Curbside Classic: 1986-1991 Seville – GM’s Deadly Sin #21; And To Think That I Had One (Briefly)!

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(first posted 12/17/2013)     The story of the Seville has five chapters, and unfortunately most of them are rather sad. By far the most depressing one is Chapter Three, which covers the years 1986-1991, the Seville’s nadir. By the metrics of sales, the 1986 Seville and its E-K Body stablemate Eldorado are rightfully Cadillac’s Deadliest Sin ever, their combined sales plummeting 70% from 1985. But there are other metrics to consider too, including the ownership experience. Unlike the other GM Deadly Sins I’ve written about, I have something to add on that account. But it’s not exactly cheerful either.

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The Seville was originally conceived to counter the growing popularity of Mercedes in the seventies, which were smaller and more expensive, and were rightfully seen as a threat to Cadillac’s dominance of the luxury market. Despite it being a fairly handsome car and a decent seller, I called it a Deadly Sin. That was controversial, and I’ve never heard the end of it.

My key point was that the Seville was a lost opportunity for GM and Cadillac to build a true Mercedes fighter, like Lexus did so successfully with its 1990 LS400. The 1975 Seville broke no new ground, given its Nova-roots, leaf springs, standard vinyl top and wire wheels covers. High-earning professionals on the coasts, the key trendsetting demographic for this segment of the market shrugged off the Seville, and Mercedes laughed all the way to the Bundesbank, unlike when the LS400 appeared.  Average sales for the gen1 Seville’s four full years: a healthy 50k per year, but those didn’t come at Mercedes’ expense.

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The second generation Seville (1980-1985) made it blatantly obvious that it had given up any pretense of being a Mercedes fighter. It was a slightly toned-down pimp-mobile saddled with three of the worst engines ever built by GM: the Olds 5.7 diesel, the V8-6-4, and the HT4100. Average sales for its six years:  33k per year, down by fully one-third. That alone qualified it for DS status, never mind its highly questionable looks, cheap interior and terrible engines. But at least no one mistook it for anything else, especially a cheap little compact.

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We’ve covered this story E-K body debacle from another angle before, but after styling boss Bill Mitchell retired, GM design went into a death spiral, with Irv Rybicki at the controls. The great GM Cookie Cutter Era correlated to GM’s greatest market share losses ever. And it wasn’t just that the $27k ’86 Seville looked too much like an $8k Oldsmobile Calais, which even preceded the Seville by a year. It’s also the fact that all these cars just didn’t look good, period.

Their proportions were terrible; the Seville’s roof line is so abrupt and truncated, with the base of its C Pillar arriving way too far ahead of the rear wheel center line, making it look like a short-bed crew-cab pickup, a lá Ranger Sport Trac. The wheel openings are disproportionately huge. Stare at the Seville long enough, especially its rear half, and you can’t help but wonder what the hell was going on at the once-vaunted GM’s Design Center; it looks like someone was learning to use Photoshop. The Calais’ proportions are actually better, for what it’s worth.

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I can hear it now: but Paul, poor GM had draconian CAFE regulations to meet, and had to drastically shrink all of its cars, and this was the inevitable result…with the technology of the times then, it was virtually impossible to make unibodies look different across the various GM brands…. I call B.S. on that whole line of GM apologia. Ford’s Taurus, which appeared the same year as the Seville, was two inches shorter overall, but suffers none of those inexcusable Alice-In-Wonderland proportions, bad lines, and cookie cutter shape. And the Sable managed to have a decidedly distinctive look and feel, despite sharing much of the Taurus’ body and Ford having a lot less resources at their disposal.

That’s just one example close to home; there were numerous other examples of lean, efficient, but roomy and good-looking sedans in Europe at the time. The Seville went from pimp-mobile to pinhead-mobile.

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The gen3 Seville’s styling perpetually creates an odd (and unfortunate) visual effect: it always manages to look even smaller than it really is. I shot these two from across the street, standing right between them, in a deliberate effort to eliminate perspective.

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The Civic coupe certainly looks longer, and when I measure them on my screen, it confirms that. Weird. Yet according to their stats, the Seville is 15 inches longer. Do they shrink in the rain?

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Anyway, shortness has nothing to do with aerodynamic efficiency; in fact the opposite. GM soon slathered on longer front and rear ends on some of its shrunken head-mobiles like the Riviera–with dubious results–since the fundamentally bad proportions couldn’t be so easily fixed. And those elongations certainly didn’t hurt their efficiency.

The simple fact is that a relatively longer shape is intrinsically more aerodynamic than a short one, other factors being equal. So no, there was nothing in the CAFE regulations that mandated stubby ugliness, vertical rear windows, and look-alike cars; maybe Ford was putting something in GM’s CAFEteria coffee.

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Having spilled so much bile, by now some of you may be wondering just exactly how and why I came to “own” one of these Sevilles? Well, I didn’t exactly spend some $30k of my own money on one, that’s for sure. In 1987, I headed up the acquisition of KSTS in San Jose for Telemundo. In case you missed it, that chapter of my life  also involved a new 1986 Mercedes 300E.

After the sale closed and we moved to Los Gatos that summer, I discovered that one of the assets of KSTS included a 1986 Seville, the company car of the out-going General Manager. It was light blue like the featured CC car, but had the Pep Boys-approved wire wheel covers and white wall tires. It was an odd choice, since this was Silicon Valley, and Cadillacs in coastal California at the time were about as in as white shoes and wide lapels. The fact that he was even younger than me made it more perplexing, until I found out he had moved out from Wisconsin to take that job. And the Seville was his (short-lived) dream fulfilled.

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Well, it quickly became my nightmare, in trying to dispose of it. I drove it to my house, and started advertising it in the Sunday papers. This Seville was just barely over a year old, and had cost well over $30k, with options, tax and license, just a bit less than my 300E. This gave me an excellent opportunity to compare the two. Oh my…

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Everything about these two cars was about as different as they could be, for two cars competing in the same class. Where to start? By opening the door and getting in, obviously. “My” Seville had the same blue tufted leather interior as this one, which is of course by now an old car, but the only one at my current visual disposal. The seats were flat and slippery, unlike the well contoured buckets of the Merc. And everywhere one looked or touched, the feeling of a decidedly cheaper-looking interior was inescapable.

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Except for the (genuine) oak veneer on the dash (this later seems to have walnut), it looked and felt like it could have been borrowed from any of GM’s cheaper cars, like a Celebrity or such. There was just no sense of exclusivity, taste or quality ambiance, and all the switch gear and such were of course shared with the Celebrity and the rest.

The Seville was low and wide, whereas the W124 is tall and relatively narrow. That may in part reflect my own body size and shape, but one sits high in the Mercedes, and has a commanding view. The Seville’s low and flat seating position was not to my liking.

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It goes beyond design taste, regardless as to whether you think the Mercedes interior is stark, or Euro-contemporary tasteful.  But touching (never mind looking) at any and every piece on the W124’s interior made the difference in material quality inescapably obvious. Instead of feeling like you were riding in a Calais Gran Luxe, the Mercedes conveyed exactly what folks were wanting after parting with over $30k of their money (about $65k adjusted): a sense of superiority, snobbishness and exclusivity. What else are luxury cars for, anyway?

Well, hopefully to enjoy the driving experience too; which I did with gusto in the case of the 300E (CC here). It was happiest at illegal speeds, and although not overtly “sporty”, it would tackle the most challenging winding canyon or mountain roads with gusto and aplomb. There was just no way to throw it off balance; the worse the road and conditions, the more it shone, especially compared to anything else on the market at the time.

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The Seville couldn’t have been a more perfect polar opposite to it. It was softly sprung, and profoundly under-damped. It bobbed and floated even over the most modest pavement changes and bumps. It had that typical GM FWD front-heavy feeling, regardless of its actual weight distribution. And its low stance created anxiety about bottoming out the transaxle or such, because of how under-damped it was. Yes, it rode along in the classic GM jet-smooth ride on a glassy freeway, but it had zero appetite for anything higher than 70 or so, never mind anything resembling a change in direction. I understand that Cadillac re-tuned the suspension already on the 1987 model, presumably to tighten things up a bit. But this ’86 was profoundly floppy, rubbery and vague.

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Getting up to speed was no fun either, with the 130 hp HT4100 under the hood. It ran smoothly and quietly, and tip-in was typically GM-exaggerated to give a greater sensation of acceleration from rest. But it quickly ran out of breath, and any attempts at aggressive driving were utterly frustrating. The simple truth was that I hated driving this Seville; except for being a bit quieter, it was hard to see where all the money went since it drove so much like a plush Celebrity. I was desperate to get it sold and out of my life and off my property, but that turned out to be a lot harder than I ever imagined.

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I just wasn’t getting any response to my ads. Who wanted a Seville in Silicon Valley? Just about nobody, it turned out. So I just kept lowering the price each week. Lower, and lower, and lower, until finally someone bit. I can’t remember exactly the final transaction price, but it ended up right around $10k, possibly just below, or a one year depreciation of almost 75%. In today’s world with the internet, someone from the Midwest would have snapped it up and shipped it out. But this was 1987, and the Sunday paper was the craigslist of the times. And as a point of comparison, I sold my 300E when it was over seven years old for $13k.

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It annoyed me on business principle to have to sell something at such a loss, but it wasn’t my money that had been wasted on it. And when I ran into the Seville’s former owner at a business function and told him the price for what I’d sold it for, he literally almost cried. I would have paid you more for it than that! Oh, how I loved that car!  Nice to know someone did. It hadn’t occurred to me to call him and offer it to him. Oh well. I was just so happy to see that damn blue Seville drive down my gravel driveway, and me not in it. Good riddance!