What if I proposed to you that the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera was the most polarizing car of the last 40 years? I’m sure you’d point out there’s plenty of other cars that deserve a bigger medal in terms of era defining cars but I have some key arguments.
Some will say that it was the car that planted the seeds of death for the Oldsmobile brand. Others will tout their ability to abuse the basic sound design of them (of course, once those pesky GM bugs got worked out of the earliest editions) for more than 2 decades and multiple hundreds of thousands of miles worth of trips that could loop the globe. The true meaning of it, as a symbol, lies somewhere down the middle of course, and I try to rectify that while looking at this indeterminable of model year well-equipped Cruiser Wagon version.
The Cutlass Ciera, like all the other FWD A-bodies, rose from the disaster ash of the 1980 X-body program. General Motors had tried to be a pioneer in American Sedans, offering roomy accommodations with international packaging genius melded with good old American comforts and power. Of course, the discrepancy between GM wishing to make a profit and having a car that served ever increasing buyer requirements left those compact sedans riddled by recalls and lawsuits. The Cutlass Ciera showed up the year I was born, with a stiffly tailored suit on the same wheelbase with more visual bulk. The Wagon version came online for 1984.
It wasn’t until 1987 or so that they became far less pains in the asses compared to how marginal they were at the start, nevermind their putrid roots. By that point, not only had their image been cast as passé by the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, Oldsmobile as a brand itself was starting it’s meteoric fall from the heady days of producing over a million units a year. Olds had done that feat with remarkable ease from the late 70’s through 1985.
There is the point that, over their life cycle, the Cutlass Ciera (and it’s equally geriatric surviving sister the A-Body Buick Century) got incremental improvements. In that process, their prices didn’t rise as rapidly as many family car competitors.
By the end of their lives in 1996, the “Value Priced” editions went out the door starting at $14,495. Still upright, spacious and proven and with a standard automatic transmission, it was a whole lotta car for a concise entry price.
Still the improvements were glacial. So glacial that I hadn’t a clue what model year this one was at first glance. I know the ridiculous “international” flag badge disappeared for 1993, composite headlamps became available in 1987, and I’m nowhere near curious to look up which years the gauge fonts might have changed, but this one still has the traditional horizontal speedometer with just a fuel gauge compared to the semi-circle that seemed to come in 1991. My best guess for the beast is 1988, as it has the composite headlamps yet 1988 was the last year for a standing hood ornament.
Underneath probably sits either the Chevrolet sourced 2.8L V6 offering 125 horses fed through a 3 speed Turbo Hydra-Matic or a Buick sourced pre-3800 3.8L V6 capable of 150hp and a pretty healthy for an under 3,200lb car 200 lb·ft of torque. Performance was merely average for the class with the smaller Six, and one of the shining points with the Buick unit. Little items like this prodded competitive imports to move on from their 4 cylinders and offer V6s in their mainstream sedans.
Which I’ll use as a case point of why the polarization of the sedan market by the Olds Cutlass Ciera is so vital to our vehicular history. Once done to the finest refinement it could be, it sat as 1) a good default choice for people that never cared about cars (you know, people that bought Plymouth Valiants a generation earlier) and 2) offered enough of a combinations of features to spur the competition to develop better vehicles. Where the Ford Taurus could match it in interior volume and V6 Power, the original Ford Taurus also has a legendary lack of long lived viability. Where the Honda Accord and Camry had the longevity (well, in reality more legs than the Ciera) they didn’t offer the vast space, and until 1988, the power Americans craved to cruise their vistas (or cut each other off in traffic).
For those conservative, clinging to outdated values, or not accepting challenges, it offered an almost Eisenhower-era like consistency in an ever more complicating world. It was perhaps the most “Father” of Oldsmobiles, in the sense that it seems to begrudgingly scream “GET OFF MY LAWN” while clogging the left lane on the interstate; a relic of a double nickel past that’s prominently affixed to so many of their speedometers.
As the rest of the Oldsmobile family pressed for change, and even did drag to move into the more hip times, the Cutlass Ciera came out sales champion for the family name, year after year, not noticing that the easy profits it made killed any chance of survival. So it sat, torturing us with simplicity, honesty, its ties to the past from Reagan’s inauguration through the re-election of Bill Clinton.
In terms of American cars, to go that far, to sell that well, without making significant strides at least in the direction of superficial progress is astonishing. Yet I still can muster only a moderate loathing for the reality that they reflected.
The safety and security of increasing profits for General Motors despite the corporation’s lack of desire to remain competitive filtered down to cynical products like the Cutlass Ciera. In every remaining example, I see General Motors polluting Flint Michigan, taking no corporate responsibility to the damage they did to the American landscape, especially 30 years after Roger & Me. I see 3,000lbs of money grabbing that benefitted a select few executives. A money grab that’s surprisingly 30 years on is not that much of a money pit.