By Chris Chase

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Used Vehicle Review: Oldsmobile Alero, 1999 2004  used car reviews oldsmobile
2001 Oldsmobile Alero. Click image to enlarge

Picture this: it’s the mid-1990s and the folks at General Motors’ now defunct Oldsmobile division are brainstorming, working on what sort of car they should build to replace the company’s current mid-size sedan, the (under) Achieva. Okay, the dig is a little low; the Achieva was a decent car for its time, but Olds needed a really great car for its replacement, something that would really be able to compete with imports like the Honda’s Accord and Toyota Camry (does it seem to you too like I reference those two cars in every review?) if not in overall refinement then at least in price.

By 1999, the time had come for Olds to reveal their new car. The Oldsmobile Alero was a stylish sedan that slotted quite nicely into the mid-size segment to go toe-to-toe with the aforementioned Accord and Camry, Mazda’s 626, Nissan’s Altima (mostly) and Maxima (sort of) and domestic mid-sizers like Ford’s Taurus and Chrysler Corporation’s Stratus, Cirrus and Sebring.

Typically for a domestic model, the Alero shared its General Motors “N-Body” platform and much of its running gear with two other GM cars: the redesigned Pontiac Grand Am that was introduced in 1999 and the 1997-2004 Chevrolet Malibu. Oddly enough, given Pontiac’s propensity for “excitement,” the Alero tended to be the sportier of the two, with a tighter suspension and less garish looks. Pricing was a little different too, with the Alero’s M.S.R.P. starting out cheaper at the low end of the range and topping out higher for fully loaded models.

Used Vehicle Review: Oldsmobile Alero, 1999 2004  used car reviews oldsmobile
2002 Oldsmobile Alero, Click image to enlarge

Buyers liked what they saw, and the Alero sold quite well throughout its six-year production run, so they’re easy to find on used car lots now.

Aleros were available with either a four- or six-cylinder engine. The four banger was a 2.4-litre unit used extensively in other General Motors’ vehicles. It wasn’t particularly smooth, but its 150 horsepower and good mid-range torque were enough to move the Alero with authority in city driving. The better choice for highway cruising was the 3.4-litre V6 that, while only producing an additional 20 horsepower, pounded out lots of useful torque and was much smoother than the four-cylinder. Initially, the only transmission available was a four-speed automatic, but a five-speed manual was added as the standard transmission choice for four-cylinder models in 2000.

Both engines have proven to be fairly durable, but the V6 suffers from a chronic intake manifold gasket failures. These are a pain to replace, and if a bad one isn’t caught early on, it can either allow engine coolant to leak down into the crankcase, diluting the oil and potentially causing serious engine damage; or it can let the coolant leak out of the engine altogether.

Used Vehicle Review: Oldsmobile Alero, 1999 2004  used car reviews oldsmobile

Used Vehicle Review: Oldsmobile Alero, 1999 2004  used car reviews oldsmobile
2003 Oldsmobile Alero. Click image to enlarge

Also, N-Body cars are known for short-lived brake rotors that are prone to warping, causing a pulsating brake pedal. There have been some issues with electrical components too.

Consumer Reports notes these issues in its evaluation of the Alero and while it recommends against buying a 1999 through 2001 model largely because of the above noted issues, it does recommend cars from the 2003 model year.

Both engines returned good fuel economy, but the four cylinder didn’t hold a significant advantage over the V6 in this regard despite the difference in displacement and power. While Natural Resources Canada’s fuel consumption numbers for the Alero vary a bit from year to year, you could expect a four-cylinder model to use about 10.5 L/100 km in the city and about 7 L/100 km on the highway. Six-cylinder models will use closer to 12 L/100 km in the city and again, about 7 L/100 km in conservative highway driving.

On the safety front, the Alero earned mixed results in U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash testing. Two-door models got four and five stars respectively for driver and front passenger protection in frontal crashes, but scored just one star for front seat side impact protection, and four stars for rear seat occupants. Four-doors did much better overall, earning four stars each for front seat occupant protection in frontal impacts, and three stars each for front and rear seat occupant protection in side impacts.

Low resale values mean that a well maintained Alero is a terrific used-car deal. Go way back to 1999 and a top-of-the-line GLS sedan, which sold for $26,920 new, carries a used value of about $6,100 according to Canadian Red Book. Flash forward to the Alero’s last year of production, 2004, and a range-topping GL sedan is worth $15,325, compared to its M.S.R.P. of $24,301.

Despite its reliability shortcomings, the Alero is a stylish, spacious and pseudo-sporty car that looks mighty appealing as a used car compared to pricier imports like the Accord and Camry (there they are again!). Your best bet is one that’s been well cared for and comes with complete maintenance and repair records so you know what problems the car’s previous owner(s) have dealt with or neglected. Also, definitely get your potential purchase inspected by a trusted mechanic for the telltale signs of the common problems that crop up in these cars. If you find one that passes these tests and is priced right, it’d be a hard deal to beat for a car as pleasant to drive and look at as the Alero.

On-line resources

www.n-body.net – this is the place to go for answers to any question you might have about your Alero (or one of its platform mates, the Chevy Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am). The forums are well-run, with lots of members who take pride in their cars and are very knowledgeable about every aspect from repairs to modifications. There’s no Alero-specific forum, but the extensive parts commonality between it and the Malibu and Grand Am means there’s no real need. Close to 7,000 members call N-Body.net their home on the web. Membership is free.


Recalls

Transport Canada Recall Number 2000123; Units affected: 47,272

1999-2000: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 201 – Occupant Protection. The console cover does not remain closed when a specified vertical load is applied. During a crash, the console cover could open and the cover or items stored under it could injure an occupant. Correction: Dealers will replace the console latch mechanism.

Transport Canada Recall Number 1999060; Units affected: 989

1999: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 210.1 – Tether Anchorages for Child Restraints. The bolt in the child rear seat tether kit is too long, has insufficient threads to meet proper clamp load, and the spacer in the kit is too short. In the event of a vehicle crash, a child seat may not be properly restrained by the anchor, and injury to the seat occupant could occur. Correction: Dealers will replace any previously installed child seat tether bracket kits.

Transport Canada Recall Number 1998248; Units affected: 104

1999: The steering wheel could become loose on the steering shaft due to insufficient torque on the steering wheel retaining nut. This could result in loss of steering control and a crash without prior warning. Correction: dealers will inspect the steering wheel retaining nut for correct torque and tighten as necessary.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003217; Units affected: 76,668

2000-2001: On certain vehicles, the hazard warning switch may experience solder joint cracking if subjected to rapid temperature transition. If solder joint cracking occurs and results in an open circuit, the turn signals/hazard lamps become intermittent or inoperative. Correction: Dealers will replace the hazard warning switch.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2001096; Units affected: 99,174

2000: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 101- Location and Identification of Controls and Displays. Vehicles exhibit a condition in which the “Generator Low Voltage” indicator light will not illuminate under low voltage conditions. Correction: Dealers will re-flash the vehicle PCM with new calibration software.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2000275; Units affected: 1,712

2000-2001: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 114 – Locking System. When a driver attempts to shift from 5th gear to reverse, a shift inhibitor causes the transmission to be mechanically in 4th gear even though the shift lever indicates reverse gear. In this situation, the key can be removed from the ignition while the transmission is in a forward gear, which is not permitted by the standard. Correction: Dealers will disable the 5th/Reverse Inhibitor by removing a retaining pin and replace the shifter assembly.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2000110; Units affected: 48

2000: On certain vehicles equipped with a manual transmission, the clutch pedal position switch plunger could contact the steering column boot and thereby not be able to extend when the clutch pedal is depressed. In this condition, the vehicle can be started with the transaxle in gear (not in neutral) without the clutch pedal depressed. If the driver is not applying the brake, the vehicle may move unexpectedly and a crash could occur. Correction: Dealers will install a shield to prevent contact between the column boot and the clutch pedal position switch.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2004391; Units affected: 18,955

2003: On certain vehicles, in hot ambient conditions, the accelerator pedal arm may stick at the attachment to the bracket and not return to the engine idle position when the operator removes the actuating force from the accelerator pedal. If the accelerator pedal does not return to the engine idle position, the throttle valve will not close, which may result in an increased stopping distance. Correction: Dealers will inspect the accelerator pedal arm and, if necessary, replace the accelerator and brake pedal assembly.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003246; Units affected: 155

2004: Certain vehicles fail to conform to CMVSS 108 “Lighting System and Retroreflective Devices”. These vehicles were built with a clear bulb in the front turn signal light rather than an amber coloured bulb. Correction: Dealer will replace the clear bulb with an amber coloured bulb.

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.