PASADENA, California — Cruising down the boulevard in a big American luxury sedan imparts a unique feeling of comfort for riders due to the smooth ride quality, but this particular car — a sporty rendition of the traditional full-size Oldsmobile Eighty Eight sedan — also packs a surprise beneath the hood. Tap its throttle and you'll feel a supercharged kick.
The sport-tuned LSS edition, with optional mechanical supercharger mounted on the 3.8-liter V-6, kicks output up to 240 hp and sets up a swift charger that's also rather thrifty on fuel.
The torque generated from this powerplant climbs dramatically through the supercharging process, but there's also more strength available earlier through the bottom gears, which translates to quicker action.
What's the point? Attaching a supercharger to a relatively small engine becomes an easy and economical way to supply more power to a car without messing up the fuel economy figures.
It's a simple mechanical idea. A blower driven by the engine forces more air into each of the engine's cylinders to enrich the mix of fuel and oxygen needed for combustion. This boost of air in turn generates more power with each cycle of ignition without requiring more fuel to do so.
Ultimately, it all relates to economy, for both price of entry and operation, and that's a prime asset of this traditional big Oldsmobile sedan. Yet current editions of Eighty Eight and LSS represent the end of an Oldsmobile line that traces back for 50 years.
The series commenced in 1949, when the fabled Rocket engine — the first high-compression V-8 for America — was paired with a midsize 80-series sedan. The 88 nameplate signified an 80 sedan coupled to the eight-cylinder Rocket engine. Following an intense advertising campaign that encouraged America to "make a date with the Rocket 88," the car quickly became Oldsmobile's best seller.
By the 1980s, Eighty Eight, like other platforms at General Motors, switched from rear-wheel drive to front-wheel-drive mode and received a more efficient V-6 powertrain. In 1992, the name changed to Eighty Eight Royale. The current designs actually trace to a 1992 remake, which stretched the length by 4 inches and also added width and height to carve out more cabin space and a larger trunk.
1999 Oldsmobile LSS
A face-lift in 1996 resulted in smoother exterior lines and less dependence on flashy chrome, although the package retained that traditional look of a GM sedan, with wedge-shaped profile, long hoodline and crimped tail. Subsequent changes simply enhanced the styling, as mechanical aspects also evolved in modern applications.
Next year, the Eighty Eight line will be replaced with a new design for the Olds Aurora bearing a six-cylinder engine, but in the interim, the Eighty Eight still ranks as an impressive premium sedan, delivering a smooth ride and lots of room in both cabin and trunk.
Variations include the base Eighty Eight with bench-style front seat, an LS upgrade with bucket seats and console in front, plus additional features like remote keyless entry and power exterior mirrors, and the LSS performance edition with 16-inch alloy wheels, leather seat upholstery and that optional supercharged engine.
Further, a 50th-anniversary edition adds special leather trimmings for seats, eight-way power for front bucket seats, a sound system with CD and cassette players, memory controls for exterior mirrors, variable-assist power steering, dual zone climate system, load-leveling suspension, and automatic day/night rearview interior mirror with a built-in digital compass.
The base Eighty Eight uses GM's 3800 Series II 3.8-liter V-6, now rated at 195 hp. In addition, all versions carry a smooth-to-shift four-speed automatic GM transmission.
What makes venerable Eighty Eight still viable today? It starts with a strong platform that's torsionally rigid to suppress rattles and long enough to stretch the wheelbase for that smooth ride sensation at highway speed.
Power-assisted rack and pinion steering produces quick responses when turning, and the power brakes — with front discs and rear drums, plus standard four-wheel anti-lock feature — stop it predictably. This year, the LSS gains variable-effort steering with magnetic torsion to raise or lower the effort required to steer. At lower speed, such as when parking, you'll feel less pressure, so the steering wheel moves easily, but at higher speed on a highway, pressure increases, so only a slight movement of the wheel turns the car quickly.
1999 Oldsmobile LSS
But can a big car like this behave itself on the road? A recent spin on twisty routes through the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County showed it certainly can. The LSS handled curves almost effortlessly and held the road well, despite the suspension's concession for some body lean through the corners. It ripped down slopes of Angeles Crest Highway, racing into the valley on a trajectory for the Foothills Freeway. At freeway pace, I could detect only a hint of wind noise and virtually no sound from the engine compartment.
Then came a week at home, steering the LSS around city routes and freeway segments while wallowing in the luxury. It fits a full-framed body as only a full-size American car can, then piles on plush comfort items.
The base Eighty Eight contains a long list of standard equipment, including air conditioning, cruise control, eight-way power for the driver's seat, a tilting steering wheel, power windows and door locks, six-speaker sound system with cassette deck and power antenna, power for the remote decklid release, automatic headlamps, tachometer, and a theft-deterrent system.
The midline LS gains a traction-control system with the bucket seats and touring tires, while LSS with the leather interior also has a leather-wrapped steering wheel fitted with radio and climate controls, dual-zone climate system, a CD player, fog lamps and firm touring suspension.
The Car Connection Consumer Review
in your area