Curbside Classics: 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser & 1996 Buick Century Wagon – Separated By Ten Years And A Few Hundred Yards


(first posted 12/5/2016)     It blows my mind that ten years separate the dates in which these car were brand new, as they are essentially the exact same car, save for a few unique trim details. Even more astounding is that a grand total of 14 years (1982-1996) separates the model years of the very first GM A-bodies with the very last. In essence, someone could’ve bought a new GM A-body the year their child was born, and another brand new, yet very little changed one the same year that child was entering high school.


Wagons did not arrive until 1984, continuing through the A-body’s final 1996 model year, making them GM’s last midsize three-row station wagons sold in North America.


Lacking neither exceptional strengths nor glaring flaws, the GM A-bodies received their fair share of criticism upon launch for their very homogeneous looks and only minimal detailing to separate a Chevrolet from Pontiac from Oldsmobile from Buick version. The wagon bodystyle was even less distinctive among divisions, as there was no unique rear clip to provide any further distinguishing characteristics.


Although they weren’t horrible looking cars for their time, so long as you don’t mind their Malaise Era boxy genericism, even by the late-1980s and especially the 1990s, the A-bodies were looking incredibly outdated and archaic. Just imagine if Chrysler was still pushing fuselage New Yorkers in 1983, or if Ford was selling the vintage-1996 oval Taurus in 2010? Pretty remarkable.


The buying demographic of the A-bodies definitely skewed older as time went on, something evidenced by GM’s decision to keep the Oldsmobile and Buick versions around, even after more modern W-body sedans arrived in 1990. Of course, only the A-bodies offered a wagon, and one that could seat up to 8 at that.

1986-oldsmobile-mid-size-1-16-17(Coincidentally, exactly like our featured car)

With only 92 horsepower and 135 lb-ft torque coming from its 2.5L Iron Duke inline-4, I can only how much of a struggle hauling eight passengers around in this Cutlass Cruiser was, even considering that the average person was generally a bit leaner in the 1980s.


By the time this 1996 Century Special Edition (all Century’s carried the “Special Edition” moniker for the car’s swansong season) rolled off the assembly line, a 3.1L V6 producing a much healthier 160 horsepower and 185 lb-ft torque was available, and is present in this particular vehicle.


Apart from a few engine upgrades and the simplification of trim and equipment levels, not much else went into the A-body Century and Cutlass Ciera over the many years. Offering little in the way of new or noteworthy features, final year cars were about as exciting as first year cars, just with less mileage and rust.


Quality did improve over the years, as it does with most cars. Practice makes perfect I guess, although that’s not to say that late-model A-bodies weren’t without imperfections. Common trouble spots included oil leaks, engine misfires, and transmission issues including dropping out of drive and erratic shifting.


Organizations such as JD Power gave them high marks, though in all seriousness, JD Power’s initial quality rankings are based on surveys sent out to owners that primarily ask questions along the lines of “are the controls easy to use”. Well, if you’re on your fifth of the exact same car, of course you’d know how to use the controls by now!


Now I’m just going to dodge this bullet early, because there will undoubtedly be an A-body fan here or there who’ll argue that these are the greatest cars of all time and they still should be making them. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but my response to this claim is that the money which would have been required to modernize the A-body up to competitive standards would’ve been astronomical to the point of not being worth it at all, and in the end, you’d still be stuck with the A-body’s fundamental limitations.


Sure, these were adequate cars for the early 1980s, but by the 1990s, they were horribly outdated and uncompetitive. Styling and features aside, the A-bodies lacked most of the safety features and crash-worthiness of their more modern stablemates and competitors.


Furthermore, the decade-and-a-half old X-car based platform was really showing its age in inferior ride quality and everyday handling compared to nearly every other midsize sedans, all of which were substantially newer and stiffer. With an unforgiving chassis and poor grip from narrow tires giving to a bouncy, floaty ride, the A-bodies just couldn’t compete with more modern competitors.


In many ways, the most crucial deficiency was that by utilizing the same platform and body shell, the A-bodies did not allow for any increases in interior space — something increasingly becoming a losing battle for the A-bodies in the face of the ever growing midsize competitor, both in-house and among other automakers.


Legally, the A-body sedans could seat 6, and the wagons 8 with the optional 3rd row rear-facing seat. But let’s face it, unless you were hauling a carload of skinny cross country runners, fitting three abreast was not a comfortable situation in a car with a width less than that of a modern Corolla. For what it’s worth, I did ride with five other cross country teammates to meet in high school in a ’96 Ciera, and we did fit somewhat comfortably, but of course, that’s a very unique situation.


Ultimately, 1996 was the end of the line for the A-body, and it was finally replaced in full by the W-body, seven years after the sedans first arrived. Certainly outliving their original purpose and more, the A-bodies were nonetheless a successful vehicle as far as sales went, even if they were somewhat of a dirty little secret by their demise.


However, the fact that GM was still selling an early-1980s car in the mid-1990s is somewhat embarrassing. It’s even more embarrassing that the A-bodies were probably better vehicles than many of their newer stablemates. You wouldn’t want to buy the same mobile phone, computer, or TV that came out 14 years ago, would you?

Photographed: Hanover, MA – November 2016