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Oldsmobile defines its Bravada as an upscale "on-road sport-utility vehicle" with refined styling and car-like ride and handling. For people who have been bombarded with advertising showing shiny SUVs tackling inhospitable terrain, this is acknowledgement from one manufacturer of how most sport-utilities are really used.
In truth, the Oldsmobile Bravada handles the road very well. It rides and drives like an Oldsmobile luxury sedan. A relatively tight turning circle and power-assisted steering make it easier to maneuver in crowded parking lots than some of the other sport-utilities on the market.
Oldsmobile has taken a sensible approach to the Bravada from the start. The Oldsmobile Bravada is based it on the proven, high-volume Chevy Blazer/GMC Jimmy platform. Taking this simple, direct route reduced development time and kept costs down. Oldsmobile's vehicles are positioned as high-value luxury cars within their market segments, so setting the Bravada in a similar group among SUVs is sensible. For this reason, the Bravada comes with a higher level of standard equipment than the other GM products.
In the three years since the Bravada's last major makeover, several newcomers have arrived. The Mercury Mountaineer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Infiniti QX4 compete in this luxury SUV segment. Other, mass market, sport-utilities vie for these same buyers when optioned out to their leather-lined limits.
It's obvious that the Bravada is an Oldsmobile. It says so in any number of places around the exterior. Division stylists have done a fine job of distancing the handsome Bravada from the Blazer and Jimmy without resorting to expensive sheet-metal surgery. Trim details reinforce the Oldsmobile brand identity. Up front, the Bravada receives the modern Oldsmobile family identification in the form of larger headlight assemblies and dual grilles separated by a body-color panel carrying the Oldsmobile division logo.
The basic design of all three General Motors compact sport-utilities is clean and attractive; all feature an aerodynamic front end, semi-formal roofline and muscular stance with minimal overhang.
The major difference between Bravada and its GM siblings is in packaging. Blazers and Jimmys are available with two- or four-door bodies, two- or four-wheel-drive systems, suspensions designed for off-road driving or highway cruising, manual or automatic transmissions and a choice of interiors from plush to Spartan.
The Bravada comes one way -- with everything. That includes four doors, an automatic transmission, a V6 engine, and every luxury feature imaginable. The driveline consists of electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system with a locking center differential.
If everything isn't enough, a few options can be added. Best of the bunch on the value scale is a $57 package of popular add-ons that adds a two-position driver's seat memory, power adjustments for the front passenger seat, auto-dim electrochromic outside rearview mirrors, a trailer-towing package and white-letter tires. Purchased separately, Oldsmobile says these handy additions would total $757. Other available extras are a power moonroof, $250 heated seats, a $495 Bose audio system, a 6-disc CD changer and a gold trim package.
The wide array of features are reflected in the $31,560 base price, which sits at the top of the GM compact-SUV heap. But that price is quite reasonable when compared to stickers on similarly equipped competitors.
If the Bravada's interior looks to have been pulled intact out of a luxury sedan, that's what the stylists intended. Much effort has been expended to that end, with mixed results. The dashboard is big and blocky and reflects its truck origins. Everything is placed for good access, with easy-to-use rotary knobs for headlights and climate control functions. A new, smaller airbag reduces the size of the steering wheel hub, though the space taken up by the passenger-side airbag remains the same.
Comfort was a top priority as well. The result of considerable design effort is a space that is friendly to passengers and cargo alike. The well-padded seats are excellent, providing better than average support and adjustability. The driver's seat offers a six-way power adjustment. Stretch-out room is ample. Leather is of the same soft grade applied to the Aurora and comes standard; cloth is offered as a no-cost option for people who prefer it.
Wood adorns the door panels and center console, while attractive deep-pile carpet covers the floor. Overall, the Bravada interior looks handsome and has an appropriate high-dollar air about it, though the quality of both the various switches and the plastic panels that surround them is a notch below that of a Ford Explorer.
Triple door seals keep wind noise and dust at bay, insulation masks most tire noise, and the engine makes only a soft hum at highway speeds, though induction and fan noise are noticeable during hard acceleration.
Bravada's rear step bumper is deep enough to ease the effort of loading mountain bikes and other cargo onto the roof rack.
Driving the Bravada in an urban setting is quite similar to piloting an Oldsmobile sedan, such as the Intrigue. The seating position is higher, of course, which is beneficial in terms of seeing what's going on around you, but steering and braking require no more effort than their sedan counterparts. A turning circle only slightly larger than that of most passenger cars aids maneuverability.
The Bravada is equally at home on the open highway. It is still relatively effortless to drive and has a softer than normal ride, at least when judged by SUV standards. It doesn't ride quite as smoothly as a car, however, and cannot because it is essentially a truck.
The brake pedal feels a bit mushy, but with four-wheel disc brakes, the Bravada offers good stopping performance. Repeated stops from higher speeds do not seem to cause brake fade, or loss of braking performance. An anti-lock braking system comes standard, which allows the driver to brake and steer at the same time in an emergency situation.
Performance from the V6 engine is up to class standards, and there is adequate power in reserve for carrying a full load. In a few instances during our test, we wished for a the extra urge a V8 would deliver, which would be helpful when ascending steep grades with a heavy load. But more power would increase fuel consumption, and that's one of the negatives of SUV ownership. Our test gas mileage was slightly below expectations at 17 mpg, but included more off-pavement driving than most Bravadas would face. When equipped with the towing package as our test vehicle was, the Bravada can pull a loaded trailer weighing up to 5000 pounds.
Always bearing Oldsmobile's admonition that the Bravada is not meant to be a true off-road vehicle in mind, we tried some gentle excursions in the deserts of New Mexico and California. The SmartTrak system, which engages all-wheel drive instantaneously and unobtrusively when needed, performed as advertised, and there was plenty of traction available for crossing rocky ground and sand washes. Shallow stream-fording was no problem either. Attempts to bog the Bravada down were unsuccessful, though we caution against trying this away from sources of aid; the absence of a low-range gear set in the transfer case makes wading through deep sand, snow or mud an exercise in caution.
Within its limits, the Bravada represents good value. It is attractive and its solid structure will endure more off-road punishment than it is ever likely to receive. Workmanship in the examples we've seen has been very good as well.
Some entries in the Bravada's class are equipped with features unavailable here. A few offer V8 engines (at extra cost) and most employ two-speed transfer cases in the four-wheel drive systems. But added complexity costs more, and for many shoppers in this market the serious off-road components are unnecessary. Also, many of these other SUVs do not offer the smooth ride and comfort of the Bravada.
The Bravada offers buyers the advantages of a high seating position and rugged looks without the stiff ride found in many SUVs. Buyers who want a luxury sport-utility vehicle capable of handling snow and light-duty off-road driving may well find that the Bravada has what it takes satisfy their needs.