Curbside Capsule: 1992-97 Cadillac Seville STS – The Pursuer

(first posted 8/30/2015)    This was the car Lincoln was gunning for with its 1995 Continental. Well, not quite, as today’s article proved: the Continental was ostensibly a Seville rival that confusingly became a DeVille rival, even though Lincoln already had the Town Car for that role. Cadillac wasn’t necessarily clear on its positioning, either. The 1992-97 Seville was available in sporty, monochromatic, import-fighting STS trim, like our featured example, but was also available as a be-chromed, luxury-oriented SLS that was even offered with a column shifter.

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Cadillac had been taking steps to sharpen its image in light of declining sales and aging buyers. The first step was the inaugural 1975 Seville, which offered crisp styling and European sizing. Then, Cadillac lost its way for a little while, with the half-baked Cimarron and the gauche second-generation Seville. Finally, Cadillac realized it needed to offer a sports sedan to do battle with the Europeans, and launched the 1988 Seville STS. With its smart size, absence of chrome and buttoned-down suspension, the Seville STS was arguably the most European Cadillac yet and it paved the way for an even more compelling fourth-generation Seville.

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The 1992 Seville would launch with the carryover pushrod 4.9 V8 as the Northstar V8 was experiencing production delays. Despite the old engine, the Seville (in STS guise) still won Motor Trend Car of the Year and received critical acclaim across automotive journalism circles.

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Almost all of the flaws of the third-generation had been banished, particularly its boxy interior and exterior. The cabin was modern and elegant, and the exterior was crisp and striking. The Seville also undercut key German and Japanese rivals on price.

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It wasn’t bad to drive, either. Front-wheel-drive is generally seen as an impediment in larger cars, but although the Seville couldn’t carve corners like a 540i, it still acquitted itself quite well. Suspension tuning was softer than the Bimmer, even in STS trim, but the Caddy could show the 540i its taillights thanks to its powerful Northstar V8 engine. In STS trim, the Northstar pumped out 295 hp and 290 ft-lbs of torque (from 1994, 300 hp and 295 ft-lbs). The SLS, from 1994, had a slightly lower horsepower (270-275) version of the engine with 5 more pound-feet of torque, for greater low-end response.

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The engine was part of the heavily-marketed “Northstar System”, a term applied to the combination of smooth-shifting GM 4T80-E four-speed automatic transmission, Northstar V8, Magnasteer speed-variable power-steering, four-wheel anti-lock brakes and, available from 1994, continuously-variable road-sensing suspension

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Ultimately, though, the Seville had a 65/35 front/rear weight distribution and it was never going to feel as balanced and lithe as a 540i. By the time the fifth-generation Seville had launched in 1998, GM had commenced development of a rear-wheel-drive platform to underpin a range of cars. Now, Cadillac offers a range of sedans with world-class dynamics, and there’s a reason for that: they are on rear-wheel-drive platforms.

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Still, the fourth-generation Seville STS was a compelling effort and showed the Germans and Japanese that Cadillac could field a sedan worthy of being said in the same breath. The more expensive STS ended up accounting for half of total Seville volume almost every year. So why, then, did Cadillac offer a more traditionally-appointed SLS that for a few years even came with, gasp, a column shifter? Perhaps a cushy, luxury-oriented model wouldn’t have been such a big deal, considering the success of the plush Lexus LS400. However, Cadillac had the slightly cheaper DeVille on hand, available with the same powertrains: the pushrod 4.9 Cadillac V8 and later, the Northstar. Its more conservative Cadillac styling would likely have appealed more to traditional Cadillac consumers anyway.

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I used to pass by this Seville regularly on my way from the subway station to my work. Unusually, it has a chrome grille and hood ornament, which were features generally seen on the SLS. However, the wheels and badging indicate it is an STS, and it would appear to be a 1993-95 model. Was this a dealer option, or an aftermarket modification?

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Lincoln was confused about where the Continental fit in its lineup and how it should have been marketed, but the Cadillac they were gunning for was similarly trying to be all things to all people. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with preferring column shifters or bench seats and there was a market for plusher luxury sedans equipped accordingly. The problem is, Cadillac already had a presence there, and diluting its aspirational performance flagship was misguided. It’s a delicate balancing act trying to retain existing, loyal customers but also appeal to a new, younger set of buyers with different tastes. Unfortunately, it has been a long road for Cadillac and a journey they are still making. The 1992-97 Seville was a competitive and appealing car, but for the sake of Cadillac’s image perhaps it would have been wise to offer it only as an STS.