PETIT JEAN, Arkansas — Twisting down a narrow string of blacktop etched into ramparts of Petit Jean Mountain overlooking the Arkansas River Valley, a prototype edition of a new compact coupe cuts clean lines through curves at a quick clip without protest from tires.
Through these cliff-bound esses, the tester maintains a flat and stable position with little concession to lateral forces of motion and virtually no body roll, the result of a stiffly braced unibody structure with independent suspension components installed at all corners.
Steering, firm but responsive due to a rack-and-pinion arrangement, feels tight and precise, like an import.
Throttle power, lurking beneath the right foot pedal, proves too much for the curves on Petit Jean and requires reins now and then through the left pedal, which links to four disc brakes and an on-board computer with wheel-spin sensors to regulate wheel lock and traction controller.
Coming off the mountain on Highway 154 into flats along the Petit Jean River, speed builds on long rural straights, with tires seemingly glued to road. This one glides over rough spots of irregular pavement and settles down to click off some fast travel miles.
In an ongoing assessment, the car clearly possesses the poise and manners of imports, yet a check of lineage shows it comes from the ranks of General Motors.
Call it Alero. In coupe and sedan styles, it replaces Achieva as high-volume compact in Oldsmobile's fleet.
Built on a long and broad new chassis and equipped with independent suspension plus disc brakes with standard anti-lock and traction control, Alero exhibits clean and distinct exterior lines and has an interior laced with perks for comfort and convenience in the manner of Japanese cars. It mimics imports so well, in fact, that you cannot tie any Alero behavior to the loosey-goosey action of Achieva.
1999 Oldsmobile Alero
EMULATING THE IMPORTS
Emulating imports was no accident in Alero's development, as the car obviously aims at those who favor foreign wheels. From the outset, designers benchmarked several Japanese cars for performance, ride quality and handling, comfort and styling characteristics, then created a new kind of Oldsmobile to match or exceed those vehicles in the various selective areas.
Consider it the latest evidence of a product revolution occurring at Oldsmobile, which at the beginning of the 1990s appeared to be withering with sagging sales due to too many aging clone cars shared by other GM brands. Since introduction of the Aurora flagship four years ago, however, new domestically produced Oldsmobiles, like the midsize Intrigue sedan, measure up to the best imports coming ashore from Europe and Asia.
Alero confirms Oldsmobile's product revolution and prompts a re-evaluation of conceptions about the way that these cars handle.
"Beginning with the exterior form, we wanted an uncluttered but distinct design for Alero which sets it apart from all else and signals that this isn't just another car out of a GM mold," says Alero's chief designer, Kip Wasenko, who tagged along during several test drives.
Initial plans for Alero called for a car fashioned from the same structure as Chevrolet's Malibu sedan, but Wasenko confided that overall dimensions and shape of such a family car did not work with the type of dynamic and sporty lines he hoped to achieve with Alero. Thus, Wasenko proposed a switch to a lower platform — the one supporting Oldsmobile's Cutlass sedan — and the ultimate fluid lines evident on Alero trace to that switch.
Alero looks rakishly sporty, with its wedge-shaped profile and a low-slanted prow marked by twin aero-style headlamps and a smooth wrap of color-keyed bumper.
The windshield tilts back dramatically as a flat roof caps at the sharp angle of strong C pillars followed by a curt tail. Bodyside bulges and big tires contribute to the statement of sportiness.
1999 Oldsmobile Alero
Alero's 107-inch wheelbase length implies a compact-size platform, although the interior feels and functions more like a midsize model.
It also packs aboard a long list of class-leading features, including an automatic transaxle, but for prices that seem extremely competitive.
The entry-edition Alero GX as coupe or sedan with four-cylinder engine, for instance, reaches market for figures that hold below $17,000, while the top GLS edition with V-6 engine goes for less than $21,000.
Alero GX contains conveniences typically listed as options, like air conditioning, front bucket seats separated by a center console, analog instruments including tachometer, a tilting steering column, and stereo sound.
Anti-lock brakes appear as a standard safety feature for all models, as do dual airbags and daytime running lights.
In addition, the four-speed automatic transaxle standard on all variations adds Oldsmobile's Enhanced Traction System (ETS) to check wheel slippage and maintain steady traction.
Alero draws from an improved four-cylinder base engine.
The General Motors plant packs twin cams on top with revised camshaft timing and enlarged displacement to 2.4 liters. These changes increase midrange torque for better launch and more lively action in lower gears, and they also boost fuel efficiency.
Alero's base engine produces 150 hp, but torque runs to 155 foot-pounds at 4400 rpm and fuel numbers bump to 30 mpg.
The 3.4-liter V-6, beefed up to 170 hp, scores as excellent low-cost option at base GX and a plush GL edition, but it's standard for Alero GLS.
Engine and front suspension components mount to a full-frame front chassis cradle that isolates motor vibrations and tames road harshness.
All Aleros ride on a new independent suspension system that uses MacPherson struts up front with lower control arms and a tri-link design in back with solid stabilizer bar to check body sway.
For sporty performance, the GLS coupe offers an optional sport suspension package with stiffer springs and struts, plus aggressive Goodyear Eagle touring tires. With this hardware, Alero becomes a serious performer without suffering a harsh ride.
In any form, Alero brings slick styling lines, a lot of standard features, and fair prices. The fact that it's also responsive and fun to drive moves it ahead of many imports.