Curbside Classic: 1988-91 Cadillac Seville STS – Cadillac Shows They Get It… Kind Of

The luxury car market was in the midst of a seismic shift during the 1980s. A new generation of luxury car buyers were buying compact, nimble sport sedans like the BMW 3-Series. In addition, there were other imported luxury sedans that, while not considered sport sedans on their home turf, could put American luxury cars to shame with their handling and performance. GM finally realized they had to do something or they could watch their share of the luxury car market winnow away. Three decades of Cadillac sport sedans arguably began with this, the first Seville STS.

Their first attempt at a sport sedan – or at least something vaguely approximating one – was the infamous 1982 Cimarron. In terms of size and exterior appearance, the Cimarron was not entirely out of the realm of sport sedan-dom. The availability of a manual transmission also lent it some credibility. Alas, any credibility it had was entirely lost once buyers realized it was little more than a Chevrolet Cavalier with some extra tinsel and a price more than twice as high yet with the same hoary 1.8 four-cylinder under the hood. Later models tidied up the styling and added a 2.8 V6 but this was still a parts-bin special and no BMW 3-Series.

Then came the 1986 DeVille Touring sedan and coupe. Cadillac made myriad performance enhancements to the newly downsized, front-wheel-drive DeVille to create the Touring. These included firmer springs, thicker stabilizer bars, modified drive and power steering ratios and a larger exhaust. In addition, there was a “Euro-style” monochromatic color palette inside and out. Although handsome, the Touring didn’t quite hit the sport sedan mark even if it was more European in execution than any Cadillac before. Its six-passenger set-up in particular undermined any sport sedan pretensions.

Cadillac’s next attempt at tackling the Europeans came with the 1986 Seville. The Seville line had been introduced in 1976 to lure buyers seeking a Cadillac that was smaller and more European (if only in size). Alas, the baroque 1980 had lost the plot and so the 1986 aimed to rein the Seville back in.

The ‘86 Seville was no sport sedan dynamically thanks to its flaky, underpowered HT-4100 V8. Nor was it a sport sedan aesthetically due to Cadillac’s predilection for slapping on a vinyl roof and wire wheel covers. But it was more rationally sized, being similar in dimensions to the W124 Mercedes E-Class, and its handling and manoeuvrability were vastly improved over its predecessor. It also had a modern front-wheel-drive platform with four-wheel independent suspension. If Cadillac was to develop a sport sedan, this was the base from which to start.

In 1988, Cadillac followed through and introduced the Seville STS, built in partnership with Cars & Concepts who handled final assembly during the car’s first year. Although the ’86-87 Seville had already offered an optional touring suspension package, the STS option added a raft of aesthetic and mechanical improvements to help justify the extra $6000.

The featured STS is a 1988 model, of which just 1,499 were built. The regular touring suspension option, which cost less than $200, added 15-inch alloy wheels, Goodyear Eagle GT4 blackwall tires, stiffer springs, a rear stabilizer bar and a stiffer front stabilizer bar. The much pricier STS option had all these mechanical improvements plus anti-lock brakes, 3.3:1 drive ratio (instead of 2.97:1) and a faster 15.6:1 steering ratio.

Fortunately for the STS, all Sevilles and the related Eldorado received a more powerful 4.5 V8 for 1988. This bored-out version of the old HT-4100 bumped power up 25 hp (to 150 hp at 4000 rpm) and torque by 40 lbs-ft (to 240 lb-ft at 2800 rpm).

The exterior of the STS eschewed typical American extravagances like excessive brightwork and gauche wire wheels. The mouldings, for example, were painted in the same color as the body; the STS could be had only in White Diamond, Sable Black, Black Sapphire or Carmine Red. The 15-inch alloy wheel design was rather European in appearance, while amber rear turn signals further demonstrated the European inspiration. The STS’ front fenders differed from the regular Seville, ditching the large cornering lights; the grille, too, was different and had a flush-mounted wreath-and-crest in lieu of a hood ornament.

At a time where a manual transmission gave serious legitimacy to a car’s claims of being a sport sedan, the lack of one was disappointing. The market was evolving, however, and it wasn’t long before manual transmissions began their descent into irrelevance. What really hampered the STS’ credibility was the lack of proper instrumentation.

Yes, the Seville STS was a sport sedan without a tachometer, a small yet consequential oversight for an aspiring sport sedan. Indeed, the STS used the same digital dash cluster as the regular Seville, a rather uninspired affair lacking the information of German rivals’ gauge clusters or the visual panache of some of the Japanese. Speaking of visual panache – or lack there of – the STS had the same boxes-upon-boxes interior design language as many GM vehicles since the ’78 A-Bodies. There were also plenty of drab plastic surfaces that made the STS’ cabin less modern to behold than, say, an Acura Legend while also lacking the visual cohesion and sheer class of the W124 Mercedes. The rear of the cabin was also somewhat tight for larger passengers.

Where the STS made up ground and justified its hefty premium over the regular Seville was in its interior appointments and visual enhancements. The cabin received a lavish makeover, using 95 square-feet of beechwood ultra-soft leather in a rich saddle color. Real elm burl trim decorated the dash, door trims and a console that separated the two rear bucket seats – the STS was a four-seater only, at least until the console was dropped for 1991. The STS also added a 12-way power front seat and equipment optional on the regular Seville, including an illuminated entry system.

Critics were generally impressed with the STS if all too aware of its deficiencies, like the lack of instrumentation and steering and ride quality that couldn’t match the Europeans. The consensus, however, was that it was a sign of more focussed, athletic sport sedans to come from GM’s luxury brand.

Unfortunately for this generation of Seville STS, the car was hampered by its styling. The details, like on the regular Seville, were nice enough – the frontend styling was crisp and elegant, the tail dignified. But its formal roofline was generic 1980s GM and its proportions were rather wonky. The STS was a neat makeover of the Seville but failed to address the car’s biggest visual failings, particularly the ungainly meeting of the C-pillars with the trunk and rear wheels. To my eyes in 2018, it’s mostly handsome with a touch of awkwardness. Thirty years ago, it looked derivative and aged poorly as the years went by and new German and Japanese luxury sedans reached the market.

Then there was the matter of price. The MSRP for the STS was around $35,000, an amount that could net you any number of impressive sedans if not a comparably sized BMW or Mercedes. For example, an Audi 100 Quattro or 200 Turbo cost around the same. A loaded Acura Legend topped out at $30k and was available with a manual transmission. There were some left-field options, too, like the Sterling and Merkur Scorpio. And if you were a domestic loyalist which, let’s face it, you probably were if you were considering a Seville, Oldsmobile could sell you a Ninety-Eight Touring Sedan. It had similarly adept front-wheel-drive handling to the Seville, plus plenty of leather, wood and gadgets. It even had a tachometer! Buick’s Electra T-Type was much the same and both of these full-size GM sedans cost a whopping $10k less than the STS. They may have lacked Cadillac’s prestige but that was eroding after a decade of poor brand decisions.

If the Seville was looking tired by the dawn of the 1990s, buyers didn’t seem to care. The Seville actually saw a spike in sales in its penultimate year, albeit not a return to the heady days of the first- and second-generation. After four years of selling around 20,000 units annually, the third-generation Seville jumped to 31,235 units; this was also the best year for the STS, which accounted for 2,811 units.

All ’90 Sevilles received a new fuel injection system that bumped power up to 180 hp, as well as a standard driver’s airbag; the regular Seville also aped the STS by ditching the fender-mounted cornering lamps. All STS models received new bright, stainless steel exhaust outlets, larger STS badges, Teves anti-lock brakes and new 16-inch machine finished alloy wheels.

The Seville was most certainly tired-looking by its final year but sales sat at their second-highest during the entire generation: 24,225 in total, with 2,206 STS models. Cadillac hadn’t let the Seville sit entirely still: though it was visually unchanged inside and out, it now came with Computer Command Ride, a speed-dependent damping system. The 4.5 V8 was also replaced with a 4.9 V8 producing 200 hp and 275 ft-lbs. STS-specific changes included new, more heavily bolstered front seats from the Eldorado Touring Coupe and the replacement of the two-passenger/rear console set-up with a bench.

No, the Seville STS couldn’t match similarly-sized German sport sedans in sheer driving pleasure. And even if it did, it was unlikely to get many conquest sales, either. The first STS was instead a prelude to a three-decade (and counting) span of Cadillac sport sedans, from the following two generations of Seville STS to the rear/all-wheel-drive CTS, ATS and STS and their V-Series companions. And though Cadillac will never unseat the Germans – and the game is changing entirely with electrification – it was with the first STS that Cadillac finally realized they couldn’t just sell button-tufted, loose-pillowed, vinyl-roofed, wire-wheeled sedans forever.

Photographed in Miracle Mile, Los Angeles in September 2018.

Additional photos courtesy of Nick Ferrari. When I shared this STS on Instagram, this Seville fan asked where I spotted it and went out and took some photos of his own. Who knows, this ’88 may end up in his garage!


An Alternate Point of View:

Curbside Classic: 1986-1991 Cadillac Seville – GM’s Deadly Sin #21 –by  Paul Niedermeyer

My Seville Chronicles:

Curbside Classic: 1980-85 Cadillac Seville – How to Lose Momentum (In More Ways Than One)

Curbside Classic: 1986-91 Cadillac Seville – The Sales in Spain Fall Mostly With The Plain

Curbside Classic: 1992-97 Cadillac Seville – A Forgotten Contender

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

Curbside Classic: 1998-04 Cadillac Seville – The FWD Sport Sedan’s Last Stand