Chevrolet Lumina 1995-1999
Over-looked and Under-appreciated
You really have to wonder what General Motors was thinking in the eighties. How could the largest, richest, and grandest automotive company on the planet produce some of the stuff they did?
Take, for instance, the original Lumina. Introduced as a 1990 model, it was behind the curve even before its first day. A goofy dash, tacky, ill-fitting interior materials and uninspired (to be kind) ride and handling were standard equipment on every Lumina.
I remember driving one of those first models, coming away in total disbelief. The benchmarks had been around for a while now -- the Camry, the Taurus and the Accord. How could Chevy, with its vast resources, miss the mark by such a wide margin?
Fast forward five years and Chevy introduces the second generation Lumina. A huge improvement, it still seems to be saddled by the preconceptions of the first model and never really got its due, either by the automotive press or the buying public. Properly equipped, this is a good car. Not outstanding at anything, it is competent and loaded with value.
Unlike the original Lumina, which came in 2- and 4-door bodystyles, this Lumina is available only as a 4-door sedan. Initially, two trim levels were offered, Base and the more expensive LS. For the '97 model year a performance version, the LTZ was added to the lineup. It included bucket seats with console, a tighter suspension, upgraded brakes and its own distinctive trim. It was all pretty subdued, however, and you have to look closely to spot the differences.
Engine availability change a bit during the model run. The base engine was a 3.1 liter OHV V6, with a much more powerful 3.4 liter DOHC V6 available on the LS. With the arrival of the LTZ, the big motor was dropped from the option list of the LS, and was only available on the LTZ. For 1998, the 3.4 liter V6 was replaced buy GM's ubiquitous 3.8 liter OHV V6. It was not available on the Base or LS models.
GM's excellent 4-speed automatic/overdrive was the only transmission choice.
Most auto writers have complained about the Lumina's bland, uninspired styling. While setting no design trends, we think it is a clean, simple and contemporary design. Much like the Toyota Camry of the day, whose styling everyone seems to praise.
The front presents a clean, uncluttered design. A feature line three-quarters of the way up the fenders and doors, and a side rub strip with discreet chrome inserts bring effective relief to the sides. The roofline is pleasing to look at, and the rear view presents a clean and rather tight and buttoned-down appearance. In fact, we think it looks better than the Camry of the period.
The larger (16") wheels and tires, standard on the LS ('97-up) and LTZ, lend a hint of aggressiveness to the overall appearance.
Inside, the story is a little less impressive. Sure, it's a huge improvement over the old Lumina, but GM still wasn't getting the whole CMT (color, material & texture) thing. Textures abruptly change, color shades are sometimes off and materials just don't exude that first quality look. The LS, with it's upgraded trim and upholstery is better, but still well short of class leaders Accord and Camry.
The look and operation of the dashboard are good. Big, legible, white-on-black gauges and tachometer (LS, LTZ) greet the driver. Controls are easy to find. Easy-to-use rotary controls high on the dash regulate heating and cooling.
Switch feel is much improved from earlier efforts, but the column stalk for the directionals is stiff and clunky.
A split bench seat is standard on the Base and LS, with buckets and console residing in all LTZs. Fit and finish appeared acceptable on the three examples we looked at. Perhaps somewhat surprising, there weren't any squeaks or rattles in any of the three, and the interiors showed little wear.
Room & Comfort
At over 200 inches, the Lumina is a fairly large car. Yet it rates about the same amount of room as the nine inch shorter '95 Taurus. That's not to say there isn't plenty of room in the Lumina, because there is. It's just not too efficient at making that space available.
The bench is a bit thin on padding, but seems comfortable enough. The biggest complaint was lack of lower back support. The buckets were acceptable as well, though you shouldn't expect world-class comfort from either.
Headroom and legroom are ample front and rear. Some of the rear-seat headroom was bought at the expense of thigh support, though. The rear seat cushion is too close to the floor. Placing your feet on the floor raises your thighs off the seat (which is not conducive to comfort on long drives). Here, the center passenger actually benefits from a higher cushion. But three in back are still a tight fit.
The Lumina offers good visibility all around, and both short and tall drivers can find a comfortable driving positions that offers a good view of the road. A tilt-wheel is standard on all Luminas.
Although optional on the Base model, most Luminas were equipped with power assists for the windows. Power locks were standard across the board. Speed control was standard only on the LS.
Trunk space is competitive for the class and offers a nice flat floor for cargo. You have to be careful of the decklid hinges, though, as they are big and can crush anything under them when the trunk is closed.
Ride, Handling and Performance
For our tastes, the ride quality of the base Lumina is a bit too traditional American. No, it doesn't compare to a '78 Caprice, but it does wallow around somewhat. It's not unacceptable and there is some degree of "handling" available, but the bias towards ride is a bit too much. The all-around McPherson struts are clearly tuned toward ride softness. Steering feel is practically nonexistent, but the front wheels respond quickly to steering inputs.
The LTZ and the LS equipped with the big engine sport much tighter suspensions. Don't go confusing this with a BMW though. There is still plenty of softness apparent at higher speeds, but overall the vehicle is much more controlled than with the base setup. Ride quality doesn't suffer at all, and actually improves in some regards.
The base 3.1-Liter 6-cylinder engine generates 160hp and moves the Lumina around adequately. It is extremely quiet, especially considering that it is an old-style pushrod motor. The optional DOHC 3.4L V6 generates a full 215hp. Acceleration is brisk, with 60 mph coming up in about 8 seconds. The 3.8L V6 makes 200hp and gobs of low-end torque. It moves the Lumina equally well, bringing up the 0-60mph dash a tick or so faster than the twin-cam mill, but ceding high speed acceleration to the free-revving 3.4.
The automatic transmission is GM's excellent 4T60-E 4-speed unit that compares well with any automatic made by anybody. It's silent and smooth and has a knack for getting the most out of whatever engine it is mated to.
Base models are equipped with a front disc/rear drum setup, while LS models add ABS to that setup. Luminas equipped with one of the big engines got discs all-around with ABS. Braking distances are about mid-pack and exhibit quite a bit of front-end dive, but it all happens under control and without fanfare.
A solid structure and extensive sound dampening lead to an exceptionally quiet car. Noise levels are among the lowest in this class (well below an Accord or Taurus) and indeed, below many so-called luxury cars. In fact, we drove a Lexus ES300 just before jumping into a Lumina LS and we were hard-pressed to discern much a difference in noise levels--really.
Dual airbags, front and rear shoulder belts and ABS brakes are all standard equipment. 1995 and 1996 models were engineered to meet stricter 1997 federal impact requirements. 1998 models received new, 2nd generation airbags that deploy with less force.
Government crash tests on 1995-97 models resulted in a 5-star (excellent) rating for the driver and a 4-star (very good) rating for the front passenger. Curiously, 1998 & 99 models received a 4-start rating for the driver and a 5-star rating for the front passenger. This may be due to the new airbags. Side impact test resulted in 4-stars for front seat passengers and 3-stars for rear seat passengers.
The Lumina scored very well in offset crash tests by the insurance industry-sponsored IHS (Institute for Highway Safety). It received a "Best Pick" award from the Institute.
Base models were not equipped with ABS brakes as standard equipment, but many models are so equipped.
Normal maintenance and service costs on the Lumina are commendably low. All the engines use timing chains, so there are no belts to service.
Extended life coolant, stainless steel exhaust systems, and two-sided galvanized body panels also help to lower maintenance costs.
Replacement parts are Chevy-low. One exception -- the dual exhaust system on the 3.4 and 3.8 liter engines is somewhat expensive to replace.
This version of the Lumina is one of GM's most reliable cars. There are no major problems to worry about, and even the usual little things going wrong that GM is famous for have been kept well in check.
Early versions of the twin-cam 3.4 liter engine had their share of problems, but by the time it made it's way into the Lumina's engine bay the gremlins have appeared to have been removed.
The 3.1L and 3.8L pushrod motors come from the GM corporate parts bin and are old designs that have been continually upgraded and improved over the years. They are both very reliable.
We feel the Lumina is one of those cars that never really gets its due. It always seems to get lost in the sea of Camrys, Accord, Intrepids and Taurus'. And the reputation of its predecessor doesn't help.
That's too bad, because the Lumina offers tremendous value, is competent in all areas and is even quite good at some things.
Used pricing is low, mostly because of the reasonable price tag it carried when new and the lack of respect it receives as used..
Don't overlook it!
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