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Oldsmobile and Volkswagen are out to get their names on more car buyers' shopping lists by pitting their models against better-known competitors in sponsored test-drive outings.

General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile this summer offered "Dream Drive '95" in which the Aurora-Olds' first luxury sports sedan-was showcased in a nationwide test-drive outing for luxury car buyers. The program attracted about 500 people in each of the 20 cities who came to drive the $33,000 Aurora and its high-price competition.

Among the luxury cars featured were the Mercedes-Benz S320, with a base price of about $60,000; the $50,000 Lexus LS400; an Infiniti J30 and an Acura Legend LS, both with base prices of about $40,000.

"We put ourselves right up against world-class cars," said Carl Sachs, planning and promotions manager for Oldsmobile's Chicago region. "We were so excited about our price-value relationship, we had no hesitation about showing people our Aurora."

In the past, young consumers rarely looked to Oldsmobile for a new car. But the Aurora, which targets a 30- to 40-year-old audience, is a definitive effort by Olds to shed its image as a brand for older buyers. "Dream Drive '95" was designed to "capture the public eye" with a luxury sedan that is not only sporty, but affordable, Mr. Sachs said.

"We know these people look at these cars when they shop, and one thing we want to show them is our price," he said. "When you get into an $80,000 Mercedes, you can tell why it costs $80,000. It has some very nice features. Then you get into a $33,000-$34,000 Aurora and you say, `I wonder if that extra $50,000 really makes that much difference?'*"

One million mailers created by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, were sent nationwide to luxury import owners and people with high incomes who had purchased imports in the past. Guests set up appointments and attended presentations about the performance, features and costs of the cars. Then, they test drove any of the cars on a prepared road course, city streets and parking lots.

In Chicago, about 80% of "Dream Drive `95" attendees said their impressions about the Aurora changed once they drove it, and 50% said it was an excellent value. Oldsmobile plans to run similar test-drive events again to raise consumer awareness about its products.

"Oldsmobile definitely made its point, and if I were in the market for a four-door semi-sporty sedan, I'd definitely consider" the Aurora, said Fritz Golman, a computer consultant and owner of a 1987 Saab 9000.

"It was a nice way to get a head-to-head evaluation of vehicles without having to go to a dealership to be hassled by a salesperson."

Volkswagen conducted a similar event in the spring for Chinese-Americans in San Francisco. About 150 people attended and were invited to compare VW's Passat and Jetta to its competition, which included the Toyota Camry and a BMW model.

Guests sat in on seminars about the cars, then drove the models on all types of road surfaces-wet, dry and icy. A spokeswoman for Loiminchay, San Francisco, Volkswagen's Asian-American agency, said the event showed Asians, who tend to be loyal to Asian automakers, all their options.

"The Asian-American market is very prosperous with growing influence in America," she said. "The test-drive event enabled them to experience all the cars at the same time and see how each handled on different road conditions."

VW held another test-drive outing for ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese in September in the San Jose, Calif., area.

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