All-American Time Capsules: 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser vs 1995 Mercury Sable

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Welcome back! In what has become a week of cars in the “where are they now?” file, today’s choices are both from the good old US of A. But first, let’s take a look at yesterday’s results:

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Well, that’s pretty decisive. Personally, I’d take either of them, with a slight advantage given to the Mazda just for the low mileage. But they’re both good little cars.

Today we’ve got a sedan and a wagon, both V6s, both American, both coincidentally dead nameplates. But both cars are still very much alive and kicking. Let’s see which one you prefer.

1988 Olds Cutlass Cruiser – $2,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.8 liter OHV V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Lafayette, CO

Odometer reading: 219,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

The front-wheel-drive A body, introduced in 1982, was kind of the beginning of the “GM cars run like crap forever” myth. Its predecessor, the X body, was still in production, and had a terrible reputation for quality and reliability. But the larger A and smaller J body cars somehow ended up being decent reliabile cars, and were sold for years in various bodystyles.

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This station wagon bodystyle had a different name for each GM division, being sold as the 6000 Safari at Pontiac dealerships, Century Estate by Buick, the specatularly imaginatively-named Celebrity Wagon by Chevy, and the Cutlass Cruiser, like this one, for Oldsmobile. Even though it was a mid-sized wagon, the Cruiser offered a backwards-facing third row of seats – the fabled and often fought-over “way back.”

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This Cruiser has covered a lot of miles – 219,000 – but it’s powered by the legendary Buick 3.8 liter V6. It didn’t put out a lot of power in 1988, but it was still a rock-solid engine capable of piling on the miles. This one just passed a smog test, too, which is indicative of a clean bill of health.

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The rest of this old wagon is in good shape as well, with some wear and cracks in the interior, but no obvious signs of abuse or damage, and no rust or damage outside. Considering the hard life that most family-type vehicles lead, its condition is even more remarkable.

1995 Mercury Sable GS – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter OHV V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Denver, CO

Odometer reading: 151,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

The old square-jawed Cutlass, however, looked instantly ancient in 1986 when Ford introduced the Taurus and its Mercury twin, the Sable. The two were fraternal twins, with some different sheetmetal and window shapes, and more importantly, a light bar across the front, sort of a front heckblende – noseblende, maybe? Whatever you want to call it, it sure looked like crap when one of the lights was burned out.

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This Sable, like so many Sables and Tauruses, is powered by Ford’s 3.0 liter “Vulcan” V6, backed by a four speed automatic. Hey, it works. This one only has 151,000 miles on it, so it should have some life left. It’s being sold by a dealership, so of course nothing is known about its service history, but it’s a simple car.

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It’s an awfully clean-looking car for being twenty-seven years old.The seats are clean and inviting, and Fords of this era had simple, easy-to-decipher controls. Nary a touchscreen in sight. Outside, it looks damage- and rust-free. It’s not a good looking car, exactly, but it’s more interesting than its Taurus sister. And it’s not white. For some reason in my mind all Mercury Sables are white.

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And look! It has a tiny heckblende in the back as well, right above the license plate. Cool, huh?

Well, that’s that. Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone, and we’ll be back on Friday (I think) to pit this weeks winners against each other in the automotive Thunderdome of thought experiment known as “Track, Daily, Burn.” See you then!


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)


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56 Responses

  1. My good friend’s dad had that exact color Sable. He would often ferry us to The Playground Skatepark in CT in that car. The passenger side dash was covered in skate stickers from our trips up there. His dad didn’t seem to mind we stuck stickers on the interior

  2. Having spent a fair amount of time behind the wheel of both the A-bodies and Taurus/Sables when they were new and newish, I’d have to go Sable.
    Drove the Buick version of this wagon (less than a year old), and it was downright scary at any speed above 35, especially when loaded. Suspension was way too soft, tires rolled too easily, and the seating position was poor. The coupe versions was barely any better. Both the 4 and 6 cylinder cars were rough and under powered. They were just poor driving cars.
    In contrast, I liked driving the Taurus/Sables of this generation, much better suspension, smooth engine/transmissions, and far better seats and driving positions. However, the 4 cylinder version was rough and slow, though with the 5-speed it felt sporty.

    I do like the gauge cluster of the Olds, but wagon or not, it is still a front drive A-body….

    1. I voted for the Olds for the reasons you stated. In college my roommates girl friend had the Taurus and we drove it to Pittsburgh for a baseball game. About an hour into the drive I look back and see flashing lights behind us. I pull over then realize I was the one they were pulling over. Statey tells me I was doing 90 in a 65. At that moment I had 2 thoughts:

      1. The speedometer only goes to 85 and I know it wasn’t pegged.
      2. F me I left the baseball tickets in my room.

      As I looked at the cop I said “F tickets.” He laughed and said “yep you are getting a ticket.” I then explained our ticket situation. He laughed and said “don’t worry nobody watches the Pirates you will be fine.”

      Those things are way too comfortable at speed.

  3. This is too much of a flashback to vote on.

    My first real job in 98-01 I worked as an Architect at the University of Michigan. Our department had a couple company cars to drive around campus (and other places). We had like 3 Cutlasses and 2 Tarusesss. All were bad even when they were less than 10 years old. I seem to remember the Cutlasses had much better seats though, if we had to drive out of town, they didn’t hurt as much.

    That’s where I got to drive the original electric Ranger though! Our department had one for a year along with the huge 208V/3ph charger

  4. Frontblende. A Heckblende is at the rear (“Heck” in Geman — when it comes to cars and boats), a “Frontblende” is at the front, which is “Front” in German — when it comes to cars (but not boats).

  5. LN3 V6 and 4T440? A-body all the way. That is just about as bulletproof a drivetrain as GM made in those days. Plus they can both be rebuilt for cheap in the garage.

    My first car was a 1989 Cutlass Cruiser. But it had the Iron Duke and 3 speed auto. It had a terminal case of tin worm to boot.

  6. I love me a Sable but in this comparison, there’s just no question – the A-body wagon takes it home.

    Look, let’s be honest. The Sable dates back to the golden era of the Ford triumvirate – are the head gaskets gona pop? Are the transmission’s days numbered? And will that damn P.S. pump ever stop whining?

    Meanwhile, the Buick 3.8 is well known as an automotive cockroach and GM’s various FWD HydraMatics are robust under daily driver duty. Combine that with the superior versatility of the wagon body and enough ubiquity that you *still* see these suckers in U-Pull-It junkyards even after their now-40-years-passed introduction (!), that clinches it.

  7. I beat several examples of each of these like rented mules back in the days they were new/current. Take the wagon hands down every day here. Don’t want the Taurus ever. Somehow I think someone’s Grandparents owned both examples here. If I was in Colorado now this sweet wagon would be gone already…

  8. My vote goes to the Sable. I’ve always liked how the first and 2nd gen Taurus and Sable looked. And the overall design is much more modern than the Oldsmobile.

    The only advantage the Olds has over this Mercury is that the transmission is likely to be more robust.

  9. My parents had the Buick Century wagon just like this Olds. It ran and was reliable, maintenance wise. But somehow the rear end would lose traction on sudden stops and put the vehicle into a 360. My father and I experienced it more than a few times nearly wrecking us (a full 360 spin is all that saved us from hitting oncoming traffic).
    As much as I have no regard for Sables or Taurus, I went that route. The light bar for me.

    1. I’m just checkin’ in t’ see whut condition your condition is in.

      For all the cost-burdened young fathers (like mine) who threw an extension ladder atop a Country Squire and hustled side jobs, or the burgeoning rock stars lining the back of a Chevy II wagon with blankets and pillows to protect drums, amps, or a girlfriend on a cold night, or fire chiefs, or ambulance attendants, caterers, couriers, and little-league chauffers I say, on their behalf, your condition is Aces over Kings & Queens.

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