Cutlass Supreme: A Family Car That Is Priced Right

Posted: December 29, 1989

Those finned jukeboxes from the late '50s were homely, often hideous transportation. And they weren't assembled as well as the American cars built earlier in the decade.

They did have one redeeming virtue, however. They were the last domestic automobiles with one-word names. They marked the last time people could simply say, I drive a Ford, or, that's my Chevy. Things got more complicated after that. As the list of models offered by car lines lengthened, so did the names of the cars.

I was reminded of that the other day when I took delivery on a test car called the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme International Series Sport Sedan. By the time I got done reciting the car's name to my editor, it was time to give it back.

Given the length of that title, a little deciphering is probably in order. So, if you will all move over here to the entrance to the pharaoh's tomb, we'll tell you what these inscriptions mean.

The current Cutlass Supreme is a front-drive, midsize family car that made its debut during the last model year as a coupe. This year it is being offered as a sedan as well. The sporty version of the coupe and sedan gets the additional International Series label.

The Cutlass Supreme is what General Motors calls a GM10 car, which means it is built off the same platform as the Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Regal and Chevrolet Lumina. All these cars have the same floorpans, suspension hardware and powertrains. They are individualized by distinctive bodies and interiors, and different suspension calibrations.

The advent of the four-door GM10 car is quite timely business because of the growing preference for sedans over coupes. Thanks largely to the increasing size of baby-boomer families, sedan sales went from 38 percent in 1980 to 56 percent by 1988.

The Cutlass Supreme is, in fact, a good family car. It affords plenty of leg and shoulder room for five good-sized people. It is comfortable, solid and quiet. It also affords distinctive styling, plenty of power, good handling and prompt braking.

And it is priced right. The Cutlass Supreme sedan starts at $14,595, which is reasonable enough for a roomy four-door whose standard-equipment dossier includes such upscale features as a high-tech, multi-valve engine, a fully independent suspension, and power, four-wheel disc brakes.

If you want to be a little more adventurous and spend a bit more money ($17,995), you can get the sedan in the International Series form I tested. The I-Series car has better upholstery and more standard equipment than the cheaper Cutlass Supremes, as well as a sportier appearance and suspension. It also has bigger, fancier wheels (cast aluminum instead of stamped steel), and wider tires.

The standard engine in the I-Series, like the base Cutlass Supreme, is GM's high-output Quad 4 engine, a high-revving, 16-valve, 2.3-liter four that develops an impressive 180 horsepower. The car can also be obtained with an optional 3.1-liter, 140-horsepower V-6.

While the V-6 doesn't have the horsepower rating of the smaller four, it does have more torque, which means it is more responsive in the lower ranges where people do most of their driving. The Quad 4 engine is available with either the standard five-speed manual gearbox or a three-speed automatic. The V-6 comes only with a four-speed automatic.

The 180-horsepower Quad 4 and the five-speed make for a lively, entertaining pair. The V-6 and automatic I found in the test car are a quieter, smoother tandem that still offer plenty of snap.

In addition to its brisk engine response, the I-Series sedan is very athletic in fast turns. The sport suspension underneath this car is an excellent ride-and-handling compromise. It provides good cornering characteristics without the usual harsh ride payback.

The pleasantness of the I-Series sedan doesn't stop with its performance, comfort and generous array of standard gear. It's also a good-looking car whose unique rear-end styling and wrap-around back window take it a bit out of the ordinary. It also boasts a handsome, ergonomic and thoughtful interior. The sedan, for example, has a fold-down back seat, which considerably expands the already generous storage space in the trunk.

AN EVALUATION: OLDSMOBILE CUTLASS SUPREME INT'L SERIES SPORT SEDAN

BASE VEHICLE: Includes 2.3-liter engine, five-speed manual transaxle, fully independent suspension, power steering, power four-wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, console, power door locks, full electronic instrumentation, driver-information display, remote trunk release, power outside mirrors, stereo/cassette, digital clock, sport bucket seats with four-way manual adjustment, tilt steering, leather-wrapped wheel, sport suspension, 16-inch aluminum sport wheels, P215/60R16 radials.

TEST MODEL: Includes major options: cruise control, power windows, rear

window defogger, power antenna, upgraded stereo, six-way power driver's seat, 3.1-liter engine, four-speed automatic transmission.

Base price $17,995

Test model $20,295 (includes shipping)

EPA city rating 19 m.p.g.

Test mileage 21 m.p.g.

Warranty three years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper

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