Curbside Classic: 1997 Oldsmobile Aurora – Waiting To Exhale

(first posted 4/4/2017)     Apple. Converse. Ray-Ban. Old Spice. Tina Turner. Throughout history, numerous struggling “brands”, including the aforementioned, have successfully reinvented themselves, staging successful comebacks through innovation, and saving themselves from the brink of obscurity. Sadly, Oldsmobile was not one of them.

Although various attempts were made at bringing new life and meaning to Oldsmobile, in what would prove to be its final years, whatever plans and goals for the brand ultimately went unrealized, and Oldsmobile continued its slide from relevance right up until the end in 2004.

Beyond efforts made to boost Oldsmobile’s appeal to younger import buyers, there just wasn’t any clear direction or intent for what the brand was supposed to become or who its target competition was. To make matters worse, in-house competition was fiercer than ever, as the boundary lines between GM’s growing plethora of brands were as ambiguous as ever. GM simply was selling too many similar flavors of the same car in the same segments, with little reason to purchase one brand over another. With the most muddled image, Oldsmobile was undoubtedly hurt most by this.

The single most powerful effort at bringing new life and meaning to the Oldsmobile brand somewhat ironically failed to even bear the Oldsmobile name, a possible indicator of just how volatile the Oldsmobile nameplate was by this point. Marketed as “Aurora, by Oldsmobile”, it was indeed a major game changer for the brand, though unfortunately it proved to be just too little, too late.

What’s even more bittersweet about the Aurora was that it was truly a successful example of taking an intriguing concept and putting it into production with few compromises. Its design based on the 1989 Oldsmobile Tube Car, the Aurora stayed relatively true to form, unlike so many captivating GM concepts of the era.

In both theory and execution, the Aurora was truly an exciting expression of innovation and new life for the Oldsmobile brand, which had clearly been ailing and in denial about it for some time. Despite its seemingly “good times” in the early-to-mid 1980s, Oldsmobile’s high sales volume during this era was largely attributed to the cautious reapplication of qualities that gave it success in the 1970s. Unfortunately, as Olds found out, these themes could only be photocopied so much.

Once the popular quiet status symbols of so many middle-class Americans, by the late-1980s/early-1990s, it became very clear that qualities such as loose-pillow seats, vinyl roofs, and wire wheels had become blasé. European and Japanese brands had become decidedly mainstream and were still growing in popularity, and without any unique or redeeming qualities, Oldsmobile simply lacked appeal.

With little drawing new buyers to the brand, let alone retaining current owners, and an aging current customer base regardless, Olds was in serious trouble. Even having trouble retaining current owners such as my aunt Kathy, a 3-time repeat Oldsmobile buyer who switched to Toyota in 1992 and never looked back, Oldsmobile was in desperate need of new products and a new marketing strategy.

The whole marketing strategy of targeting younger buyers may seem counter-intuitive to some, as after all, middle-aged to senior adults typically have greater financial stability, with greater disposable income allowing them to purchase larger, more expensive automobiles. While this may be true, brands must think long-term in order to survive.

If you alienate the younger potential consumers, even if they are a few years away from affording your core product, then you’re not gaining any new business. The truth is, people don’t like to look or feel older than they are, and as a result, few will purchase a product that makes them appear this way. It’s a very fine line to walk, and unfortunately, Oldsmobile failed to bring in younger consumers while somewhat alienating its older customers in the process with its ill-fated “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” ad campaign.

Furthermore, this was only part of the equation. As stated, in-house competition from other “core” GM brands was fiercer than ever. Despite this and its continuous loss of market share, GM was adding and acquiring additional brands including Saturn, Saab, and Geo, making things even more complicated and bleak for Oldsmobile. Regardless of any “brand image” Olds had by this point, in reality it was competing against every GM brand from Chevrolet to Cadillac, and everything in-between and beyond.

For Oldsmobile, the Aurora wasn’t just a breath of fresh air… it was like a high-strength inhaled steroid. Looking like no other car within Oldsmobile’s or even GM’s broad lineup, the Aurora’s sharp, sleek, and sculpted styling helped set it apart in a crowded field of luxury-sports sedans. Which brings up the important point that the Aurora had a much clearer mission in life than anything else sold at Oldsmobile dealers in some time.

Unfortunately, the Aurora’s mission in life just wasn’t clear enough. At 205.4-inches long, the “midsize” Aurora was lengthier than flagship sedans including the Infiniti Q45, Lexus LS, and even the long-wheelbase Mercedes S Class and BMW 7 Series. Along with its coupe-like styling, frameless windows, V8 sending power through the front wheels, this sporty-luxury American touring sedan lacked any direct competitor, confusing buyers even more to what this pseudo-sub branded Oldsmobile was supposed to be.

The Aurora’s competition covered a broad spectrum, from smaller cars within its price class to similarly-sized vehicles of similar or higher prices, coming from Europe, Asia, and North America. Though it was neither the quickest nor the most luxurious, neither the tautest handler nor the most tech-laden, the stylish and high-content Aurora was an all-around competitive luxury-sports sedan, offering proficiency in these key areas and more importantly, a firmer vision of Oldsmobile’s possible future.

The Aurora was in fact very Japanese in approach, offering contemporary, organic styling, a well-crafted interior using components of high quality fit-and-finish (arguably the best of any GM car of that time, even more so than any Cadillac), and a lengthy list of standard features with few available options. Whether or not it was most frequently cross-shopped with these cars, in truth, the midsize to large cars from Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti were the Aurora’s closest competition.

Technically speaking, the Aurora rode on a new GM-G platform derived from the Cadillac Seville’s K-platform, and the 4-door-only Aurora’s sole platform mate was the reincarnated 2-door-only Buick Riviera. Like the Seville, both the Aurora and Riviera were transverse-engined, front-wheel drive cars, riding on 113.8-inch wheelbases (2.8 inches longer than the Seville’s).

Unlike the Riviera, which made do with Buick’s ubiquitous 3800 Series 3.8L V6 (in both naturally-aspirated and supercharged versions), the Aurora received an exclusive Cadillac Northstar-derived 4.0L V8 shared with no other car. Code-named the L47, the Aurora V8 put out a very impressive for the era 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft torque.

Now unlike most GM cars of the era, designers did not go overboard with raiding the corporate parts bin for the Aurora. Exterior and interior door handles, along with side mirrors were shared with its Buick Riviera platform mate, yet beyond these elements, just about everything in sight about the Aurora was quite exclusive. Underneath the unique sheetmetal covering its distinctive silhouette, the Aurora welcomed drivers with an ultra-cockpit interior layout, so heavily sculpted that the passenger air vent was located on the side of the center stack!

Apart from the radio, steering wheel, and Mercedes-like power front seat controls shared with other large Oldsmobiles, just about everything else one saw, touched, and sat on was exclusive to the Aurora. This included minor details such as distinctive HVAC controls/vents, gear shift lever, and front bucket seat design. Rich genuine burled walnut accents complemented the beautiful interior, adding warmth and dapperness.

Unfortunately, whatever high-strength steroid qualities it may have had, the Aurora turned out not to be a steroid that was performance-enhancing for Oldsmobile. Oldsmobiles that came after it were clearly influenced by the Aurora, but in most cases this was limited to styling. The Aurora may have had a specific positioning as an upscale, import-fighting luxury sports sedan, but Oldsmobiles that followed lacked the same premium levels to make them any imaginable Acura/Lexus/Infiniti competitor, and rightfully were not positioned so.

Despite new looks and new names, the process was still the same — Oldsmobiles like the Alero, Intrigue, Silhouette, and Bravada were merely different sets of clothes on a common car shared with other GM divisions. In the end, the Aurora’s impact was little more than that of a concept car put into production.

Oldsmobile was ailing, rapidly losing health, but then came the Aurora. Everyone held their breath, not entirely sure of what to make of it or what it would do for Oldsmobile. Would the Aurora be an overnight success, instantly becoming a household name? Would it be the halo car Oldsmobile needed to restore its prominence and bring buyers back into showrooms? Would future Oldsmobiles benefit from the Aurora’s luxury-performance nature? Would a whole separate line of Aurora luxury vehicles supplement or even replace Oldsmobile?

Ultimately, it soon became clear that a sigh of relief for the brand was not to come. Following the initial hype and extended introductory year of impressive sales, Aurora sales, general interest in the car, and even Olds’ promotion of it fell flat. Oldsmobile may have experienced an artistic revival in styling influenced by the Aurora, but its overall brand sales and market share continued their decline and fall.

Quite literally meaning “dawn” in some contexts, Aurora was an impressing and promising car that represented a true glimmer of hope for the future of Oldsmobile. Unfortunately, for a number of contributing reasons, it just wasn’t the spectacular sunrise that Oldsmobile needed and other Oldsmobiles did little to offer any greater rays of light.

Related Reading:

1991 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight (GM Deadly Sin)

1998 Oldsmobile Bravada

1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue

2001 Oldsmobile Alero

2001 Oldsmobile Aurora