By Jeremy Cato
When it arrived in the fall of 1998, the 1999 Oldsmobile Alero was clearly the best affordable car from General Motors Corporation in a generation. The Alero, which replaced the underachieving Achieva in the Olds lineup, has since launch day come in both coupe and sedan from. As such, this too-often overlooked model is very competitive with cars the likes of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, the then-Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus, Mazda 626, Mercury Mystique…oh, it’s a long list.
While the Alero has not been completely trouble-free over the past three years, it’s quality levels have been acceptable and the pricing has been very, very attractive.
That said, there are lots of other things to commend the Alero: good braking, tasteful and intelligent design inside and out, a huge and versatile trunk, top-grade materials, agreeable road manners. And even its weaker points are hardly what you’d call fatal.
What weak points? The engines, for starters. The original base 2.4-litre four-cylinder can be called an only-average multi-valver for this class (150 horsepower). The 2.2-litre four-banger introduced for 2002 (140 hp) is a smoother, more refined engine. And while Olds officials touted the four-cylinder as a sporty choice, it was not available with a manual five-speed gearbox until model year 2000.
The 3.4-litre V6 (170 hp), essentially the same pushrod engine in GM’s minivans, does a reasonable job of getting the Alero going — on par with the best of the Japanese. Still, the 3.4-litre is loud, coarse and doesn’t very much like to rev at higher speeds. Silky V6 engines from Ford, Honda and Toyota have a clear edge.
Okay, so that’s a thumbnail of the big picture; now a few critical details to get our housekeeping in order. The Alero replaced that little rental car gem, the Olds Achieva, but any comparison to the latter is insulting to the former. The Achieva had a noisy, bucking ride, flat, thinly padded seats and bizarre styling. The Alero is a much better car in every way.
From day one the Alero has come in three flavours: base GX, GL and GLS. Even the starter version has been equipped with four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, a 60/40 folding rear bench seat, air conditioning, stereo, power door locks, a security system and tilt steering. The GLS has all the do-dads and very nice leather upholstery. Those who like their driving should look for a model with the optional sport suspension. It firms up the ride nicely.
Inside, the Alero will seat four grown-ups handily. If there’s an issue compared to the Accords of the world, it’s in back-seat shoulder room which is a bit tight for bigger folks. Behind the folding rear seat is a huge trunk with a wide rear opening.
Up front, the Alero owes a lot to its cousin, the Olds Intrigue. That is, the basic instruments are clean and tidy and sensible. The ignition switch is on the dash (no neck craning on start-ups), the radio is high-up on the centre console, above the climate system and big controls can be worked with gloves on. The steering wheel is thick and meaty.
However, the front bucket seats make little attempt at side bolstering. Which is odd, because the Alero is a very pleasant driver. Here the secret is…well, it’s no secret at all. The Alero’s unibody structure is solid as, say, a Honda Accord. That is to say, very stiff and rigid. The suspension is quite sporty.
What’s the Alero package mean for the driver? A smooth, responsive ride with very little noise coming up through the floor. The variable rack-and-pinion steering is responsive, if a bit dead on centre. Overall, the Alero delivers a quiet, nimble, user-friendly commute.
To my mind, the Alero deserves the attention of anyone shopping for a used mid-size family cruiser.