Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais Quad 442 - Just Say "W41"
by C. Van Tune
(This article initially appeared in the March 1991 issue of Motor Trend.)
Anyone walking into an Oldsmobile dealer looking for a Cutlass may have a difficult time making a decision. There’s not just one Cutlass model, but four—ranging from the middle-America favorite Cutlass Ciera to the stylish Cutlass Supreme, and from the two- or four-dour Cutlass Calais to the wagonback Cutlass Cruiser. You’ll also have to choose from five available engines, and look at enough trim and paint combinations to incite an attack of vertigo.
It’s no wonder some people are confused over exactly which Cutlass it was in the advertisement. Fortunately for performance lovers, however, it has just become easier to get your hands on the hottest Oldsmobile made.
The car’s official name is the Cutlass Calais Quad 442 W41, but we’d recommend you just refer to it by it’s newly aquired alpha-numeric suffix. As with the “Z28” moniker on a Camaro, the “W41” emblems on a Cutlass Calais mean performance. But rather than using a thumpin’ V-8 for motivation, Oldsmobile relies on the high-tech talents of an engine less than half the size of the Camaro’s 5-liter—the 2.3 liter Quad 4.
The Quad 4 was introduced in 1988 as the first of a new series of multi-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder engines from Oldsmobile. Although criticized by some for its inherent roughness and high-rpm noise, the Quad 4 quickly proved a formidible opponent on the street and racetrack alike. In fact, two of Motor Trend’s own resident leadfeat attacked the Bonneville Salf Flats in a highly modified Quad 4-powered Cutlass and drove away with a best two-way average of 221.663 mph. They also broke two speed records in the process. Not bad for a four banger.
The latest iteration of a Quad 4 has even more performance tricks up its sleeve. Nearly every component in the W41 package was developed on the racetrack, and include engine, transaxle, brake, and fuel system improvements. In much the same manner that the “W31” package of the late ‘60s transformed that era’s Cutlass from a granny’s special into a true muscle car, the new W41 components should make a strong impression on those who don’t think much of four-cylinder automobiles.
At the heart of the equation is the 140 cubic-inch, DOHC 16-valve Quad 4 powerplant which is available in several Oldsmobile models. In W41 trim, however, it receives new camshafts, a lower restriction muffler, and an engine oil cooler on non-A/C cars. These improvements only boost output by 10 horsepower to 190 at 6800 rpm (the torque remains at 160 foot-lbs at 5200 rpm), but the motor’s responsiveness and driveability are greatly enhanced. The redline jumps to a rotary-like 7400 rpm, at which point a fuel-cutoff rev-limiter prevents the over-zealous among us from twisting the needle off the tachometer.
All ’91 Quad 4s benefit from internal refinements to keep their high-decibel growling down to reasonable levels, while the W41 models receive cam covers emblazoned with all the technical buzzwords every sixth grader needs to know. Standard Quad 442s (and Chevy Beretta GTZs) will receive the regular 180-horsepower engine.
Lessons learned on the racetrack convinced Olds’ engineers to improve the Quad 442’s gearing. A shorter second-gear ratio was installed to better keep the engine in the powerband at lower speeds, while fifth-gear was also shortened for improved top-gear performance. Combined with the new 3.94:1 ratio ring and pinion (replacing the previous 3.76:1 cogs), the sportiest Cutlass responds with a newfound prowess. You still need to be sure the engine is spinning fairly fast to get a big push in the back, but thanks to the new gearing, it does so much more readily. Gone are the days of coming out of a slow corner and having to wait (as with a turbo) for the revs to build and the power to come on. Now, just put your foot down and hang on.
There’s a mild amount of torque steer in the lower gears, and the car exhibits a darty feel familiar to owners of some other hi-po front drivers. Keep ‘er aimed straight, though, and be prepared for a fast ride. Front-drive cars aren’t the best for drag racing (the rearward weight transfer that takes place unloads the front wheels and results in time wasting wheelspin off the line), but we recorded some downright impressive performance times with the peppy W41. Runs of 7-second 0-60’s are about 0.5 seconds faster than those of the standard Quad 442, but it was the quarter-mile times that really rocked us back on your respective heels. How does 14.7 seconds at 95.7 mph grab you? That’s faster than a 5-liter Z28 Camero and close enough to bump fenders with a Corvette.
The W41’s suspension is unchanged from that of the Quad 442, which means you get the FE3 package’s MacPherson struts up front and a solid beam axle with trailing arms, gas shocks, and coil springs at the rear. The variable-effort rack-and-pinion steering has been revised for ’91, but is still a bit light for our tastes. Likewise, the standard 14x6.0 inch alimunum wheels and 215/60R14 tires are too small for serious corner-turning tasks, and contributed to more understeer than we would have liked.
The standard power disc/drum brakes receive anti-lock modulation as part of the W41 package, and respond with good feel and a little pedal pulsation. They did begin to smoke rather quickly during our day of track evaluation, but still stopped the car well.
Another of the W41’s race-bred components will be appreciated during fast attacks on long, banked onramps. That’s the new, special fuel tank sump that allows use of essentially all the gasoline in the tank without starvation caused by fuel slosh during cornering. This will be a big boon to Oldsmobile’s showroom-stock racing teams, who have suffered from such fuel tank problems in the past.
On the inside, the W41 is a carbon copy of the convetional Quad 442, with decently supportive buckets up front, a nimble five-speed shifter, and small but complete instrumentation. Interestingly, the tach face has not been changed to reflect the higher redline of the W41 motor, and still shows a 6800-rpm limit. Five people can ride in relative comfort thanks to the car’s formal roofline and upright rear seating position, although rear leg room is in short supply. The overall effect of the interior is more one of “family car” than “sporty car,” and lacks the pizzaz that should be a part of anything this flat-out fast.
On the outside, the W41 won’t be mistaken for a new model of Ferarri, but its conservative styling does gain it points as an undercover commuter, allowing you to pass by the eye of the enforcer with nary a glance. The demure rear deck spoiler is hardly an attention getter. Even the blackout trim does little to change the car’s visage away from that of an Avis rental. Only subtle side stribing and small W41 emblems on the front fenders identify this Oldsmobile as being something special.
With only 200 W41’s to be built initially, there won’t be many to go around. If you have a hunch that particular number may have something to do with homogation numbers for eligibility in certain racing classifications, don’t look to us to tell you otherwise.
Budget-minded entusiasts will find even more to like about the car, which can be had for less than just about anything else in its performance class. You can start with a Calais S coupe at $11,495, then add $1,701 for the Quad 442 package, and an additional $894 for the W41 equipment. For just a bit over 14 grand you’ve got a machine capable of embarrasing many high-priced sports cars in straight-line acceleration.
So, the next time you go to the Oldsmobile dealer, don’t bother asking for a Cutlass, Calais, or even a 442. Just say, “W41.” It may help settle the confusion.
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