of about 7,300 made for 1985.


Regardless of the 1985 Toronado’s attributes, it is often remembered in the context of its successor’s failures.  The 4th generation Toronado, which debuted just months after our featured car was produced, is often regarded as one of GM’s greatest disappointments.  Oldsmobile tried to convince buyers that annihilating tradition was a good thing, but buyers thought otherwise regarding the small and undistinguished newcomer.  Sales plunged by 62% in one year.


The 3rd generation Toronado seemed like an instant classic after the unpopular ’86 model was introduced.  It’s hard not to be wistful: Unlike its successor, this car had the panache needed to succeed in the personal luxury market.  Yes, the engine was somewhat weak, the technology dated, and the styling was seven years old.  But the Toronado still expressed itself confidently in 1985, and probably could have sold well for another year or two.


By most quantitative measurements, the 1985 Toronado was an average car.  But “average” can be a deceptive term: In the Toronado’s case, the car occupied a solid and desirable middle ground.  Sometimes the hard-to-measure aspects of a car matter the most, and the Toronado exemplifies that sentiment.  In this case, middle ground was beautiful.  Particularly in comparison to what followed.


Photographed in Lansing, Michigan in July 2016.


Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1979-85 Oldsmobile Toronado – The Forgotten E-Body   Robert Kim