(first posted 11/6/2014) The fifth-generation Seville was the most ambitious iteration yet of Cadillac’s import fighter. Designed with an eye to export markets, Cadillac believed the Seville could take on Europe and Japan’s finest. Sadly, the Seville fell short of those lofty goals and was left to wither on the vine, but it was definitely not without merit. For Cadillac, the 1990s are seemingly a forgotten era, falling in a nebulous haze between the barges of the 1970s and the sharp-edged Art & Science machines of the new millennium. Let’s take a look at the 1998-2004 Seville and see why it deserves to be remembered, regardless of its flaws.
First things first, let’s recognize the elephant in the room. Any discussion of Cadillac in the 1990s needs to acknowledge the Northstar V8 engine, often the strongest feature yet fatal flaw of so many 1990s-2000s Cadillacs. First introduced in the fourth-generation Seville, which I covered here, the Northstar was carried over unchanged. In the SLS base/luxury model, it had 275hp and 300 ft-lbs, the latter available at 4000 RPM; the STS had 300hp and 295 ft-lbs at 4400 RPM. From its sophomore year, the Northstar could run on unleaded, and there was a “limp-home” mode that allowed the car to drive 50 miles without coolant. Sadly, the impressive Northstar V8 was marred for years by excessive oil consumption and failure-prone headgaskets. Revisions in 2000 significantly improved the durability of the head gaskets, and a further revision for 2004 Northstar-equipped GM vehicles finally allowed for a decently reliable engine. Of course, luxury car buyers burnt by these engines were not happy, although they would have enjoyed terrific power delivery and a sonorous engine note right up until the engine failed.
When it was launched in 1998, GM must have been disheartened by the fifth-generation’s immediate sales slump of around 11,000 units. Perhaps the lack of visual distinction from its predecessor was to blame; although the fourth-generation still looked sharp, it had first launched in 1992. Underneath, though, the Seville was much changed. Riding on the new G-Body platform, 53% stiffer than the old Seville’s K-Body, the fifth generation was 1.2 inches longer in wheelbase, 2 inches wider in track, but 3.1 inches shorter overall. Features added to the options list eventually grew to include niceties like massaging seats, satellite navigation and parking sensors; a mighty Bose sound system came standard.
The CVRSS, or continuously variable road-sensing suspension, carried over from the fourth generation. A real-time damping system with a multitude of sensors, CVRSS could change damping force in 10 to 12 milliseconds. The four-speed automatic’s Performance Shift Algorithm analyzed the driver’s style and changed shifting patterns accordingly. 0-60 was a brisk 7.6 seconds in the Seville STS, and torque steer was heavily subdued. The Seville STS was a car that wanted to be driven, and yet offered a more cossetting ride than its rivals. You felt its size and the inherent drawbacks of FWD if you really, really pushed it, but it was otherwise a convincing sports sedan. The SLS was milder, although it still came with the CVRSS, and was outsold by its sportier sibling; it also didn’t make the Trans-Atlantic trip, either.
From behind the wheel, the Seville was pleasingly luxurious. Warm Zebrano wood trim and a more flowing dash layout marked the fifth generation, and the interior was convincingly modern and upscale. Classy vacuum fluorescent gauges were standard, and the seats were a wonderful mix of support and suppleness. Still, there were some sub-par finishes and cheap plastic pieces.
After its launch, though, Cadillac did little to the Seville. Neither the interior nor the exterior were significantly changed over seven model years, and the model range was never expanded beyond SLS and STS V8s. Some minor adjustments were made to the steering in 2001, and the SLS lost some brightwork. The exterior was aging gracefully, but the interior was really starting to show its age. Just as it seemed the Seville was about to expire without ever being meaningfully changed, however, Cadillac pulled a surprise out of its hat. Optional in 2002 and standard in 2003 on the STS, Cadillac introduced MagneRide (later dubbed Magnetic Ride Control). Created by Delphi and shared with the Corvette, these shock absorbers were filled with magnetorheological fluid that, when introduced to an electrical current, created a magnetic field and allowed firmness to be adjusted in a millisecond. In practice, you could have a car that as smooth as a cloud at low speeds but could firm up and tackle the twisties. The execution was so compelling that GM continues to expand the offering of the technology, and it is now also used by Ferrari.
By the early 2000s, things were changing at Cadillac. The Seville was a thoroughly competent car, but its conservative styling and patchy reliability had not endeared it to consumers. Production had increased in 1999 to 42,452 units, with the STS representing just over half of that figure. But 2000 saw the start of a slow and steady decline in sales in the US market, culminating in a dismal 3,386 units for the Seville’s final year. European sales never really took off, unsurprisingly, and the Seville was withdrawn from Europe after a few years. For 2004, only the SLS was offered in North America due to the impending arrival of the rear-wheel-drive, Art & Science STS. In just a couple of years, the entire Cadillac lineup would feature bold, unmistakably American styling; the last of the old guard, the DeVille, even received a sharp new skin for 2006. Front-wheel-drive performance was out; Magnetic Ride Control would reappear in the bigger DTS Performance/Platinum, and a mighty twin-turbo V6 in the XTS, but Cadillac’s focus was very much on rear-wheel-drive sport sedans.
Frustratingly, critics are quick to revise history. Reading initial reviews of the Seville from across the pond, you are struck by the praise it receives. The ride, handling and power delivery are regarded as impressive; the interior warm and inviting. Even Jeremy Clarkson was quite taken with the Seville! Fast forward to the launch of the Seville’s successor, the rear-wheel-drive STS, and the very same journalists are lambasting the Seville as “unwieldy” and a “dog”. British journalists, notoriously critical of American cars and prone to a good snipe, blasted the Seville as a failed “Yank Tank”, placing it in the same ignoble company as the misguided Euro-market Chevrolet Blazer and Camaro.
It cannot be disputed the Seville was absolutely a failure on the European market. However, it failed due to a lack of sustained effort from corporate HQ to build the Cadillac brand in Europe or develop a decent dealer network. It also failed because the European market much prefers to buy local, even if the Seville was a lot of metal for the money. It did not fail because it was an awful car. Sadly, Cadillac remains in the weeds in Europe. Certainly, the cost of developing a dealership network, advertising and marketing, and sourcing diesel engines would be a large outlay for a small piece of the market, but GM should do it as a matter of prestige just like Toyota and Nissan have done with their luxury brands in Europe.
And as for the Seville? Let’s acknowledge it for what it was: a refreshingly different take on the sport sedan. Cadillac had the “wrong” drive layout for its import-fighting luxury sport sedan, but by utilizing some impressive technology, it created a compelling alternative to the usual suspects. Let’s remember it for that as well, not just for its flaws.