Olds Custom Cruiser

Although minivans now rule suburbia, carmakers aren't neglecting station-wagon loyalists. Oldsmobile, which introduced its Silhouette minivan in 1990, has updated and improved its Custom Cruiser wagon for 1991. With a $20,495 base price, the Custom Cruiser is the most contemporary-looking of this year's full-size wagons.

Contemporary does not mean small. The new Olds Custom Cruiser is 6 1/2 feet wide and more than 18 feet long. That's substantially larger than the Ford Taurus and Mercedes and Volvo wagons--and two feet longer than the Silhouette minivan. The back-seat leg room is superior to that of many luxury cars, while hip and shoulder room have been added in both front and rear seats. Flip up the third, rear-facing row, and the Cruiser can seat up to eight people.The car's basics are as traditional as its size: a five-liter V-8 engine, rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame construction. In updating this behemoth, Oldsmobile's engineers made major improvements to both the transmission and the engine. The power steering has been calibrated to match the wagon's heft, so the handling is surprisingly graceful for the vehicle's size. Antilock brakes are standard, as is a driver's-side airbag.

The designers deserve the most applause, however. They restored the Vista roof, a band of dark-tinted glass just above and ahead of the second row of seats. It's a stylish touch that fights the dowdy image of wagons. Then they added optional leather seats and steering wheel ($490). Finally, they got rid of the fake-wood paneling on the outside. If you must have fake wood, you can still find it on Buick's version of the Custom Cruiser, the Roadmaster wagon.

BICEP BUILDER. The designers didn't get everything right, though. Gas-filled struts aid in opening the hood, but opening the heavy doors is still a workout. And the new rear-window wiper isn't much help: It cleans only the top right quarter of the window.

The most annoying glitch in this big wagon are the illogical outside-mirror controls. There's a remote control for the driver's-side mirror but not for the one on the passenger's side. In order to adjust the latter, the driver must stretch across the broad front seat. You can buy a remote control for the passenger-side mirror, but only as part of a $2,638 package that includes every option available on the car. Still, at barely $23,000, that's a lot of car for the dollar.

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