(first posted 8/17/2015) The third-generation (1986-91) Cadillac Seville is seemingly remembered only for one thing, which ironically is just how unmemorable it was. Sadly, the 1980s were not kind to GM’s luxury marque and Seville 3 represented the confusion typical of the time. Almost forgotten today, the third generation of Cadillac’s ostensible import fighter was a concerted improvement over its predecessor but also showed that often a wrapper is just as important as what is inside.
Seville sales nosedived with the 1986 revision, tumbling by 55%. Despite the previous generation’s eccentric styling and disastrous run of engines, including the V8-6-4 and the Oldsmobile diesel, sales had picked up towards the end. It must have alarmed Cadillac to release a much improved new model and yet be met with stunned silence from consumers.
A lot of it comes down to that wrapper. GM had painted themselves into a corner by applying the “Sheer Look” – first seen on the inaugural Seville – across its entire lineup. By the mid-1980s, the GM fleet all suffered from me-too styling and no division was more affected by this than Cadillac. The mini-Cadillac styling that had helped sell 1980 Buick Century sedans was now slowing sales of Cadillacs.
Irv Rybicki, GM’s then Director of Design, said a conscious effort had been made to retain familiar GM design themes with the downsized Cadillacs of the 1980s. The idea was to not alienate traditional buyers as dimensions and engines shrunk, which was a sound principle. After all, one could imagine how traditional Cadillac buyers may have reacted if they saw a new Fleetwood that was both smaller and with radically different styling.
Rybicki’s design strategy ignored two key factors, though. Firstly, the entire GM model lineup was following a very similar design theme (formal rooflines, clean sides) as Cadillac. Secondly, while retaining existing design cues would help retain existing buyers, it was certainly not guaranteed to bring new buyers into the fold. Cadillac consumers had been skewing older and less educated than the industry average, with a falling median income, and the division could have used some fresh blood.
Smaller dimensions didn’t help the designers. The Seville shrunk 16 inches (6 in the wheelbase alone) and now rode the GM K-Body, effectively a sedan version of the E-Body platform used for the Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado. Length was now 190.8 inches, with a wheelbase of 108 inches; both measurements were within a couple of inches of the W124 Mercedes. Cadillac’s traditional design cues were less suited to these dimensions, and the result was dinged by many for being both derivative and awkward. Allegedly, GM executives had also instructed the designers to make the car look as compact as possible. Perhaps if the rest of GM’s lineup didn’t look so similar, the design may have been better received. After all, the W124 Mercedes incorporated a lot of heritage design cues such as ribbed taillights and the typical, big Mercedes radiator shell. It did have better proportions though, thanks to its RWD layout.
The reduction in size did reduce curb weight by 300 lbs, which in turn improved fuel economy to 17/26 mpg. In comparison, a 300E auto’s gas mileage was 18/22 mpg but it had superior performance. Even the Acura Legend’s smaller V6 had better performance numbers and almost identical fuel economy.
Where the new Seville hadn’t improved over its predecessor was in the engine compartment. The sole engine was the HT-4100, Cadillac’s much ballyhooed V8 engine comprising an aluminum block, iron cylinder heads, pushrods and electronic throttle-body fuel injection. For the new Seville, the engine was mounted transversely. While the 4.1 V8 had sufficient low-end torque (200 ft-lbs, at a low 2200 rpm), it quickly ran out of steam and 0-60 was accomplished in a mediocre 12.5 seconds. That performance should have come as no surprise, as the engine actually had less power than the Riviera and Toronado’s 3.8 V6 (130 hp vs. 150 hp). This was the first Seville to not offer the option of a diesel; the troublesome oiler was banished. However, the HT-4100 was scarcely more reliable.
Like its predecessor, the new Seville had a very modern suspension setup with an independent, self-levelling rear suspension. The rear setup incorporated control arms, an anti-roll bar and transverse leaf springs; front suspension utilized struts and coil springs. A touring suspension option was offered with larger front and rear anti-roll bars and standard 215/60R-15 Goodyear Eagle GTs. The steering was now a rack-and-pinion unit.
While front-wheel-drive was generally seen as being conducive to good packaging, the Seville’s interior had several notable flaws. Visibility was poor due to the upright, formal roofline with and small rear window. The rear of the cabin was less comfortable than rivals’, with mediocre rear legroom and a low, short bench. Seats were designed to be low and quite thin, to help enhance the appearance of spaciousness.
The dashboard was neat but very blocky, looking superficially similar to many other contemporary GM products. However, Sevilles did come with various clever features like retained accessory power, something not common at the time. There was also an electronic driver information center and GM’s “Twilight Sentinel” automatic lighting.
By generation three, Cadillac had seen the rising popularity of German sport sedans and had attempted to target them with the touring suspension offering, which Car & Driver discovered to have handling that bested the Mercedes 300E. (Yes, Cadillac had introduced a similar option towards the end of generation 2 but it was unimpressive and sold poorly.) Steering feel was still somewhat numb, but the Seville’s cabin was serene and bereft of noise and the 4-speed automatic transmission was one of GM’s superb, smooth-shifting units, mounted on the floor.
But what was the Seville’s role in the Cadillac lineup? Originally the most expensive and smallest Cadillac and launched to stem the tide of buyers to German brands, the second-generation switched to a modern FWD platform clothed in bizarre neoclassical styling which was most definitely not what import buyers were after. The Seville was smaller than the Deville, and yet was priced similarly (and generally slightly higher). But while such unorthodox positioning had worked for the first Seville, which was strikingly different from the contemporary Deville, Cadillac now had two sedan lines with the same engine and similar styling. If the Deville was targeted at traditional Cadillac consumers, then who was the Seville’s target market? With the demise of the Cimarron, quietly retired for 1988, Cadillac had lost its youngest-skewing model. That Cadillac insisted on taking the next most youthful line and continuing to offer it in a cushy, luxury-spec trim was baffling, and Cadillac stuck with this dual model strategy until the Seville name disappeared in the 2000s. The Seville should have burnished Cadillac’s fledgling sport sedan cred, but Cadillac shot it in the foot. Not all luxury import buyers were after a firm ride – note the success of the Lexus LS – but Cadillac had the Deville for those buyers.
The Seville at launch did undercut its German rivals (a 300E was priced $11k higher), but the real threat to the American came from Japan. Acura’s new, modern-looking Legend was a whopping $8k cheaper. The Japanese had entered the luxury arena with a vengeance and it didn’t stop with Acura. Lexus and Infiniti arrived in 1990, offering often superior dynamics and reliability as well as keen pricing.
GM did react quite quickly to poor sales of the new Seville and related Eldorado coupe. The latter received various styling tweaks to increase its visual bulk, although the Seville’s visual changes in 1988 were much more minor with a new hood and a more protruding, angular grille. More importantly, the Seville was injected with a much-needed shot of adrenalin in the form of a bigger 4.5 V8. Power was up to 155 hp and torque to 240 ft-lbs. For the first time, Seville’s 0-60 was under 10 seconds with a 9.5 second time.
Even bigger news was the 1988 arrival of the STS (Seville Touring Sedan), Cadillac’s most relevant Seville yet. The exterior of the STS featured less chrome, attractive 15-inch alloy wheels and a grille-mounted Cadillac badge, while underneath the STS featured the upgraded touring suspension. It wasn’t quite as dynamic as some of its German rivals, but the STS had a firm, controlled yet comfortable and well-damped ride. Teves anti-lock brakes were standard, as were the Goodyear Eagle GT tires from the old touring suspension package. The STS could do 0.81g on the skidpad while still offering the kind of highway comfort that Cadillacs were renowned for.
The interior was also much improved with the addition of burled elm trim on the dash and doors, and supple leather. Unfortunately, the instruments were still digital and the seats lacked bolstering. Cadillac was getting more ambitious with pricing, and the STS was priced at just under $35,000 (the base Seville retailed for just under $30k). By 1990, though, the Lexus LS400 and Infiniti Q45 had both launched. The former was priced lineball with the STS and featured more modern styling inside and out, and the latter had a fiery 270 hp, 4.5 V8 and sporty handling.
The previously sluggish third-generation Seville received two more boosts in power in its lifetime. Multi-port fuel injection was added in 1990, upping horsepower to 180; previous Sevilles had throttle-body fuel injection. And even though a beautiful new Seville was arriving for 1992 and a new Cadillac-exclusive V8 engine the following year, 1991 Sevilles received a bigger 4.9 V8 with an even 200 horsepower and 275 ft-lbs.
The changes had helped boost Seville sales slightly; the 1988 tally sat at 21,469, an increase of just over 2,000 units from its debut year. For 1990, sales would reach a high of 31,235, which was relatively impressive given the car’s age and lack of significant visual changes. STS sales had started at 1,499 units in 1988, but they too reached a high for 1990 of 2,811 units. Seville sales would dip slightly for the third generation’s swansong year but still sat comfortably ahead of 1986-89 figures.
Although Seville sales had improved, the car was not exactly profitable for GM. A new factory had been built in Hamtramck, Michigan to manufacture the Seville and the related GM E-Body coupes. The $500 million factory was to be GM’s industrial showcase and was heralded as being the most modern automotive factory in the world, featuring state-of-the-art robotic machinery. It soon became known as a giant money pit: machinery malfunctioned and the workers lacked the necessary expertise to work with these expensive new robots. The GM leadership had bungled the Hamtramck endeavor, presuming the new machinery would work instantaneously and work within existing operating rhythms. Two years after its opening, a Hamtramck-produced car took 100 hours of labor to manufacture, five times as much as it took for Toyota to build a car. Maintenance and repair costs had also skyrocketed. Roger Smith’s grand vision of GM becoming a “21st century corporation” was marked by failures like this, and the red ink began to pool.
Furthermore, Car & Driver observed that Cadillac had a marketing department with just a handful of staff. Restructuring had also left GM’s luxury marque under the purview of a combined Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac division, leaving Cadillac with little autonomy. The Seville/Eldorado did receive differentiation from their platform-mates in the form of V8 engines, but was a Seville worth $6k more than a Toronado?
The sport sedan was fast becoming the car of the 1980s. From the beginning, the Seville should have come only with the touring suspension. Wire wheels and vinyl tops should have been left on the DeVille and Fleetwood. The first Seville had been built to battle the Germans. The second Seville may have lost the plot, but Cadillac should have come out guns a-blazin’ with Seville 3.
When the third-generation had been developed, there was an ever-present fear that gas prices would continue to rise. To GM’s credit, they had reduced the Seville to international dimensions while still offering very domestic traits like a smooth V8 with nice low-end torque and an excellent automatic transmission. Perhaps if gas prices had risen, this generation would have been better received.
However, there were still too many issues with Seville 3. Packaging was subpar. The HT-4100’s numbers were lackluster. Positioning was confused. Styling was just too close to the rest of the GM fleet. Cadillac did eventually claw back some ground with stronger engines and a competitive STS model, but they had lost crucial momentum with the third-generation Seville and they really needed a hit after such a dismal start to the decade. For the next generation, they took on board the feedback on Seville 3’s wrapper and consumers would see a much shapelier (and much more successful) Seville.
Special thanks to Jason Shafer for providing me with these wonderful photos of a 1990 Seville he saw for sale. Jason graciously supplied these photos when I told him of my woes with finding an 86-91 Seville to photograph while I was in California. I saw several, but always when I had no way of taking a photo. Also, special thanks to Brandon Gloster for the picture of the 1986-87 Seville experiencing mechanical distress in Washington Heights.