THE SONG PLAYED in my mind on a long drive in the 1987 Oldsmobile 98 Touring Sedan: "A chair is still a chair, even when there's no one sitting there.

"But a chair is not a house, and a house is not a home . . . "

"Yeah," I thought. "And luxury ain't status, and status ain't necessarily the best, either. Tough luck for Oldsmobile."


The 98 Touring Sedan, an upgraded version of the Olds 98 Regency, is one of the best family cars on the road. It's more comfortable than a 300- or 500-series BMW. Its interior appointments -- accented with leather and burled walnut -- easily outrank those of several comparably priced European models. And with its standard 3.8-liter, fuel- injected V-6, the Touring Sedan runs with lots of heart.

But, alas, this five-passenger machine is the Rodney Dangerfield of world-class cars. It gets no respect from its target audience, which is the people who buy wheels like the BMW 528E, Volvo 760 GLE, Saab 9000 Turbo and Audi 5000S.

In that company, the Touring Sedan is a poor relation, a visitor from the wrong side of the tracks, a hard-knocks kid who made good, but never acquired panache.

What is it with this car? The Oldsmobile name, which conjurs up images of mom-and-popmobiles? Is it Oldsmobile's use of Baskin-Robbins marketing (they're offering 31 different Oldsmobile models in 1987 alone)? Or is it lingering reverse xenophobia: many Americans' ill-founded belief that their country can't do anything right when it comes to cars?

I dunno.

It's not fair that a car this good gets treated so badly, but so what? Life's not fair. Anyone who's been hassled on a car deal can tell you.

Complaints: No shoulder-harness seatbelts for rear seats. An unacceptable omission in this car's league.

Oldsmobile offers rear-seat shoulder belts as optional equipment in some of its cars. They oughtta be standard.

Praise: A car of superior craftsmanship. Beats or matches fit and finish from any high-quality foreign auto maker. And the Touring Sedan comes with a tremendous amount of standard equipment, including anti-lock brakes. A very pleasant car on the road.

Head-turning quotient: Gets yawns from yuppies but kudos from regular folks who know a good thing when they see it.

Ride, acceleration, handling: All good, with the exception of some body roll in tight curves. The car's occasional swaying under pressure encourages obedience to posted highway speed limits.

The Touring Sedan's V-6 produces 150 hp at 4,400 rpm -- very decent, very nice, very proper. The ride's an acceptable compromise between sports-firm and boulevard-soft.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with six speakers. Electronic seek and scan, by GM/Delco. Excellent.

Mileage: About 24 to the gallon (18-gallon tank, approximately 430-mile range), running mostly highway with three occupants and with air conditioner operating full-time.

Price: $24,607, including $500 destination charge. Base price on this essentially fully-loaded car is $24,107. Available options unclude sunroof, $1,239, and topline GM/Delco-Bose stereo, nearly $900. Estimated dealer invoice price is $20,000.

Hmph. If only price were prestige . . . .

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.