Curbside Classic: 1994-99 Cadillac DeVille – How To Lose Friends And Alienate New People

The 1994-99 Cadillac DeVille was large, imposing and unabashedly a Cadillac. So how is it we haven’t had a full Curbside Classic on it yet, and why such a negative title?

Much has been said on these pages about the 1985-93 Cadillac de Ville/Fleetwood. Criticism of the first FWD de Ville generation typically boils down to this: it looked too small and anonymous for its first few years, before a heavy refresh made it look more like a traditional Cadillac.

To make it look like a traditional Cadillac, however, involved designers looking more towards the past for inspiration rather than towards the future. The result was a mostly attractive full-size Cadillac but one that was looking somewhat stale by the 1990s. My personal view was that the de Ville looked somewhat willowy against newer rivals, a bit too low and obviously stretched.

Although not the quantum leap in style the ’92 Seville had been compared to its predecessor, the ’94 DeVille was a markedly different-looking car. It was at once so much fuller-figured in appearance without looking bulbous, and it had significant presence.

Cadillac persisted with some heritage styling cues, for better or worse – the taillights were still vertical and somewhat reminiscent of tail fins and fender skirts partially concealed the rear wheels, the latter of which contributed to a slightly tubby appearance from some angles. Somewhat confusingly, it also bore a strong resemblance to the rear-wheel-drive, C-Body Fleetwood Brougham that had been redesigned for 1993. Like the Fleetwood, though, the ’94 DeVille looked big, brash and proudly Cadillac.

If you didn’t like the Cadillac look or the brand’s image, well, the DeVille wasn’t going to be your speed. Cadillac’s image had taken a hit in the 1980s due to a variety of factors. There were reliability problems (V8-6-4, HT-4100), ill-conceived products (Cimarron, ’86 Eldorado/Seville) and an ageing customer base, not helped by the lack of more youthful products. The ’94 DeVille was proudly a Cadillac when the wreath-and-crest wasn’t shining the brightest.

When Lexus came along with the LS400, it tapped into something the American market had desired. It undercut the increasingly expensive Germans and yet offered sublime build quality, a smooth and comfortable ride, a silky V8, and an extensive features list. It was exactly what Cadillac should have been building and yet it appealed to buyers who wouldn’t have considered a Cadillac, its lack of brand image also meaning a lack of connotations and baggage. Never mind the fact the LS400’s styling wasn’t terribly original or that it wasn’t as athletic as, say, a BMW – it gave a lot of buyers exactly what they wanted.

When the ’94 DeVille reached the market four years after the Lexus, it had a few aces up its sleeve. For one, it was still considerably cheaper than the smaller LS400, to the tune of up to $18k. Cadillac had persisted with its 1975-vintage pricing strategy, positioning the “internationally-sized” Seville atop the range.

The Seville had been lauded for its Northstar double-overhead cam 4.6 V8, a silky smooth and effortlessly powerful V8 that enraptured critics, appearing on Ward’s Best Engines List from 1995 until 1997. Into the new, flagship De Ville Concours it went, the priciest De Ville still undercutting the LS400.

For its second front-wheel-drive generation, the DeVille grew considerably. Underpinned by the same K-Body platform as the ’92 Seville, it was now 209.7 inches long, 76.5 inches wide and 56.4 inches tall. That made it 4.4 inches longer, 3.1 inches wider and 1.2 inches taller than the old Sedan de Ville. The wheelbase, however, remained the same at 113.8 inches. The slow-selling coupe variant was gone, as were the old de Ville-based Sixty Special and Fleetwood models, the latter of which had disappeared already after MY1992.

The engine in the base Sedan De Ville (the ‘d’ was now capitalized) was a carryover 4.9 V8, producing 200 hp at 4100 rpm and 275 ft-lbs at 3000 rpm and hitting 60mph in 9.4 seconds. The Concours used the same LD8 tune of Northstar as the Seville SLS and Eldorado, producing 270 hp at 5600 rpm and 300 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm and good for a 0-60 time of around 8 seconds. Although the Northstar was much more powerful than the 4.9, fuel economy was almost identical – 16/26 mpg versus a superior 17/26 mpg for the Northstar. Both engines were mated to GM’s 4T80-E four-speed automatic.

The two De Ville models were distinguished not only by their engines but also by their suspension set-ups. Both used the same basic layout – four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts up front and a short/long-arm set-up at the rear with electronic level control. However, the Sedan De Ville used what Cadillac marketed as Speed Sensitive Suspension while the Concours used Road Sensing Suspension.

Speed Sensitive Suspension was as it sounded. A computer-controlled actuator in each of the four struts adjusted the suspension’s firmness, becoming progressively firmer the faster you drove. The suspension also stiffened during hard braking and cornering. Road Sensing Suspension was a bit more sophisticated, using an array of sensors to determine the damping forces in the shock absorbers and struts, making adjustments within milliseconds. Additionally, all De Ville models used speed-sensitive power steering.

For all the sophisticated new technology, Cadillac was careful not to alienate loyal buyers. These buyers skewed older – the average De Ville buyer was 67. Though the Concours was designed to appeal to younger buyers in their 50s, even it didn’t scare existing owners too much. Despite its sportier pretensions, it retained the increasingly passé six-passenger set-up and was saddled with digital instrumentation. Nevertheless, it was the most Seville-like of the DeVille range, from its Northstar V8 to its use of perforated leather upholstery and Zebrano wood trim inside. The exterior was also more reminiscent of the Seville STS, Cadillac nixing the Sedan De Ville’s stand-up hood ornament and, at least at first, the lesser De Ville’s chromed wheels. There were also dual exhaust outlets and unique side mouldings.

For those previously unfamiliar with the ’94-99 DeVille, it’s all sounding pretty good so far, isn’t it? Ok, perhaps the bluff styling might be a turn off but otherwise it appears to be quite the package – sharp pricing, a capacious interior, 20 cubic-foot trunk, plenty of gadgets, and a modern, refined and powerful V8. Alas, this is where the wheels come off or, rather, the head bolts.

Like the V8-6-4 and the HT-4100 before it, the Northstar was no paragon of reliability. Initial reports of its reliability were strong, critics impressed by its long, 7,500-10,000 mile oil change intervals and an innovative limp-home mode that allowed the car to drive on four cylinders when there was coolant loss. Alas, the Northstar also suffered from oil leaks and blown head gaskets. The latter was caused by the head bolts which, when the engine ran hot, would pull. In turn, the engine would be more susceptible to overheating and the head bolts would stretch further. It took Cadillac eight years to rectify the issue, with Northstars produced after 2000 being far less prone to these failures. By 2004, the issue had been eradicated but the damage had been done.

Though the Northstar issues continued throughout this generation’s run, Cadillac made numerous running changes to the model. For 1996, the 4.9 was discontinued and the De Ville line now used two tunes of the Northstar. The Concours’ old tune was now standard in the Sedan De Ville and gained 5 horses, while the Concours received the Seville STS’s L37 Northstar with 300 hp at 6000 rpm and 295 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm, the L37 tuned more for high-end performance rather than low-end torque. It had the same EPA ratings, however, of 17/26mpg. That year also saw the arrival of the even more sophisticated Continuously Variable Road Sensing Suspension (CVRSS) to the Concours line, as well as Magnasteer electromagnetic variable-assist power steering; the regular De Ville picked up the Concours’ old Road Sensing Suspension.

In 1997, the De Ville line was given a modest facelift. The skirts over the rear wheel wells were gone, visually lightening the car’s flanks. There was a new hood and front fascia, which gave the car a fresher look. Even more importantly, front side airbags and traction control were now standard across the range.

The Concours had somewhat awkwardly existed as both the most luxurious De Ville and the closest approximation to a sport sedan in the line. For 1997, there was a new d’Elegance trim that effectively replaced the departed Fleetwood Brougham. With its whitewall tires and abundance of chrome and gold badging, plus some extra standard kit over the base De Ville, the d’Elegance assumed the luxury mantle.

That left the Concours to take on a more overtly sporty role, switching to analog gauges, front bucket seats and a console – making the interior look much like a Seville’s – and featuring a less chromey-laden grille than its stablemates. It kept the higher-output Northstar, leaving the less powerful tune to the base and d’Elegance models. The Concours gained firmer shocks and slightly larger brake discs, among other tweaks, while the other De Villes picked up the Magnasteer steering.

During this generation, Cadillac typically introduced features to the Concours before rolling them out to the other trim levels the following year. So, a year after GM’s Stabilitrak stability control system debuted on the Concours, it was added to rest of the line.

The last year of this generation saw the introduction of massaging front seats and a Golden Anniversary special edition. GM may have let some of its vehicles wither on the vine over the years but this generation of De Ville was blessed with regular updates and a six-year production run that was normal for the class.

Alas, even before the Northstar’s issues became well-known, De Ville sales were down from the previous model. In its last year, Cadillac produced just over 130,000 units of the old Sedan and Coupe de Ville. For 1994, that figure was down to 120,352 units, and then down to a worrisome 91,501 units for 1995. Sales mostly bounced back, however – if not the heights of the old de Ville – and stayed steady for the rest of the car’s run. It always sold roughly double the smaller and more expensive Seville’s tally, bested the Lincoln Continental’s numbers by the same margin, and was neck-and-neck with the Lincoln Town Car.

That the De Ville sold steadily must’ve pleased Cadillac as, though the company wanted to compete for import luxury car buyers’ affections with the Seville, the De Ville was the red meat for traditional Cadillac consumers. Alas, Cadillac sales overall were trending downwards and though the De Ville was a steady seller, it didn’t help buyers’ perception that Cadillac was a bit of a geriatric brand. For every modestly sporty Concours model, there were several beige d’Elegances with dealer-fitted landau roofs parked in front of the local Cracker Barrel.

Was the De Ville a missed opportunity? For all the focus on the Concours, plus the modern Northstar and high-tech features, this was still a traditional Cadillac in appearance and positioning. With diminishing market share and ageing owners, should Cadillac have taken more of a risk with its best-selling model?

One need look only at today’s CT6. Yes, yes, it’s in production limbo with the closure of Hamtramck and only rumored plans to move it to the same production line as the new CT4 and CT5. And yes, its sales are nowhere near what the De Ville used to manage, although that’s largely due to a dramatically different automotive landscape. Nevertheless, look at how it offers attributes appealing to both traditional Cadillac buyers (size, a stately presence) and buyers of luxury imports (modern technology, excellent handling). Would it have been better to offer this kind of balance in the De Ville, or at least start from a base of building an LS400 rival first instead of trying to spin a sportier model off a traditional plush Caddy?

We’ll never know. The ’94-99 De Ville may have been a steady seller but its reliability issues could only have aggravated loyal buyers, while its styling and image didn’t lure any new buyers in. All the while, Cadillac market share continued to dwindle.

’89-93 Sedan de Ville photographed in San Mateo, CA in June 2019.

’96 Sedan De Ville photographed in Oxnard, CA in September 2018.

’97-99 De Ville d’Elegance photographed in Beatty, NV in September 2018.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1988 Cadillac Coupe de Ville – How Not To Downsize A Luxury Car

Curbside Classics: 1989 Cadillac Coupe de Ville & 1990 Sedan de Ville – Better As Time Goes By?

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

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

Curbside Classic: 2000-05 Cadillac DeVille – Transitional Fossil