(first posted 10/5/2015) The Cadillac Cimarron is one of the more reviled cars in recent history. Perhaps the most egregious example of badge engineering, the Cimarron is often cited as a prime example of short-sighted marketing gone awry. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s plain to see that the Cimarron – largely a clone of the much cheaper Chevrolet Cavalier – never stood a chance. Given that clear prognosis of failure, it’s reasonable to wonder just how this car came to be produced in the first place.
This particular car is a 1984 model – from the third of Cimarron’s seven model years, and the year it most resembled a Cavalier. Except for the missing bumper fillers, this car appears to be in very solid condition, and is one of the very few Cimarrons to make it to the 30-year mark.
At the dawn of the 1980s, Cadillac was taking a beating – for its lack of fuel efficient cars during the energy crisis, and for the sense that the brand was appealing increasingly to older, stodgy customers. Division sales plunged 39% between just 1978 and 1980 (to 213,000 units) – and panic set in.
People (and companies) tend not to think clearly when panicked, and Cadillac dealers and some executives began clamoring for an “import fighter” small car that could attract a younger and more efficiency-minded crowd. Enter the J-car.
General Motors’ J-car was its high-profile subcompact set to debut for 1982, led by the entry-level Chevy Cavalier, with models planned for Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick as well – each with 4 body styles. Could a sedan version possibly be reworked into a Cadillac? A tempting question, since it could theoretically be a silver bullet – but there was quite a debate among GM managers about this point.
Those advocating for a J-car Cadillac pointed to the burgeoning success of small premium European cars such as BMW’s 320i and Audi’s 4000. Furthermore, Japanese carmakers were inching upscale, stretching the concept of what was possible with a smaller car. Datsun and Toyota were foraying into the near-luxury field with their Maxima and Cressida sedans, both effective adaptations of American preferences in a small car. Buyers lapped it all up, particularly younger, affluent buyers – the very people Cadillac hoped to attract with its own small car.
Clearly, there was a market for upscale small cars, but should Cadillac sell one? Some at GM thought NO… that Cadillac should focus on traditional luxury offerings, and leave small cars to other divisions. A small Cadillac, it was thought, would dilute the aura of Cadillac that was carefully crafted over generations.
Ultimately, it was thought that Cadillac’s then-plunging sales and the continuing energy crisis warranted a drastic move. The viewpoint that Cadillac should develop its own J-car prevailed, but only 11 months before the J-car’s planned introduction. That left Cadillac engineers and product planners a very short time to build their own unique offering, and no time or budget to craft any meaningful unique parts or equipment. The end result was predictable.
The Cimarron was officially introduced in May, 1981 as an ’82 model. Unfortunately, GM botched the J-car introduction. Production was delayed, but ads weren’t, meaning that GM was advertising cars that were largely unavailable at dealers. Cadillac then took the odd step of restricting sales of early ’82 Cimarrons to dealers that sold no other small cars (i.e., Cadillac-only dealers). Ostensibly a way to deal with restricted production, the move only heightened sensitivities to comparing Cimarron to cheaper subcompacts.
When production finally did gear up, the early-80s recession was in full swing, dampening car sales everywhere. And then there was the engine. All 1982 J-cars were powered by an 88-hp 1.8-liter carbureted, 4-cylinder engine. The engine became known for running rough and loud, except when it stalled, which was often. Performance was lethargic – barely acceptable for an economy car, but completely embarrassing for a Cadillac. 1982 automatic J-cars could “accelerate” to 60 mph in 17 seconds – and that’s with the air conditioner turned off.
Cimarron did feature unique front and rear design treatments, as well as leather upholstery, alloy wheels, more sound insulation, a fuzzy headliner and a full instrumentation. But its engine and transmission were identical to other J-cars – the 1.8-liter engine mated to a 4-speed manual (Cadillac’s first since 1953) or a 3-speed automatic.
One area on which Cadillac engineers were able to focus was the suspension. Each of the other four J-cars had slightly unique suspension components (part of GM’s effort to design a separate ‘feel’ for each division), so Cadillac raided GM’s parts bin to come up with its own setup. Cimarrons featured anti-roll bars from the performance-oriented J’s, and firm struts, but softer springs to provide a well-controlled yet comfortable ride. Given their constrained parameters, Cadillac engineers succeeded: Cimarrons handled relatively well.
Considering the headwinds Cimarron faced from the start, it’s surprising that the car logged over 25,000 sales in its first year – even if that number was below GM’s expectations. But these buyers did not fit the “young professional” profile that Cadillac had hoped for. Cimarron buyers’ average age was in the early 50s – just a notch lower than the average age of Cadillac buyers overall. Dealers noted that many early Cimarrons were sold as 2nd cars or “wives cars” to existing or former Cadillac owners.
Cimarron sales remained in the 20,000-unit range throughout most of its production life. That wasn’t enough to make anyone proud, but it wasn’t poor enough to force Cadillac to quickly discontinue its J-car, and admit defeat.
It is often cited that a Cimarron cost twice as much as a Cavalier, which is true when looking at base prices alone. However, the J-cars had very wide price ranges, and all were available with luxury options such as power windows, power driver seats and sunroofs. In fact, the only major unique major feature in the Cimarron was its leather upholstery. While selling a luxury car with overt similarities to cheaper models was a huge mistake, the Cimarron’s price differential is not quite as exaggerated as first meets the eye. In 1984, a Cimarron cost $2,300 (or 17%) more than a similarly equipped Buick Skyhawk.
Of course, having Cadillac offer a clone of any J-car was a fatal flaw. This was especially true in the crucial first year: 1982 Cimarrons were awful, with that impossible-to-ignore weakling engine. GM improved the J-car for 1983 by upgrading to a 2.0-liter fuel injected engine. Although horsepower remained at 88, torque was up 10%, and overall drivability soared.
Now the J-car was at least adequately powered, for an economy car. For a luxury car, the Cimarron still had subpar power and refinement, just a little less so. Cadillac also reworked the suspension for ’83, and gave the Cimarron a redesigned grille, finned alloy wheels and fog lights – in a desperate attempt to make it look slightly more Cadillac-like.
1984, our featured year, was largely a carryover, however the grille was again redesigned, as were the tail lights. But it was not a kind year for the Cimarron because our car’s progenitor and nemesis, the Cavalier, sported a redone front end of its own – featuring quad headlamps and a rectangular grille – just like the Cimarron. As shown above, the similarity between the two cars is undeniable.
Our featured car sports an aftermarket (likely dealer-installed) grille and stand-up hood ornament. Neither blends well with the car’s design, but they were common add-ons, and speak to buyers’ and dealers’ desire for a more traditional-looking Cadillac.
This car has one very unusual feature – cloth upholstery, which was a credit option (for $100) over the standard leather. Considering that leather seating was one of Cadillac’s bragging points about the Cimarron, it was probably rarely ordered.
Otherwise, this Cimarron is at the lower end of the equipment range. It features some of the more common options such as an automatic transmission, power windows and locks, and a rear defogger. However, it does not include cruise control, the “Symphony Sound” cassette stereo, power antenna, or the available pop-up sunroof.
By 1984, however, instead of buying fuel-sipping smaller cars, Cadillac customers had returned to traditional luxury. 1984 was Cadillac’s best sales year of the decade, with 327,000 cars sold – up 60% from the 1980 low point. Americans were again enjoying 99-cent gasoline, and again valued both size and comfort in their luxury cars. Whatever rationale existed to bring the Cimarron into this world in 1981 had already vanished by 1984.
Still though, the Cimarron lived on. For 1985, the car got much-needed improvements – a 2.8-liter V-6 (optional at first, then standard in 1987) and a redesigned front end that added 5 inches of length and that finally distinguished it a bit from other J-cars.
Further improvements came in the following 3 years. By its final year of 1988, the Cimarron was a decent car, and stylistically was distinguished from other GM products. Had the Cimarron debuted with these improvements in 1981, it may have stood a chance both at sales success and at attracting younger, performance-oriented buyers.
Cimarron’s legacy was that it brought unrelenting shame on its parent company. Poorly conceived and executed, the relatively low-volume Cimarron was exactly what Cadillac didn’t need in the 1980s. Cadillac’s immediate reaction was to disavow any attempt to pursue younger buyers for the rest of the decade.
Mid-decade Cadillacs (like those above) instead focused on continuing the division’s traditional luxury strengths. However, by the 1990s Cadillac was facing the an even more aging customer base than a decade earlier, and the attempt to woo younger, sportier buyers began anew with the Catera.
Even 15 years later, GM executives were still apologizing for the Cimarron fiasco. Ultimately, the Cimarron wasn’t a terrible car; it was just a terrible Cadillac. Creating a small, nimble, fuel-efficient luxury car was a good strategy in the early 1980s, but GM’s execution and timing of the Cimarron could hardly have been worse. In a panicked pursuit of younger customers, Cadillac forsook distinctiveness, performance and value, and the resulting car wound up being a textbook example of what not to do in a crisis. It’s up to history to determine if that lesson has been fully learned.
Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in August 2015.