Oldsmobile's most popular car of the early '90s was something far older than the W-body Supreme. Against all odds, it was the hoary Cutlass Ciera, whose surprising sales stamina was probably as much an embarrassment to Olds as it was a relief.
This was, after all, a very old car by now and quite at odds with the more "with it" image Olds was trying to project. But Olds needed every sale it could get, and every Ciera made money, as GM had long since amortized the cost of the vintage-'82 design.
What kept Ciera going were steadily improved quality and dollar value. The former reflected a gradual but wholesale reengineering effort that put this Olds (and Buick's related Century) near the top of GM's internal quality audits by 1993 -- and on a few independent surveys, too.
As for value, Ciera discarded its I-Series after 1990 and coupes after '91 to focus on workaday sedans and wagons in basic S and nicer SL guise. SLs alone carried on for '94 "one-price" Special Editions as part of the effort.
A decent supply of standard features included driver-side airbag (optional before) and GM's low-cost "ABS VI" antilock brake system. By that point, Ciera had exchanged the old "Iron Duke" base four for a 2.2-liter Chevy-sourced engine with 120 bhp; for '94, the 3.3 Buick V-6 gave way to a similar 3.1 Chevy unit with 160 bhp. Respective transmissions were three- and four-speed automatics. The game plan changed for '95, when the SLs returned in Series I and V-6 Series II price levels.
Despite inflationary pressures, Ciera prices rose only as far as $17,000 by mid-decade, making this Olds a tempting buy even for a relic of a bygone age. Volume fell substantially after 1990, but the old soldier rebounded with 140,000 or more per year for 1992-'94. Though more "rental car" than driveway dream, the Ciera did more than its share to pull Olds through some very rough years.
There was far less help from Achieva, the redesigned 1992 replacement for Cutlass Calais. The name was a last-minute decision prompted by surveys showing that buyers were confused by three different cars called Cutlass. Besides, Achieva had a modern upscale sound to it -- just what Olds wanted.
Unfortunately, Lansing's new N-body compact was rather less than its name implied. Like cousins Buick Skylark and Pontiac Grand Am (also redesigned that year), Achieva owed much to Chevy's L-body Corsica/Beretta, using the same floor pan, inner structure, and suspension.
Each model had its own styling, though. Achieva was cautiously inoffensive: more conservative than Grand Am, far less weird than Skylark. Four-door sedans were rather "junior Ninety-Eight," but coupes were disappointingly GM-generic, with elements of Chevy Cavalier and even the new Saturn SC. At the 11th hour, designers determined the two-door looked better with rounded rear wheel arches instead of the sedan's flat-top openings, a change that delayed the start of sales for the entire line by some three months to January 1992.
Like Calais, Achieva emphasized Quad-4 power, including a cheaper new version of the Olds design with a single-cam eight-valve cylinder head. Oddly named Quad OHC, it provided 120 bhp as the standard engine in entry-level S models.
Mid-range SLs had the familiar twin cam Quad-4 with 160 bhp, while the 180-bhp H.O. unit was reserved for manual-shift versions of a sportier coupe prosaically titled SC. Optional across this board was Buick's 160-bhp 3.3 V-6.
Added a bit later was the even hotter SCX. Like the previous Calais Quad 442, the SCX featured a 190-bhp Quad-4, close-ratio manual five-speed, unique 14-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler, and suitable exterior I.D., plus standard ABS VI as on other models.
Olds pushed Achieva hard, pitting it against the popular Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in a splashy 100,000-mile consumer-comparison test. The SCX provided bonus publicity by scoring major victories in IMSA and SCCA road racing.
Yet for all the horn-blowing, Achieva didn't achieve its hoped-for sales. The '92 total was fair at just shy of 80,000 (including a few exports), but Pontiac moved far more Grand Ams, and Olds managed only some 48,000 for 1993 despite adding value-priced Special Editions.
Achieva did share in the division's '94 recovery, surging to 62,000, but none were SCXs, as that model was dropped after just 1146 of the '92s and a mere 500 of the '93s.
Achieva really retrenched for 1995, listing just an S coupe and sedan in Series I and II equipment levels respectively tagged at $13,500 and $15,200. The OHC and H.O. engines were also dismissed, but the surviving twin cam finally got what it had always needed: twin "balance shafts" to quell inherent rock-and-roll roughness.
The result was a somewhat smoother, slightly quieter Quad-4 with five fewer horses. Another belated drivetrain improvement was a four-speed automatic transmission to replace the outmoded non-overdrive three-speed as standard with the V-6 (by now a 155-bhp 3.1 liter) and optional with the four.
Olds naturally thought all these changes would help sales, but they didn't, and Achieva model-year output sagged to a bit over 57,000.