Oldsmobile’s FE3-X Concepts were Unironically Cool

Being an “old person’s car” is a hard image to shake, especially when the name of your brand has the word ‘old’ in it.

If you were Oldsmobile in the 1980s and 90s, you could either accept your fate or try something different. Most other GM brands chose the latter. Buick made their GNX, a version of the Regal with a ~300hp turbo V6. Cadillac made the youthful and dynamic Cimarron, which the automotive press called everything from “shit” to “fucking shit”.

This gave Oldsmobile Ideas. It was clearly time to make a more future-facing car, but how far should they try to go?

I’ve talked before about the wild Olds Trofeo with the CRT touchscreen. That car was way ahead of its time. However, despite taking aim at the BMW 325i of the same era, it was clearly still American at heart. The engine made all its power down low and the suspension was more supple than sporty. Oldsmobile did, however, have all of the right stuff to make something more similar to their European rivals. Five years earlier they made a trio of concept cars to show the world that Oldsmobile knew a thing or two about performance.

The FE3-X Concepts

In General Motors speak, FE3 described the sportiest suspension they offered. To explain that they were going a step further, Oldsmobile called these cars the ‘FE3-X’ concepts. They were modified versions of the Calais, Firenza, and Cutlass Supreme. The modifications focused on the car’s aerodynamics and chassis. The engines were only lightly modified, however, that doesn’t mean Oldsmobile didn’t have any motors in store that could provide adequate performance.

The Calais

The Calais concept above featured GM’s standard 3.0 liter V6. It made 125 horsepower. This, to me, was disappointing. How could they make me, a Young Person™, want an Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, and then give it a grist mill V6? Well, the good news was that they actually made a production version of this car called the 442 W41. The engine in that car, thankfully, was different. (the car pictured below is not quite the same as the 442, but it’s visually extremely similar).

Instead of the anemic V6, the 442 (named after the popular muscle car from the sixties) actually got a little performer of an engine, the Quad-4. Oldsmobile had developed this engine for themselves, but it actually ended up under the hood of several other cars, including the Cavalier Z24. In its highest output guise (which the 442 received) it made 190 horsepower from 2.3 liters. That’s nothing to sneeze at. BMW got 189 horsepower from their six-cylinder 2.5-liter M54 in the year 2000. Oldsmobile got better specific output than BMW ten years earlier.

The Calais 442 also got the FE3 suspension and a five-speed manual transmission as standard. Motorweek has a video on the International Series Coupe, which is very similar to the 442 (albeit, with 40 less horsepower) that I’ve put below:

Any of the other concepts make it to the streets?

Well, yes and no. This story is complicated for me to look back on more than thirty years later. In a nutshell, the blacked-out Cutlass Supreme didn’t really make it. Oldsmobile did have a high-performance version of the Cutlass Supreme for sale (also called the 442), but it was basically just a non-murdered out, slower, worse Grand National. If you want something like that concept Cutlass, I would just get a GNX (easier said-than-done, I know).

The Firenza is a boring car that deserves to be forgotten about.

Even More Concepts

As well as making the FE3-X concepts, they also made the ‘Quad-4’ concepts. These were based on the Calais as well but also the ninety-eight sedan. Another Motorweek video covers these. Prepare yourself for both a Metallic red Cutlass Calais on basketweaves and another that glitters, to say the least.

A Big ‘What If’

Oldsmobile went out of business in 2004 and that leaves a lot of questions floating around concerning what might have been. I think I’ll have to write another article concerning that hypothetical, but for now, here’s another Quad-4-powered car for you to ponder:

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28 responses to “Oldsmobile’s FE3-X Concepts were Unironically Cool”

  1. roguetoaster Avatar

    Those concepts could just have easily been some Alfa, a Scirocco, and an Opel Rekord. Very rad.

  2. Sjalabais Avatar

    But…how well did they sell? Obviously, Oldsmobile went down, but was the strategy vindicated nonetheless? I am also surprised how long ago the y2k is. Damn.

    1. Maymar Avatar

      Not exceptionally well. Regular Oldsmobiles did just fine, but their performance products didn’t much catch on. The Quad-4 lacked refinement compared to the foreign competition.

      1. Umpire-Sam ✓ᵀᴿᵁᴹᴾ Avatar
        Umpire-Sam ✓ᵀᴿᵁᴹᴾ

        No the quad 4 is a 4 over head cam v6

        1. Maymar Avatar


          This Quad 4 is a V6?

          Although if you’re thinking of the DOHC 3400, that wasn’t a strong seller either.

  3. danleym Avatar

    Stylistically, I prefer the Firenza to the other two. With the right engine (and I’m sure that Quad 4 would do), I think it would fall squarely into the desirable camp.

  4. Tomsk Avatar

    I’d love to know the story about the semi-fastback roofline on the red Calais in the video. It’s a shame the Quad 442 never got the body kit that was applied to the International Series.

    On the 442 subject: I’ve been thinking recently, what if instead of basing the 442 on the Calais, they used the Cutlass Ciera? The standard 442 could use the same drivetrain as the production W41, while the uprated W-model would make use of the turbo Quad4 and the Pontiac 6000 STE’s AWD system?

    Think one of these, but RAD:

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      In my opinion, Olds never had anything after 1987 that was worthy of the 442 name.

    2. disqus_6VWOvIAZzr Avatar

      I agree the International looked good. I’m convinced most took jelly bean styling as unavoidable, and few really liked it.

      I’ve rode in lots of old Cutlasses. Driven lots of the fwd stuff. I’ve had 2 Calais, one stick, both dukes. I wish it evolved to challenge a Golf/GTi, basically a guy likeable appliance set up to later receive an LS-derived V6, fwd only needed. The Cutlass should’ve stayed rwd-based, merged to short/long-wb unibody with Camaro. They should’ve got the rear trans and LS power the same time as the C5. An awd version of that for the 442.

      Pontiac was the brand for the fwd forward thinkers. GM’s current overwrought styling, some of the ads, make me think there’s a lot of self-disgust out there, desire to be someone else. Tap further into pathos; kiss-up to the native leaders and bring it back that way.

  5. Lokki Avatar

    Olds definitely had a good corporate vision (I thought) – they were going to be the modern technology performance division. The Trofeo was a cool modern car; the Quad Four was a cool engine; the Aurora with the short-star engine was a moon-shot to the future car. I really thought that they could lead the way to the 21st Century for Olds.

    However, they were just still too tightly tied to The Deathstar The GM mothership. There just too many compromises, problems and annoyances in buying an Olds, and they were priced highly enough that they had to compete with the Japanese AND the Europeans….

    I wish they’d had a little better budget and a little more freedom – say if they had been given the money and favorite-child status Saturn got.

    1. salguod Avatar

      Because that worked out so well for Saturn? After an impressive launch, they were assimilated into the GM mothership fairly quickly and they too were dead in 2010.

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        Good point. GM was simply too heavy-handed with its divisions. Instead of letting them each find a niche and excel in it, GM forced them all into the same, stale formula with only trivial “brand characteristics” to distinguish them. Cadillac was allowed a little more freedom to differentiate, but only enough to survive.
        But hell, Ford did the same to Mercury, and Chrysler to Plymouth. Had sub-brands been given more autonomy, it’s unlikely that the Japanese cars would have made such an impact in the 70s.

        1. salguod Avatar

          I think I’ve shared this here before, but the story I remember reading (the source is lost to my fading memory) is that GM was so desperate to succeed with a small car after many failures that it created Saturn as a wholly owned but completely separate company. They gave them the freedom to choose anything from GM’s vast parts catalog, or nothing, and the Saturn team agreed that Delco made a decent radio, but they’d do the rest on their own.

          GM stayed out of the way and the original Saturn was a pretty solid first effort. Refinement was a bit lacking, but the cars performed well and I think were pretty reliable. Finally, GM had a decent alternative to the Japanese. The dealer experience is what set them apart, however. Saturn thrived and them the GM bigwigs wanted part of the credit, so they jumped in to “help”.

          Saturn wasn’t profitable, though, so the typical GM solutions were appllied – parts sharing, platform sharing, etc. – until it was just another GM division. Instead of GM becoming more like Saturn, Saturn became more like GM. It wasn’t long before it had no reason to exist.

  6. 0A5599 Avatar

    Cutlass Supreme, Cutlass Calais, Cutlass Cruiser. I wonder if the Mustang department at Ford remembers how that turned out…

  7. Zentropy Avatar

    The G-body is cool, but the Calais and Firenza were notoriously lousy driving cars. 80s-era GM front-wheel-drive cars are just depressing in general.

    1. neight428 Avatar

      Agreed on the G-body Cutlass. Detroit Speed still to this day makes all manner of trick suspension bits for the G_body, the drivetrain could be swapped from an F-body and no one would notice, and they were the basis of NASCAR Cup series cars, but GM indulged very little in the way of actual performance versions of these models. Apart from the GN, you had the Monte SS which was, erm, ok. Seriously, what was stopping them from putting the L98 350 in them, no takers?

    2. neight428 Avatar

      Agreed on the G-body Cutlass. Detroit Speed still to this day makes all manner of trick suspension bits for the G_body, the drivetrain could be swapped from an F-body and no one would notice, and they were the basis of NASCAR Cup series cars, but GM indulged very little in the way of actual performance versions of these models. Apart from the GN, you had the Monte SS which was, erm, ok. Seriously, what was stopping them from putting the L98 350 in them, no takers?

      1. Tomsk Avatar

        Probably didn’t want to spend the money on emissions certification testing. Just because an engine meets standards in one platform doesn’t mean you can just go and plop it in another.

        1. neight428 Avatar

          Probably something dumb like that. Whatever marginal curb weight or aerodynamic advantage an F-body would have over a G, that extra 0.06 on the CAFE would have been a deal breaker.

      2. Zentropy Avatar

        Yeah, I’ve seen some pretty badassed G-body sleepers with all sorts of powertrain and suspension goodies swapped in. Throw parts at a FWD N-body, though, and you simply get an expensive POS.

        1. disqus_6VWOvIAZzr Avatar

          A company called Mantapart (in OH I think) used to sell N-body upgrades, before I had disposable income for it.

  8. salguod Avatar

    Olds in the 60s was an engineering powerhouse. The FWD Toronado, the first production Turbo, etc. In the 70s and 80s it was just another GM division, but in the 90s Olds had another go at it. The Quad 4, the Aurora, the Aerotech and the Acheiva SCX. It was too little and too late, however.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      I love Oldsmobiles of the 60s (and the 50s). Great tech and beautiful designs. They make me wonder what GM’s various divisions may have achieved had they been allowed some autonomy. The only Olds after that period that really interests me is the ’91-’92 Custom Cruiser wagon, but I like it simply because it’s a massive station wagon (and I still like the styling).

      I wasn’t impressed with most Oldsmobiles of the 90s. The Quad 4 (especially the W41 version) generated impressive power, and it made the Achieva SCX pretty quick, but that was a crude engine in a crude vehicle. NVH was so bad it made you want to get off the accelerator just to make it stop turning. The Achieva to this day ranks as the absolute worst car I’ve ever driven, followed closely by its sibling the Grand Am and its successor, the Alero.

      The Aurora was admittedly a respectable last-gasp effort, though.

      1. salguod Avatar

        Refinement was GM’s weakness in the 90s (and beyond), but they produced some good driving and good handling cars. Well, according to the magazines anyway, I didn’t drive many of them. The SCX, Beretta GTZ and even the Citation X-11 all were praised for their driving dynamics. Unfortunately, that solid handling lived in a rather crude package.

        I did drive a lot of 80s and 90s GM cars as a valet and I’m familiar
        with the GM rattles, growl and coarseness. Brand new 3rd generation F
        bodies and C4 Corvettes were especially terrible. They would come into the hotel and they already
        rattled like they had been beat on for a decade and 100K miles.

  9. Umpire-Sam ✓ᵀᴿᵁᴹᴾ Avatar
    Umpire-Sam ✓ᵀᴿᵁᴹᴾ

    Try the 1993 cutlass convertable with the quad four v6 they can make 300 hp

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      “Quad 4” meant 4 valves and 4 cylinders– it wasn’t a term applied to the V6. It think the 3.4L V6 was called the Twin Dual Cam. It was originally capable of 275 hp, but was detuned to 215 because GM’s lousy transaxles couldn’t handle that much power. Those days, though, any FWD with more than about 225 hp would torque-steer you right into the weeds if you mashed the pedal, so it wasn’t a good idea anyway.

  10. longrooffan Avatar

    I loved the idea of the Trofeo but unfortunately, every time I think of this era Oldsmobile, this is what I remember.


  11. Pinkerton9 Avatar

    The W41 was hot. A high school friend’s dad had one in bright red, probably a 1990. I was kind of an Olds guy back then, and everybody was down on the marketing for this car. Never mind how good it was, they were pissed that they couldn’t have their RWD Cutlass with a v8. Never mind that this was faster than anything that had come out wearing an Cutlass badge for the past two decades.

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