Unfortunately for Oldsmobile, the debut model-year sales would be the peak. Aurora sales plunged about 50 percent for model-year '96 and stayed at roughly that level until 1999, when fewer than 20,000 were built.
Why the sudden fall? A big factor was tougher-than-ever luxury-class competition, especially from Japanese rivals Acura and Lexus. Aurora, by contrast, got but one major innovation in its first five years: GM's new OnStar communications and assistance service as a dealer-installed option for '98.
While Olds had promised no gratuitous changes, hindsight suggests it might have done more to keep Aurora fresh. Then again, this flagship was never intended to be a high-volume moneymaker. Not so the cars that would follow in its image, with nothing less than Oldsmobile's future riding on their success.
GM as a whole still had too many models that cost too much to build and weren't selling as expected. As a result, the company's market share was down to less than 34 percent by 1995, and would ultimately sink to the low-20-percent range.
But GM began cutting costs and was soon making money again, helped by a tech-driven boom economy that fueled an upsurge in demand for profitable trucks. Meanwhile, Olds still struggled. GM bean counters were particularly dismayed by the continuing slide in Olds sales, which were now barely a third of record 1985's nearly 1.2 million units.
Volume was even lower by the time Oldsmobile's centennial rolled around on August 21, 1997 -- 100 years to the day since the formal incorporation of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company.
Despite the dreary sales situation, Lansing happily welcomed thousands of celebrants from all over the country, many of whom brought vintage Oldsmobiles for a memorable birthday parade comprising nearly 100 vehicles. Also highlighting the festivities were the next Centennial Plan models, all bearing a "soaring rocket" emblem instituted by John Rock, who felt the old '60s-vintage logo resembled a "chicken track."
Two of the newcomers went on sale before the birthday bash as 1997 entries. Though not central to this book, the second-generation Silhouette bears mention for offering more-conventional minivan looks and construction in regular-length and new extended-body models. All boasted seating for seven, dual sliding rear side doors (the left one optional at first, later standard), a torquier 3.4-liter V-6, and more-upscale furnishings and features than sisters Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Trans Sport.
It was a big improvement. Though performance was just adequate, handling was tops among minivans, with standard antilock brakes and available traction control enhancing "dynamic safety." Versatility, convenience, and value earned high marks, too. But Silhouette and its siblings were visibly narrower than most minivans, and that turned off many buyers. As a result, they never threatened the sales-leading Chrysler Corporation minivans. Of the GM trio, Silhouette was the most-expensive and, thus, the least-popular.
Oldsmobile's other '97 debutante was yet another Cutlass, a replacement for the long-serving Ciera. Though just a dressier version of Chevy's new Malibu sedan, it fit neatly between the compact Achieva and midsize Cutlass Supreme in size and price. Differences from Malibu were confined to Aurora-look wheels, minor trim, and a standard instead of optional V-6. Both the base Cutlass (later GL) and uptown GLS offered good value, delivering for $20,000 or less with air conditioning, ABS, and many other expected amenities.
An unexpected bonus was the "Oldsmobile Edge," a comprehensive customer-service program launched a few years earlier for all Olds models. One of its provisions allowed a dissatisfied buyer to return a car within 30 days or 1500 miles for a full refund. That might have won a few sales, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Though this Cutlass was a match in most ways for the popular Honda Accord and Toyota Camry it targeted, production was less than 20,000 for '97, poor even discounting the short model year. The '98 tally was also underwhelming at 52,600. With that, Oldsmobile's junior midsize was buried, taking the once-magical Cutlass name with it.