One might say the Big Three are temporarily in neutral after the model-launching frenzy of '95. Apart from Ford Motor Co.'s all-new '96 Taurus/Sable, slightly revamped sheetmetal and new interiors are the main thrust for 1996, holding the domestics over until the next big push in '97-'98.

Perhaps the most extensive changes come, of all places, at Oldsmobile. Tales of the General Motors Corp. Rocket Div.'s demise are, as they say, greatly exaggerated, and Olds has some intriguing new models to carry it into the next century.

For now, the much-maligned Achieva benefits from a heavily revised new interior centered around dual front air bags (finally) and a deep-sixing of those silly door-mounted front seatbelts; the harnesses are now mounted on the B-pillar and on adjustable anchor points, no less.

The Achieva (and all the N-cars) gets as its standard engine a revised version of the established Quad 4 DOHC 4-cyl., stroked for an extra tenth of a liter of displacement to 2.4L and now called the 2.4 Twin Cam. Olds says Achieva buyers can expect 150 hp and 150 ft.-lbs. (203 Nm) of torque. And the balance-shafted 2.4 Twin Cam makes a pretty darn good upgrade engine in the '96 J cars (Chevy Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire), too.

Olds' 88 line gets cleaner front styling and the rip-snorting 240 hp supercharged Series II 3.8L V-6 is optional power for the LSS. A new, 3.4L V-6 (a bored-out version of the existing 3.1L 6-cyl.) is standard equipment for the Silhoutte -- and all GM U-body minivans. The 3.4L's 180 hp and 205 ft.-lbs. (278 Nm) of torque put some honest-to-goodness go into the U-bodies, which frankly have evolved into quite presentable people-haulers.

We'll deal with the '96 Bravada in greater detail later, but knowing that the all-new model is based on GM's highly refined Blazer/Jimmy sport/utilities -- themselves new just last year -- should be enough to assure strong sales. That's particularly true considering that Olds is smart in having equipped the new Bravada to an extremely high standard, with just a handful of available options. The standard powertrain includes the SmartTrak all-the-time 4-wheel drive system, combined with 4-wheel antilock brakes and a locking rear differential.

Those opting for any front-drive Cadillac now get a Northstar 4.6L V-8 powerplant, with the fitting of the 'Star in the DeVille for 1996. The flagship STS (and Eldorado Touring Coupe) is beneficiary of a gorgeous interior redesign -- one looking equal parts Audi A6 and Lexus LS400 (nothing wrong there) -- that puts the somewhat long-in-the-tooth STS in more competitive stead with its Euro/Japanese competition. We'll have to wait for a more comprehensive road test to pass judgement on Caddy's new Magnasteer magnetically-governed variable power steering, but initial evaluation puts the system at about 90% on target.