GENERAL MOTORS makes many good cars -- terrific ones, in fact. It simply can't figure out how to sell them. The 1990 Oldsmobile Touring Sedan is a case in point. Ever hear of it? No? No wonder. It's one of GM's best-built secrets.
The car came into the company's Washington office in the waning days of the 1990-model year, which ends this Oct. 1. A GM official there gave me a call:
"We've got a new Oldsmobile," she said. "Well, not exactly new. It's a 1990. You interested?"
Is Dan Quayle vice president of the United States? I'm always interested.
I picked up the car, a thing of battleship gray. Hmph. I figured that it must have been one of those leftover vehicles that GM couldn't sell to the U.S. Navy or CIA. I was wrong.
The Olds Touring Sedan turns out to be one of the best all-around cars I've driven all year. It's relatively light in weight, yet solidly built, like an Olds 98 with class. As comfortable as a Toyota Lexus LS400 or a Mercedes-Benz 300-series sedan, the Olds is a front-wheel-drive highway cruiser that handles just as well with one occupant as it does carrying five people and a trunkload -- 16.4 cubic feet -- of luggage. It would have been nice if GM had told the public about this car earlier, perhaps at the beginning of the model year.
Background: GM produces so many cars and so many different versions of the same car, it's easy for stuff to get lost in the crowd. For example, the "New Car Cost Guide" published by the Automobile Invoice Service in San Jose dedicates 18 pages to Oldsmobile. That's 18 pages for one car division of one company!
By comparison, Toyota Motor Corp. has 21 pages in the same book for everything Toyota sells in the United States -- cars, pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and minivans.
Notes on the Touring Sedan are found on the last page in the guide's Oldsmobile section. Somehow, considering GM's marketing efforts on this car, that seems appropriate.
Complaints: Thank goodness GM is putting air bags in all of its cars by 1995. That means the company can get rid of its allegedly automatic seatbelts, such as those found in the Touring Sedan, which are cumbersome and otherwise poorly designed.
Also, GM needs to abandon its passion for multi-way adjustable front seats. By the time you finish pushing all of the buttons to find the "right" driving position in the Touring Sedan, you're almost too tired to drive.
Praise: Ah, but once you get the proper seating position, you're in for a treat. The Touring Sedan lives up to its name. It's one heck of a cross-country car -- very tightly built, very quiet, very smooth.
Head-turning quotient: The Touring Sedan's exterior is so stiff and formal in presentation, it makes you want to salute.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces! One of the best sedan rides anywhere. Both city and highway handling were impressive. The test car was equipped with a 3.8-liter, fuel-injected V-6, rated 165 horsepower at 4,800 rpm. Power-assisted disc brakes are up front; drum brakes in rear.
Mileage: About 23 to the gallon (18-gallon tank, estimated 392 miles on usable volume), combined city-highway, running with one to five occupants and occasional heavy cargo. Air conditioner was used full time.
A note about gas: The Touring Sedan, like most cars on sale today, requires only 87-octane unleaded gasoline. There is absolutely no need to pay more for higher-octane gasolines, unless specifically instructed to do so by your owner's manual.
Sound system: Electronic AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, Delco/Bose. Excellent.
Price: Base price is $26,795. Dealer invoice price is $23,124. Price as tested is $29,118, including $1,753 in options and a $570 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: You can bargain on this one. Simply threaten to buy a Cadillac if your Oldsmobile dealer refuses to lower the price.
Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.