(first posted 9/3/2015) It’s unfortunate that GM has a history of giving brands some of their best cars in the years right before the automaker goes ahead and discontinues that brand. They did it to Pontiac with the G8, Saab with the first new 9-5 in over a decade, and Saturn with not only the Aura, but basically its whole final-year lineup. Oldsmobile’s final years were also stricken with this rather tragic syndrome, with vehicles like the Alero showing great promise, only to die when Olds shut its doors in 2004.
Arriving for the 1999 model year, the compact Alero was one of several new models under Oldsmobile’s Centennial Plan, meant to inject new life into the ailing brand. Along with the larger Intrigue and Aurora, the Alero was targeted at the import buyer, and given very modern and un-Oldsmobile-like styling. The styling was clean and simplistic enough to have broad appeal, yet expressive enough to turn heads a bit, much like many of the import cars it competed with.
Whether or not it achieved many import conquest sales or helped lower the average Oldsmobile buyer’s age is another story, but the Alero certainly had the qualities to at least appeal to these buyers. There were also strong visual ties to the Intrigue and Aurora, adding to a brand unity that was important for rebuilding Olds’ image.
Unlike its platform-mate, the Pontiac Grand Am, the Oldsmobile Alero eschewed the plastic body cladding, black-mask effect taillights, and very racy-inspired interior for a more minimalist look inside and out. This wasn’t to say the Alero was generic-looking though. It still sported a somewhat aggressive front fascia, with a grille-less “bottom breather” nose, slim headlights, and large lower air intakes.
Flared wheel arches, a wide track and a sharp belt-line contributed to an athletic stance. Around back, designers gave it large “jeweled” taillights with the obligatory “international” amber turn signals. Along with the deck lid’s integrated spoiler, it made for a rather elegant look. Many Aleros also included an optional wing spoiler, for a slightly sportier appearance. Unlike most cars in its class, the Alero still offered a 2-door coupe, although sales predictably paled in comparison to the sedan. This 2001 GLS is one of just 4,795.
As stated, there was no lower body cladding à la Pontiac, but Aleros did receive a rather attractive lower body groove along their sides and bumpers for some tasteful flair. Especially with available alloy wheels, the Alero was an overall pleasing car to the eyes. It had the contemporary and inoffensive looks desired by buyers in this class, along with a few upscale and sporty cues to stand out a bit, at least in its earlier years.
Inside, the Alero’s interior largely echoed that of the Intrigue in design and materials. This meant an organically shaped, driver focused layout, along with neutral color schemes, two-tone darker upper and lighter lower dash and door panels, and supportive front buckets in either attractive premium cloth or available leather.
Admittedly, there were some cheap plastics, but the Alero was about on par with most cars in its class, including many Japanese vehicles. Furthermore, when compared to the Achieva and Cutlass it replaced, and even the Grand Am, the Alero’s interior represented a vast improvement, having a far more upscale and quality feel to it.
While the Alero was a stylistic marvel in comparison to the decrepit Achieva, its improvements were not merely skin-deep. With the Alero, engineers made extensive use of aluminum in suspension and brake components for reduced weight and better handling. The Alero now featured a fully independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, along with standard anti-lock brakes, traction control, and touring suspension. The top-line GLS model gained the 16-inch polished aluminum wheels seen here, riding on wider (225 mm) times.
Powertrain choices for the Alero were competitive and an improvement over its predecessors. Throughout its run, the Alero was available with either four or six cylinder power, each with their own dedicated four-speed automatic transmissions. A Getrag-sourced five-speed manual was available with I4 beginning for the 2000 model year. Throughout its entire run, the Alero’s optional engine was the LA4 3.4L V6 making 170 horsepower and 200 pound-foot of torque.
The base engine was initially the LD9 2.4L I4 making 150 horsepower and 155 pound-foot of torque. The LD9 was the final version of GM’s Quad Four engine family of engines that never quite achieved perfection. This version in particular was prone to early failure, and was subsequently replaced with the more modern 2.2L Ecotec I4 in 2002, whose output was 140 horsepower and 150 pound-foot of torque.
Initial sales of the Alero were strong, with it quickly becoming Oldsmobile’s annual best-selling model. With annual sales typically topping 100,000 units, this was a title the Alero held for the remainder of Oldsmobile’s existence. Unfortunately, like many GM cars, the Alero suffered from a lengthy single generation with little in the way of updates during its lifetime. Oldsmobile actually built several concept models based on the Alero, including a convertible and high-performance versions, but sadly these never made it to production.
Despite its classification as a compact car, externally, the Alero’s dimensions were far closer to contemporary mid-sized cars such as the Chrysler Cirrus, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima (the latter two which Olds extensively benchmarked in its development of the Alero), than to traditional compacts, such as the Toyota Corolla. This put Oldsmobile in a somewhat odd position, as it already had the slightly larger Intrigue to compete in this segment.
The Alero was by no means a perfect car. Despite numerous structural and mechanical improvements, it was still based on the N-body, which dated back to 1985. Quality and reliability were typical for a GM car of this era, which isn’t necessarily saying a lot. Although strides were taken to make the Alero more “import competitive”, there were some areas where it still lacked the refinement found in Japanese rivals. As one review put it, the best way to describe the Alero was “average”.
Notwithstanding these flaws, the Alero was still a very class-competitive vehicle (at least when it was introduced), one of GM’s most successful attempts to date to produce a small car that could hold its own against Japanese imports, and possibly the best small car Oldsmobile ever sold. Compared to its predecessors, the Alero was a significantly improved car, and a promising preview more exciting things to come for Oldsmobile. Unfortunately, GM’s decision to phase out Oldsmobile killed any chance of this optimistic future. Alero production officially ended on April 29, 2004, making it the last Oldsmobile ever built.
It is interesting to think what might have become of the Alero and Oldsmobile, had GM kept them alive. The Alero likely would’ve been redesigned in 2005 or 2006, moving to Epsilon platform along with the Grand Am’s successor, the G6. In fact, it’s probable that the car which became the Saturn Aura would’ve either been the next generation Alero or Intrigue. Even more intriguing is what could have become of the Aurora, especially if it was moved further upmarket in its second generation as originally planned, and not downsized to the initial Eighty-Eight successor. Maybe a few years of cars with greater distinction from other GMs would’ve been enough value proposition to save Oldsmobile from the chopping block in 2009. Or, more wishfully thinking, maybe Oldsmobile would’ve found an international buyer. Food for thought though.