I know it sometimes feels like I pick on GM a lot for these meh car articles, but they just did such a stellar job at making some truly dull, forgettable automobiles. It’s a talent, really. A terrible, terrible talent. If you start feeling some pity for GM, then I’m going to implore you to jam a syringe of adrenaline in your sternum (to keep you awake) and look right at the last-generation Oldsmobile Cutlass. Still want to complain?
The Oldsmobile Cutlass name is pretty legendary: back in 1961, it became Oldsmobile’s first sort-of (I mean, by any rational standard, no, but comparatively) compact car. These smallest, cheapest Oldsmobiles eventually evolved into bold, intermediate-sized V8 coupés with distinctive fastback styling and plenty of ‘60s and ‘70s charm.
Things started to slide by the 1980s, and the cruel, insatiable fungus known as drearius automobilius began to start infesting the Cutlass line, making the cars less and less interesting until, finally, by the sixth generation, in 1997, the miserable creep of mundanity had completely won, and birthed the almost supernaturally-forgettable 1997-1999 Oldsmobile Cutlass.
The car was intended from the start to be a placeholder to fill the hole left by another pretty meh car, the Oldsmobile Ciera, and would be replaced by another pretty meh-adjacent car, the Oldsmobile Alero. With this as its initial mission in car-life, what chance did the poor bastard have?
This mid-sized, FWD tedium-suppository was a badge-engineered variant of another, very, very meh car, the fifth-generation Chevrolet Malibu.
Why did I pick the Cutlass over the Malibu? It wasn’t easy; they’re both effectively the same car, but the Malibu somehow pushed its Meh to such new, uncharted heights that, paradoxically, made it actually less meh than the Cutlass, which didn’t even have the car-nads to do that.
How did the Malibu do this? By, essentially, undergoing the meh equivalent of a supernova: it was so so so boring, GM decided to rename it the Chevy Classic and only sell it as a fleet vehicle, where it would spend the rest of its miserable, joyless purgatory delivering water bills or moving grumpy surveyors from one shithole to another.
That, right there, is how a meh hole gets made: the boringness and ennui become so dense and powerful that they implode in on themselves, creating a new meh hole (the Chevy Classic).
The boring violence and drama of this act is why the Malibu is actually too meh to be a meh car. Its story becomes a tiny bit interesting when it morphs into the Classic. So the Cutlass it is.
And, remember, it’s not the Cutlass Supreme, either. I think the Supreme came with sour cream? I can’t remember. Actually, the Supreme was a slightly bigger car, and it’s almost as boring as the regular Cutlass. But let’s keep focused—one soul-crushing betrayal of the human spirit at a time, people.
The Cutlass came with a 3.1-liter V6 that made about 150 horsepower, and gave a driving experience about as exciting as a book about standardization of paper sizes. Actually, wait. That could be pretty interesting. Let’s say, then, a driving experience as exciting as a book about paper size standardization with all the good parts edited out, because I’m sure there are some.
The styling of the car is timeless, in the sense that it was eye-injuringly boring back in the 1990s and is still as bad now, and no amount of time will ever, ever change that.
The Cutlass started out with some pretty clear goals: to compete with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, and to be a placeholder until another, better-ish car came along. Incredibly, I guess it sort of succeeded in all counts—it did compete, technically, with an Accord or Camry, but only someone with a medical condition that would kill them if their pulse ever got about 40 bpm would buy one.
As a placeholder, though, damn, that the Cutlass accomplished with flying colors. Or, really, flying shades of beige and white.
Like so many of GM’s cars of the era, the marketing people were boned from the start. Being given a car like the Cutlass and told to make it compelling in a commercial is like giving a carpenter a sackful of chili and telling them to make you a ladder. It’s just not going to work.
First, this ad has to make you appreciate the cinematic technology of the late 1990s, because the situation shown here, though it looks so lifelike, could never, ever have happened. Ever.
Nobody in any coffee shop, restaurant, dry cleaners, sex dungeon, any enclosed space with windows is ever, ever going to have their attention grabbed by an unmodified sixth-generation Oldsmobile Cutlass. The idea that two people could somehow be interested in that car is an act so improbable I’m surprised the Silicon Graphics workstations that modeled the interested expression on the pretty employee’s face didn’t explode from a cascading divide by zero error.
That’s all fiction. Terrible, terrible fiction. Even if that car was driving right through that plate-glass window I bet they wouldn’t even notice it.
I can’t look at these things anymore. It’s like looking into TV static for too long. The nothingness is starting to hurt. My brain needs to actually be able to focus on something, and when you look at an image of the 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass it’s like trying to grab a dropped, bare hot dog from a storm drain in the rain: slippery, frustrating, and absolutely not worth it.
Way to go, Oldsmobile placeholder.