The 1991 Oldsmobile 98 Was The Last Olds That Was Worth A Damn

MotorWeek's Retro Review takes us back to the twilight of 20th century American luxobarges.

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To paraphrase The Big Lebowski, sometimes there's a car... I won't say a hero, 'cause what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a car. And I'm talkin' about the Oldsmobile 98 here. Sometimes, there's a car, well, it's the car for its time and place. It fights right in there. And that's the Oldsmobile 98. We often look to the early 1990's as a glorious time in automotive history for sports cars—just the right mix of old-school flavor, innovative technology, and modern conceits—but it was also the last golden age of the great American luxury barge. MotorWeek's latest Retro Review reminds us all what we're missing.

Beginning in 1990 with the Buick Park Avenue, General Motors started a sweeping redesign across their brands to bring their sedans out of stagnation. They rounded off sharp edges, scaled the dimensions back up to boat status, and generally aimed for a level of updated class not seen in their cars the decade prior. When the Oldsmobile 98 was redone in 1991 to coincide with the model's 50th anniversary, it was like a breath of fresh air compared to the stale outgoing model—it gained almost ten inches in length, completely new sheet metal, and a newly formal presence to match.

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Comfy.

MotorWeek had their hands on a Touring model, which did away with the standard front bench and horizontal speedometer in favor of bucket seats and a comprehensive gauge package, but the rest of the interior is pure early-nineties luxury. Ribbed leather everywhere, miles of buttons on the dash, couch-like seats, and just a single airbag for the driver—if that combination doesn't take you right back to 1991, nothing will. And poke fun if you want at the dated sensibilities, but John Davis is 100 percent correct when he points out the 98 would make an excellent road trip candidate. 

Under the hood came the venerable 3800 Series I V6, one of the most bulletproof engines General Motors has ever produced. Regular maintenance will get it to 200,000 miles, and sometimes it doesn't even need that. With only 170 horsepower and a four-speed automatic to work with, the Oldsmobile 98 wasn't setting any performance records—but obviously, that's not the point. Still, it's amusing to watch the body dive and roll as MotorWeek does its standard slalom, avoidance, and high speed braking tests.

So why would your grandfather have bought this over, say, the Chevy Caprice or Buick Park Avenue? He might have been an Oldsmobile man, but GM also endeavored to give the 98 a more premium feel, pricing it above both those siblings. At the end of the review, John Davis sums it up as a "fine example of a modern American luxury car," and expresses optimism that the model might even live to see its 100th anniversary.

Of course, that didn't happen. But personally, I feel like Oldsmobile died when they discontinued the 98 in 1996, as it was the last one to carry the torch lit by the brand in its mid-century heyday—big, American cars that transported us in comfort and style. A smooth engine, a huge trunk, and a soft place to sit in between. What else do you need?