By Alex Law

When the Oldsmobile Bravada debuts in Canada next year, it will be a lot bigger and more powerful than the model the Americans currently get, and it will be more street-oriented than most SUVs.

The 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada uses a 152-mm longer wheelbase and will be 254 mm longer, 127 mm wider, and 127 mm taller than the model it replaces, which is a sibling to the Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy that we currently get.

We can expect, then, to see bigger versions of those models next year as well, but that's a story for another time.

For potential buyers, what's most interesting about the new Bravada is its intent, which is to get as far away from the truck-like ride, handling and performance that is so common in SUVs of all sizes.

To that end, Bravada gets a new 4.2-litre inline-6 (the first straight-6 from GM in two decades), a one-frame chassis, and a sophisticated suspension which includes a new air bladder system. Oldsmobile's general manager, Karen Francis, says the result is a car with "ride qualities normally found only in high end luxury sedans."

Francis says this kind of big step away from the current SUV set-up was necessary because the "SUV market is asking for the best of both worlds in terms of comfort and vehicle dynamics and we feel the new 2002 Bravada delivers all of these qualities and more."

Since Oldsmobile's prime directive is to deliver vehicles that will appeal to consumers in the market for an import, it's not unfair to imagine that Bravada is meant to go after the people who've made the RX300 the best-selling Lexus and those slightly flusher folks who've given the BMW X5 such a warm early welcome.

The key to the Bravada's new attitude is undoubtedly the one-frame construction, Francis says, since it replaces the eight-frame design of the current model and that "reduces overall build complexity allowing for higher standards in noise isolation and reductions in vibration on both the chassis frame and body structure."

The new frame design also features the first use of hydroformed side rails in an SUV at both the front and rear of the chassis. This permits structural components that are lighter but still increase the structural rigidity and frame strength will less welding and fewer pieces.

Vehicle stiffness is further enhanced by the use of eight structural cross members (up from six), and vehicle stiffness is the linchpin to improved ride, handling, and comfort, and to lower levels of the noise and vibration so common in trucks.

Noise and vibration are further reduced by the use of hydro-mounts under the hood to maximize engine vibration isolation from that new frame. The donut-shaped mounts are filled with hydraulic fluid and replace the traditional solid rubber mounts.

Not that there's going to be a lot of vibration from this new engine, Francis is quick to add, since the straight-6 engine was designed to be smooth. She promises that "drivers can expect world class levels of smoothness and quietness throughout the operating range of the Bravada, from idle to freeway cruising."

The Vortec 4200 engine displaces 4.2 litres, has dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, and will create more than 250 horsepower and more than 250 pound-feet of torque around 2000 rpm. The exact figures are being saved for this summer.

The inline-6 configuration returned to GM's North American lineup because that layout is inherently smoother than a V configuration, says Ron Kociba, the new powerplant's chief engineer. Kociba promises "excellent fuel efficiency and emissions benefits, along with equal or better performance than a V8 in similar applications."

In Kociba's view, some of the particular charms of this engine would include the high (10:1) compression ratio, electronic throttle control, exhaust cam phasing (which is commonly known as variable-valve timing and which delivers a flatter torque curve), coil-on-plug ignition, Multec II fuel injectors, and advanced powertrain control module, direct mount accessories, easy-maintenance features, and the fact that it gets its high performance levels with regular rather than premium gas.

Bringing all this power to a stop is the job of the four anti-lock disc brakes, which sit inside the 17-inch alloy wheels and the P255/60R17 Cross Terrain tires from Michelin, which are supposed to be the widest tires in the category.

For a superior ride, GM gave the Bravada the segment's first 5-link suspension as well as the air bladder system which will be billed as the Electronically Controlled Air Suspension (ECAS) but not billed separately since it will be a standard feature.

The front suspension set-up incorporates a coil-over-shock modular design and double-A arm configuration with forged steel lower control arms. There's also a 46-mm stabilizer bar for better steering dynamics.

It's what's missing (the traditional leaf springs) that make the rear suspension so interesting. In their place, GM has used a 5-link design that includes upper and lower linkages that attach to the frame and axle from two points on each side, while a transverse linkage (aka a track-bar) runs the length of the axles for improved lateral stability. There's also a 24-mm stabilizer bar back there.

The bladders in the ECAS are 280 mm high and 150 mm in diameter and are directly mounted to the rear axle. Load inputs are continually monitored so that the bladders can inflate or deflate to provide the best load leveling and the best damping on all surfaces, but particularly broken concrete.

The primary result of Bravada's new suspension system, says Francis, are "the same ride characteristics often found on high-end luxury cars."

Luxury is also the byword inside the Bravada, Francis claims, citing its vastly increased interior dimensions as an excellent start to that. That extra space is considerable in a vehicle that uses a 2870-mm wheelbase, is 4834 mm long, 1829 mm wide, and 1782 mm tall.

But there are also perforated leather seats fore and aft, soft-touch materials on the doors, judicious amounts of wood trim on the doors, instrument panel and doors, a new climate-control system with rear seat controls, and a new sound system with rear seat controls.

Summing up, Francis says the Bravada "builds on our product portfolio and delivers the sophisticated balance of power and comfort that is a hallmark of the new Oldsmobile."

In closing, it is interesting to point out what Oldsmobile did not mention about the Bravada -- its off-road abilities, which must be at least adequate. Clearly, Olds thinks its version of GM's new compact (though that term is less applicable than ever) SUVs will be a street-sweeper more than anything else.

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