1995 Lumina LS
1995 Lumina LS. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

One of the most contentious issues in the automotive kingdom is that of the quality of modern domestic-built cars versus that of import models. Bring it up among a group of car nuts, and you’re almost certain to spark a brawl worthy of an NHL playoff game.

Individual opinions aside, the Big Three may not have the best reputations for quality compared to many import manufacturers, but in General Motors’ case, many of their cars are affordable and reasonably dependable.

Case in point: the 1995-1999 Lumina. It was the second generation of a model based on General Motors’ W-Body platform, and shared various structural and mechanical components with the Buick Regal and Century, Pontiac’s Grand Prix and the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Intrigue. While it never outshone its competition as its name suggested it would, the Lumina and its W-Body platform mates showed that General Motors could still screw together a decent (if thoroughly uninspiring, in some cases) mid-sized car.

Open the hood and you’ll find one of three engines common to several other GM products: base model Luminas featured a 160-hp, 3.1 litre V6, while a 210-hp 3.4 litre DOHC V6 (which was based on the smaller engine) was optional in 1995 and 1996 LS models, and in LTZ trim in 1997. In 1998 and 1999, the DOHC engine was replaced by GM’s well-known 3.8 litre V6 (200 hp) as the optional powerplant in LTZ models. The sole transmission was a four-speed automatic.

That powertrain combination returned good fuel economy, especially in later models. According to Natural Resources Canada, a 1998 or 1999 Lumina will consume about 12 L/100 km in city driving and 7.5 L/100 km during highway cruising. Those numbers are representative of later model Luminas; cars from earlier in the model run were rated closer to 13 L/100 km city and 8 L/100 highway. The 3.4 litre engine used a little more fuel than the 3.1 litre, but the 3.8 litre returned similar numbers to those of the smaller V6.

Consumer Reports recommends against the Lumina as a used-car buy, citing numerous trouble spots. The Lumina also gets a less-than-glowing rating in the Canadian Automobile Association’s Autopinion Vehicle Ownership Survey. Oddly, the Buick Regal and Century receive significantly better ratings in both publications, despite using many of the same major components as the Lumina. Truthfully, a well-maintained 1998 or 1999 Lumina should prove as dependable as a Century or Regal, so use your judgment when shopping around, and be sure to have a mechanic you trust give the car a once-over before you sign the cheque.

While the mechanical components used in the Lumina’s 3.1, 3.4 and 3.8 litre engines have proven robust, there is one issue to look out for, primarily affecting the 3.1 litre powerplant. This engine is prone to intake manifold gasket failures that can allow coolant to leak into the crankcase, where it contaminates the engine’s oil, creating the potential for serious problems if the leak is not caught and corrected promptly.

Apart from that, the mechanical components used in the Lumina are generally robust. In particular, General Motors is known for building quality automatic transmissions that work very well and tend to last, with proper maintenance.

1995 Lumina LS
1996 Lumina LS. Click image to enlarge

Transport Canada lists a number of recalls for the second generation Lumina, but most are minor. Also, many deal with cars built as 2000 and 2001 models, which were only available to fleet buyers, such as rental car companies. For the regular consumer market, the Lumina was replaced in 2000 by the Impala.

Just about any W-Body car from 1998 to 2001 or so can be found at about the same price point. A 1999 Lumina LTZ (with the 3.8 litre V6) is valued at $7,075 today, according to the Canadian Red Book. That’s just 28 per cent of the LTZ’s $25,270 M.S.R.P. in 1999.

You’ll have no problem finding a ’99 Buick Century or Pontiac Grand Prix for about $8,000, and several other GM products from that period are worth about the same. The demise of Oldsmobile in 2005 means that depreciation has taken a heavy toll on the resale values of its cars: a 1999 or 2000 Olds Intrigue, despite being a step up in GM’s corporate echelon, can be found for around $10,000, and the smaller Alero (and its Pontiac twin the Grand Am) can easily be found for less than that.

Looking outside the GM family, Ford Tauruses (Tauri?) and Chrysler Intrepids from five and six years ago are similarly valued domestic sedans, and imports available in the sub-$10,000 price range in this class include the Hyundai Sonata (1999 to 2001) and Kia Magentis (2001 and 2002).

Whatever your opinion on the long-term durability of General Motors’ products, you can be confident in the Lumina’s ability to keep you and your passengers reasonably safe in the even of an accident. The second-generation Lumina achieved consistently good results in U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash testing, earning at least four stars for driver and passenger protection in front impact tests, as well as four stars for front passenger protection and three stars for rear occupant protection in side impact tests.

All second-generation Luminas featured ABS and driver and passenger airbags as standard equipment.

The second-generation Lumina is a car that unfortunately gets little respect. Sure, it’s a little dull compared to some of its import rivals, but its poor reliability ratings should be taken with a grain of salt. A well cared-for Lumina (or one of the many cars it shares its platform with) is a solid used-car choice for anyone looking for basic family transportation.

On-line resources:

  • www.w-body.com
  • http://groups.msn.com/GMWBodyCars


    Transport Canada Recall Number 1997039 Units affected: 34,440

    1995: These vehicles may have a strained or separated washer/wiper power feed wire. This may cause the windshield washer/wiper to work intermittently and could ultimately result in inoperative wipers. This would result in reduced driver visibility during inclement weather conditions and a crash could occur. Correction: Windshield washer/wiper switch will be replaced with a redesigned switch.

    Transport Canada Recall Number 2003336 Units affected: 55,411

    1997-1998: On certain vehicles, the lower pinion bearings retainer tabs were not crimped properly. These retainers may fail and permit the ball bearings to escape. If the problem were to occur, the driver would have to exert more effort to turn the steering wheel. Correction: Dealers are to inspect the condition of the lower bearing, and replace the lower pinion bearing or the rack and pinion steering gear assembly, if necessary. This is an extension of recall 02-199.

    Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

    For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

    For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

    For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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