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Wines improve with age, but only up to a point. The same is true of vehicles.
Oldsmobile's venerable Cutlass Ciera line is an excellent case in point. True, after 12 years on the market, Olds has made many modest - and even some major - improvements to the Ciera, wagons and sedans alike.
But even cupholders aren't enough to disguise the fact that this is unquestionably one of the most dated designs in the midsize wagon segment.
But before we dismiss the Ciera wagon out of hand, let's consider the buzzword of the '90s: value. In the Ciera, the word rates a capital V.
If you're not worried about styling or technology - if you want cargo space and transportation with an affordable price tag - maybe this is the car you've been looking for.
At $18,078 rolling out the dealer doors, our '95 Ciera wagon tester came in thousands of dollars under the cost of many of its more modern competitors.
Another plus: Oldsmobile has had plenty of time to work out most of the bugs. The Ciera wagon's reliability has improved dramatically in recent years. It has ranked at the top of the J.D. Power and Associates charts in terms of defects per vehicle, an impressive achievement.
So whether you're hauling a passel of kids or a pile of packages, it's nice to know you've got dependable wheels.
Our '95 Ciera SL tester was a preproduction model, and accordingly, we agreed to overlook glitches that would presumably be absent in a showroom-ready vehicle. Why the preproduction caveat should include odd variations in body-panel fit is a mystery, though. There are no changes in the Ciera's styling, which means these same body panels have been around for a long time. Olds has had a dozen years to get this right.
The biggest change to this year's Ciera is a small but welcome one. The fake woodgrain trim used on the previous Ciera's inner door panels is gone, and good riddance. It was a look that anchored the Ciera in another era.
Again, you don't look to the Ciera for state-of-the-art styling. This is the same boxy design that characterized most of General Motors' early and mid-'80s cars. The word stodgy comes to mind.
But the square shape also helps to maximize cargo space, which is often compromised by the swoopy rear-end designs of some of today's more modern wagons.
There are no surprises here. The cargo door is easy enough to open, though a remote release lever would be more in step with the times. The hatch also took a surprising amount of muscle to raise, which might bother an older driver.
Access to the cargo bay is good, however. And you're not climbing or stretching to load up.
On the safety side, all members of the Ciera family come with standard anti-lock brakes (ABS). There's still only one airbag, though, and the Ciera still uses GM's ill-conceived 3-point seat belts.
With their outboard anchors mounted in the doors, these are supposed to be passive belts. They're supposed to remain fastened, and the belts extend on inertia reels when you open a front door. Then you're supposed to wriggle under the belt, with the inertia reel taking up the slack when you shut the door.
The net effect of this system is that it encourages many drivers to leave the belt unfastened. This setup has disappeared from most GM products, but it'll be in the Ciera until the vehicle itself is retired.
Here's where the Ciera really shows its age. The interior seems to have been cobbled together from a variety of off-the-shelf pieces that don't quite work as a single package.
The pod on the driver's door that holds the power window switches looks like a bolted-on afterthought. It's also awkward to use. So is the radio, which has been recessed just enough to force you to lean well out of your seat just to adjust the volume.
The instrument panel is a clumsy rectangle in an era of fluid, organic curves. How-ever, if you don't mind a bare minimum of gauges, the displays are large and easy to read, which is good news for the older buyers who seem to favor the Ciera.
Dated as it may be, though, the Ciera does include a lot of comfort and convenience features - air conditioning, power windows, cruise control, an AM/ FM/cassette sound system - as standard equipment. That's an important part of the value equation.
The wagon's seats are benches, adequate though far from attractive. There's plenty of room up front and more than acceptable space for rear passengers.
There's also a rear-facing third seat, a great benefit if your wagon is the designated kid-carrier in your neighborhood.
There's plenty of cargo space that can be expanded by folding the rear seats flat.
Security is always a concern with station wagons, and the Ciera addresses this issue with two locking storage bins in the back.
Like most modern wagons, the Ciera has a window-shade privacy cover for the cargo bay. However, the roller is mounted nearly a foot behind the rear seats, leaving a gap that dilutes its effectiveness.
As we noted earlier, cup-holders have found their way into the Ciera. That's a plus. Their location - tucked inside the center armrest - isn't terribly handy, though, and they're too small to accommodate a large takeout soft drink cup. We had to resort to the old cup-in-lap trick, which can dampen your driving spirits considerably.
Ride comfort isn't the Ciera wagon's strongest suit, but the suspension components - spring stiffness and shock-absorber damping - are soft enough to keep the ride from being too harsh.
When it comes to handling, however, the Ciera is distinctly behind the times. This is a dated chassis with basic MacPherson struts up front and a beam axle in the rear.
The net result is a car that refuses to be hurried through corners, an activity that produces plenty of tire noise and body roll to go with it.
On the other hand, there are no nasty surprises in the Ciera's personality. And the combination of front-wheel drive with standard ABS gives it acceptable all-weather driving credentials.
All '95 Ciera wagons are powered by GM's 3100 V6 engine - it replaced the previous 3.3-liter V6 last year - bolted to a 4-speed automatic transmission, which was also new last year. Ciera sedan versions list a 2.2-liter 4-cylinder and 3-speed automatic as basic equipment, so that's a plus for the wagon.
Another plus is the 3100's durability record. This isn't the most potent V6, nor is it the smoothest. It was easy to feel its vibration at idle through the steering wheel and shifter. But the 3100 does seem to be bulletproof, and it'll probably be running long after the Energizer Bunny has run out of juice.
It also produces slightly better- than-average fuel economy performance for a midsize wagon.
For all its reliability, the Ciera wagon loses a lot of its appeal when it's compared with more modern midsize wagons such as the Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
That's not too surprising. After 12 years, most models would either be redesigned from stem to stern or put out to pasture.
Nevertheless, the Ciera's high value quotient is keeping it in the game for at least another year. It's admittedly low on flash, and no better than adequate in terms of performance.
But applying the value template, it still stacks up pretty well - lots of standard features in a roomy, unpretentious pack-age for a reasonable price.
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