Curbside Classic: 1995-2001 Chevrolet Lumina – Lights Out

(first posted 12/1/2017)       While developing the 1996 Taurus, Ford engineers purchased a Toyota Camry and took it apart to find out what made it such a superbly-built vehicle. Careful attention was paid to the smallest of details, right down to the screws and the panel gaps. The fresh new Taurus, even in base model guise, came standard with thoughtful touches like folding rear seats and solar glass windows, surprise-and-delight features that came out of a lengthy research and development period and were intended to please discerning Accord and Camry buyers.

For 1995, however, Chevrolet just put a new body on their five year-old Lumina and called it a day.

GM had haemorrhaged cash and efforts were being undertaken in the early 1990s to stem the tide of red ink onto the company’s balance sheets. Cost-cutting was an inevitable step to restore profitability to the beleaguered giant and few cars suffered more than the Lumina (and its Monte Carlo coupe sibling) during this period of cost-cutting. It wasn’t so much that content was removed from the car but, rather, that very little was changed for what was supposed to be a new generation.

There were positive additions, mind you. The structure had been stiffened somewhat, making the car feel more solid on the road. Dual airbags were belatedly added to the Lumina line, something that by 1994 had become a glaring omission in the previous model. The styling was also much more contemporary than the last Lumina, a car that had effectively used a sketched design from the early/mid-1980s. While the ’90 Lumina wasn’t a bad-looking car, arguably its worst design cue – the squared-off wheel arches – were still carried over to the ’95.

One look inside the car was enough to tell you GM wasn’t trying to mimic the Camry or Accord. The first-generation didn’t exactly have a world-class cabin but it certainly had a distinctive design. Where it suffered was in ergonomics, with hard-to-read gauges and hard-to-reach controls. GM fixed that with the ’95 Lumina but they also cursed it with arguably the ugliest interior produced by the company during the 1990s. It had all the cheap, scratchy, hard plastics of a Cavalier or Camaro but with a design that didn’t even try to look expensive. The center stack lacked any kind of accenting or contrasting elements and instead looked like some kind of Fisher-Price play set painted a drab gray (or beige). And GM’s build quality still wasn’t great in the mid-1990s, so you couldn’t make the practical argument that it was “hardy” and would “wear well”. No, it looked and felt like crap and would probably age poorly too.

To a family sedan buyer or, more likely, a fleet purchaser, the Lumina was still an enticing choice. For just over $16,000 (before incentives), you could get a base model 1996 Lumina with standard dual airbags, air-conditioning, automatic transmission and power locks. That was almost $2k less than the new Taurus.

For an extra $1k, GM’s 3.4 Twin Dual Cam V6 was an option, producing 210 hp and 215 ft-lbs of torque, an increase of 50 hp and 30 ft-lbs over the venerable, standard-fit 3.1 V6. That was some good performance, although the 3.4 was louder, somewhat underwhelming low in the rev range and less reliable. All Luminas also were engineered to understeer safely and provide little in the way of steering feel. Driving excitement wasn’t the name of the game here, however, and to the Lumina’s credit the car had a commendably smooth ride and a relatively hushed cabin.

Tellingly, GM touted the Lumina’s new value pricing. This was a family sedan that was designed to sell on price, not one that had been designed to be a better car than the hot-selling Camry, Accord, or Taurus. For undemanding buyers, the value ploy worked. Unlike the last generation, which generally sold between 150,000 and 200,000 units a year, give or take, the “new” Lumina sold between 200,000 and 225,000 units a year. That was a decent bump – especially considering coupe sales were now reported separately – but it was still around half of what the Taurus was achieving.

GM had cheapened out and taken the 1990s Kia route – old product, low price – with the highest-volume passenger car from its highest-volume brand, and they still couldn’t beat the pricier, controversially-styled Taurus. And, realistically, they shouldn’t have been zeroing in exclusively on their hometown rival anymore. The Camry and Accord had seen a meteoric rise to the top of the sales charts and their popularity showed absolutely no signs of abating. GM appeared to be targeting Buick and Oldsmobile products at Honda buyers, leaving Chevrolet at the bottom of the totem pole to appeal to bargain buyers. Even then, GM had muddied the waters by retaining blue-light special models like the Buick Century. This was a corporation that still offered the same number of models as it did when it had twice the market share, and a corporation that insisted on giving each brand a full line of vehicles.

The company clearly needed a wake-up call, something that didn’t really happen until the next decade. Chevrolet models tended to be decontented to make sure they weren’t as “nice” as Pontiacs and Buicks and Oldsmobiles, a practice that continued well into the new century. Well, Toyota and Honda were doing just fine with two brands a piece and they didn’t have to worry about spreading marketing and development funds across multiple different brands. And GM’s attempts at creating different “import fighter” models showed they weren’t quite in touch with consumers. After all, was a Camry really that exotic and different and fun-to-drive?

Chevrolet launched a top-end Lumina LTZ in 1997 to help fill the void left by the departed Chevrolet Caprice and Impala SS. While it added niceties such as the old Twin Dual Cam 3.4 V6 as an option, as well as some styling tweaks and a firmer suspension tune, it made little sense for buyers to spend more money on a Lumina when rival brands, let alone GM’s other brands, offered a more cohesive package. The sales figures bear this out, too: in 1998, 208,627 Luminas were produced and a whopping 82% of those were the base model. Shoppers just didn’t see the point in paying more for the LTZ or even the mid-range LS.

After 1997, the Lumina had become the marque’s de facto full-size sedan. That didn’t sound completely ridiculous as, after all, the Lumina had always been awkwardly sized slightly larger than the Taurus, even though that hadn’t exactly translated into more interior room. But for 1997 as well, the Lumina would be joined by a new model wearing an old nameplate: Malibu.

This was Chevrolet’s attempt at targeting the Camry and Accord more directly and to better align the Chevy car range against Honda and Toyota’s, but the indirect result was lame duck status for the Lumina. The Malibu had a wheelbase just half an inch shorter, boasted more rear leg room, had the same 3.1 V6 (and an even more efficient base four-cylinder), a nicer interior, greater cargo volume, and superior dynamics. All the Lumina really had over the Malibu was a bench seat and a more powerful optional engine, which by now was GM’s well-regarded 3.8 V6. This engine swap, by the way, was one of the few changes made to the Lumina during its run and was a good one—although down 15 hp from the 3.4, it was more refined, reliable, torquey, and fuel-efficient.

The light was going out for the Lumina, something also demonstrated by GM’s introduction of re-engineered second-generation W-Body cars like the ’97 Buick Regal and Pontiac Grand Prix. These were bigger, with a wheelbase of 109 inches (110.5 in the Pontiac), and featured bolder styling and more resolved dynamics. This left the Lumina and Monte Carlo as what are now considered “Gen 1.5s”.

With the Malibu firmly ensconced as Chevy’s mid-size offering, the Lumina’s replacement – resurrecting another heritage nameplate, Impala – would increase in size and be positioned more distinctly as Chevy’s full-size model. The new Impala was introduced in 2000, however the Lumina lingered for that year with a reduced model range. As Chevrolet was wont to do, the car then saw a fleet-only year in 2001 before finally being put down.

If any GM brand suffered during the 1990s, it was Chevrolet. Trucks and sports cars aside, their range was uninspiring and any cars with flashes of greatness were left to wither. Much like the ’95 Cavalier, the Lumina was simply a lazy revision of an existing car masquerading as something fresh and new and selling almost entirely on its low price. The Lumina was truly a blue light special.

Lumina LTZ photographed in Inwood, Manhattan, NY in 2014; LS in Washington Heights, NY in 2017.

Related Reading:

CC 1997 Lumina: GM’s Deadly Sin #28 – The Re-Gifter

Curbside Classic: 1990-94 Chevrolet Lumina – Not Quite Saving The Best ‘Til Last

Curbside Classic: 1996-99 Ford Taurus – Making Over A Family Friend

CC: 1997-2003 Pontiac Grand Prix – Randy’s Here For Dinner And He Brought The Wild Turkey