(first posted 9/27/2014) Speaking positively of the GM10 platform is a hard sell given our well-informed audience and given the many well-documented reasons it was such a serious misstep in GM’s history. With that in mind, it might be beneficial to keep things simple, in precisely the way that The General could not (or would not) do. I therefore won’t try to convince anyone the cars riding on the initial generation of the platform were profitable, well-packaged or timely, because those are exactly the deficiencies which made them Deadly Sins for their parent. I have a much harder time denying that they were satisfying cars in many configurations, on the other hand. It’s all a matter of expectations.
It surely helps to have a better example to share with you guys. This Cutlass Supreme convertible is mostly there; it’s a first-generation car with the earlier interior, thereby avoiding some of the more glaring decontenting and vaguely defined plastic moldings which defined GM’s worst. The same techy glam which made the new-for-88 full-size truck interiors appealing is evident here. While that look went a bit overboard with CRT touch screens, steering wheel hubs absolutely covered in redundant controls and shared, console-mounted seat switches, it works well here. If you get the impression that little attention was paid to foreign or even domestic competition, you have the right idea; there’s real brashness on display, but a sense of occasion as well.
Outside, things aren’t as convincing; the ribbing on the growing plastic cladding seen here was making its slow progression to the puffy form it would take on the worst Pontiacs of the later ’90s. And white isn’t the most flattering shade to paint it. The earliest Cutlass Supremes and Grand Prix were actually quite clean, on the other hand, as were the Regal sedans (which are my favorite GM10s).
If one could find a well-preserved example to post, I’d be most appreciative; a lot of work was done differentiating the cars and keeping ornamentation to a minimum. That hood pressing and wraparound glass show honest effort and are truer to the original vision, something worth keeping in mind before trashing these cars.
I felt compelled to write something in the last Cutlass Supreme’s defense after concluding our rerun of the Cutlass Chronicles. A crushed, beige, post-facelift sedan is an excellent expression of the disappointment which marked the car’s run, but doesn’t necessarily highlight GM’s intentions very well.
In understanding and accepting these cars, it’s perhaps most relevant to make comparisons with what preceded them. As we remember the 1988-1997 Cutlass, it provided competition for the likes of the Taurus and Accord, etc. and GM did its best to further this impression. But ergonomic and dynamic characteristics reveal a very different mentality behind its conception, one seemingly rooted a decade or two behind that which defined the “mid-sized sedan” of the late ’80s. Unit body, transverse powertrains and front-wheel drive notwithstanding, these were meant to provide much of the same American flash their G-body predecessors offered and I’ve often felt they were quite successful by that (seemingly unintentional) metric.
It’s a good thing, then, that not too many were offered with four-cylinder power. Even given the output of the Quad-4, the soft, quiet character of these cars was best matched with lazier, bigger displacement engines. GM did a good job with its V6 powertrains by this point, especially once they had multi-port fuel injection, and even the initial 2.8 of 1988 and 1989 offered a relaxed power curve that made a good impression in regular use. Very valid complaints may be made against the maintenance requirements of the 3.4 liter “twin dual cam” 24-valver which powered some examples, but it offered a high-performance option which, when tied to four-speed automatic (that didn’t develop terminal illness at the same rates as those of their domestic contemporaries), offered much more than, say, Ford’s 3.8 liter Essex V6 could. If you’re going to blow head gaskets, you might as well have some fun in the process.
The sort of solid torque and smoothness these cars delivered with six cylinders was a GM strength and, if one considers the dark years of mid ’70s and early ’80s, a return to form. It’s testament to the GM10’s tortured development that such a wide variety of powerplants were adapted for use in the platform, but after so much criticism over cookie-cutter cars, the demand for varied styling and powertrains across four divisions seemingly had to be filled. The most suitable engine, the 3800, was reserved for Regal, where it was assumed its traditional nature would be better accepted. Again, a very big gap existed between the GM10 Cutlass’s market orientation and its fundamental qualities. Aiming Oldsmobile toward import buyers meant that, once GM figured out how to highlight its midsizers’ best qualities with the supercharged 3800 for the next generation model run, the Cutlass’s successor would once again miss out.
No attempt, then, to say that the final Cutlass Supreme could match the demands of the market the way the Taurus could (or the world-class qualities of the SHO). But there are reasons for liking these cars, and a number of their platform-mates, which have always been clear to me. As they were often sold with significant discounts, they offered a high-value way to a cushy, large-ish mid-sizer with a good number of options and competitive performance. These were isolated, heavy-feeling machines but such basic all-American appeal (as I understand it to exist in a family-friendly product) was increasingly uncommon outside of the full-size segment. Some of the final K-platform revisions at Chrysler aimed for something similar, but with a narrow, creaky feel and distinctly geriatric styling–and there’s a difference between traditional and hoary.
Ultimately, if we can approach the GM’s H and C bodies, the A-bodies, Chrysler’s K-cars, and even the ’96 Taurus with some degree of objectivity, must we be so tough on these somewhat oversized, ill-fated “mid-sizers?” They were late in coming and they weren’t what the market necessarily wanted (just who asked for a convertible?), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to appreciate them. Subtlety and restraint were never the name of the game here and I most definitely have always liked these cars, from the blatty note of their V6s, to their soft rides, their quiet interiors, their blue digital readouts and buttons galore. I’d be surprised if there aren’t a few GM10 fans on our pages who feel the same.