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First Drive

Alero Steps Into the Ring, Packing a Punch

October 22, 1998|PAUL DEAN

Those chubby pink things in the sky are pigs. Flying.

That crackling you feel through the soles of your cross-trainers? Hell freezing over.

There may also be a blue moon at the end of this month of Sundays to celebrate the 1999 Oldsmobile Alero. Which may very well be the best car General Motors has made since its salad days of the '57 Chevy and Buicks wearing Borrani wheels.

Or I'll eat my Ouija board and become one of Kenny Kingston's psychics.

Will the Alero, as a coupe or a sedan, with a 150-horsepower four-banger or a 170-horsepower V-6, bloody the noses of Honda's Accord or Toyota's Camry? Probably not. Alero gives away horsepower to both, while Accord and Camry are padlocked to our perceptions and real-world experiences as the best mainstreamers there be in the $20,000 neighborhood.

But expect the Alero to join fierce battle with the Ford Contour, Nissan Altima and Chrysler Cirrus. It should take no prisoners and roll over the wounded. And although the Alero is classified by fuel-consumption ratings (20 miles per gallon on Ventura Boulevard on a Saturday morning, 28 mpg on the San Bernardino Freeway at 3 a.m.), it is based on the Olds Cutlass platform, which makes it a mid-size. So expect it to inflict collateral damage on sales of Ford Taurus, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Mazda 626.

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Styling is a knockdown at first glance, particularly on our test car, an Alero GLS sedan in a shade of jade, a spangle green that would delight any son of Eire. At a base price of $20,875 (figure on $21,650 with a performance suspension and destination charge), it will also appeal to those who clip coupons and fill penny jars.

The GLS silhouette is sharp and dares beyond Asian generic--possibly to some spot on the styling charts that Accord and Camry should have attained by now. The rear end has an edged upper lip; a chromium rim around the windows adds a touch of distinction; and a set of wonderfully chunky, gem-polished 16-inch alloy wheels is all the excuse you'll need for upgrading to a GLS.

Blessed replacement for the Achieva, darling of car-rental fleets and a mechanical pacifist that almost delivered a head shot to Oldsmobile's stumbling fortunes, the Alero isn't free of niggles. The rearview mirror is mounted way low and blots out objects--even small crossing humans--that should loom large and visible in mid-windshield. A cheapo radio wouldn't suck in KLON-FM 88.1 if you were driving past the transmitter.

Alero's 3.4-liter V-6 is lusty enough to power the car beyond budding emergencies, and throttle response has been improved to allow quick exits from corners.

But the busy, buzzy engine, borrowed from GM's minivan family, makes over-stressed noises when asked to perform above and beyond routine chores. It certainly is no match in smoothness or quiet efficiency for the engines of Accord and Camry.

On the other hand, Alero, in handling and steering, particularly in the GLS version with Goodyear Eagles and that sport suspension, implies that it will stay wired to the bumper of anything in its class. And make a clean pass of most.

Alero GLS is a well-handling, unusually satisfying car.

It would be a richer experience if its performance tires, sport suspension, stout disc-brake assembly and precise steering could be exercised to their fullest by a five-speed manual.

But, hey, this is still a GM.

Don't expect total wisdom and overnight miracles.

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Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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