Curbside Classic: 2000-05 Cadillac DeVille – Transitional Fossil

(first posted 8/11/2017)      Scientists loathe the popular term “missing link” when it comes to evolution. Instead, they use the term “transitional fossil” for the remains of a life form that exhibits traits of both an ancestral group and its derived descendant group. While automotive taxonomy is rather different to the study of extinct animals, and typically has better preserved fossils, there are still cars that represent a divergence between what was and what would come. The lines, however, can still be blurred. Case in point: the 2000-05 Cadillac DeVille.

Today, the Cadillac car species is genetically and identifiably of the North American content, but with traits characteristic of European species such as rear-wheel-drive and exceptionally agile movements. Cadillac cars had to evolve to survive as their environment became increasingly populated with invasive species from Europe and Japan. That evolution started with the 1975 Seville. Although it sounded and moved like its larger counterparts, the Seville was sized more like the European predators.

There was the ’82 Cimarron next but that was an evolutionary dead-end. In terms of taxonomy, it was often identified – although generally not by automotive paleontologists – as “Cimarron by Cadillac”, therefore making it part of a different family. Maybe.

The Seville and Eldorado families saw their herd numbers dwindle during the great European migration but had adapted somewhat to the changing environment, being smaller and more nimble after A.D. 1986. There was some genetic variation in the species by now—the 1988 Seville STS and Eldorado Touring Coupe models were the most agile yet of the Cadillac species. But the most dominant Cadillacs were the big front-wheel-drive DeVilles and, although they were smaller, their visual characteristics were similar to earlier generations.

By 1994, the DeVille had assumed a more imposing stature and yet its innards had become slightly more restrained and contemporary, even vaguely European in appearance. Another modern characteristic was the new Northstar V8, as well as a descendant to the old Touring Sedan known as Concours. Still, the DeVille looked and handled much like past DeVilles.

Then came 2000. The North American landscape had become home to many species of foreign rear-wheel-drive vehicles but the DeVille retained front-wheel-drive. Although the Northstar V8 was no more powerful, the DeVille family now had an undercarriage – GM’s G-Body platform, first seen in the Oldsmobile Aurora – that could better handle evasive maneuvers while retaining the DeVille’s historic ride quality, presaging the cars of Cadillac’s forthcoming renaissance.

The DeVille’s longevity was aided by a more reliable version of the Northstar, going a long way to stopping premature deaths in the species; headgasket failure was now less common. The Northstar could now be sustained with regular fuel as well and drank slightly less. For 2004, the engine would be improved further with redesigned head bolts, while the version of the Northstar seen in the RWD SRX, XLR, and STS was generally regarded as reliable from the start.

The new DeVille was 3 inches shorter overall, with a 1.6-inch stretch in the wheelbase, however its proportions remained much the same. Styling was softer and smoother, aimed at a younger audience: baby boomers. This group of people had become accustomed to imports and GM recognized that even the DeVille had to evolve to better meet their standards. Having the Seville in showrooms wasn’t enough, and GM hadn’t clearly delineated the two families, making cushy and sporty editions of both.

One negative trait of the new DeVille was its interior. The previous generation’s interior was almost austere, trimmed with restrained wood appliques and subtle two-tone treatments. The new generation had a bolder design with a more ergonomically-friendly center stack that jutted out, plenty of space in every dimension, and extensive use of soft-touch plastics. However, there were problems: panel gaps were quite large, particularly around the hard plastic center stack; the digital instruments and some of the switchgear were somewhat naff and reminiscent of lesser GM vehicles; and the overall cabin design lacked the elegance of a Lexus LS. A classy touch though, reminiscent of the Lexus, was the use of vacuum-fluorescent analog gauges in the luxury-spec DHS and sporty DTS. The traditional bench seat and column shifter remained in base and DHS models, while a console was mandatory in the DTS.

Available on DHS and DTS models for $1,995 was Night Vision. This used a thermal infrared camera mounted in the grille, the footage displayed on the windshield ahead of the driver. Cadillac claimed this allowed drivers to see 5 times farther. There were high hopes for this technology but it wasn’t a popular option and was never offered in any other GM vehicles until a much more advanced unit debuted in the 2016 CT6. Also a $1,995 option was the DeVille family’s first satellite navigation unit, while ultrasonic park assist, LED taillights, side airbags, and rain-sensing wipers made their first appearances in the DeVille too. These joined the carryover Continuously Variable Road Sensing Suspension and Stabilitrak, which first debuted in the previous generation.

There was a lot of thoroughly modern technology in the car, although Cadillac resisted the movement to five-speed automatics. The 4T80 in the DeVille was a smooth-shifting unit and in 2000, four-speed automatics, while hardly innovative, weren’t yet an embarrassment. The Northstar V8 had made quite an impact when it debuted in 1993, and although the 2000 had no more power than a 1999 DeVille, its power figures were still thoroughly class-competitive: 275 hp and 300 ft-lbs  in base and DHS models, and 300 hp and 295 ft-lbs in the DTS.

The DTS was tuned for superior higher-end performance, and the two different tunes mirrored those of the Seville SLS and STS. Handling was better than any DeVille ancestors, the DTS staying commendably flat in corners and earning praise from critics for its all-round competence. Even the base and DHS models were notably better behaved than the old DeVilles, although steering remained light.

The DeVille’s greatest advantage was its price when compared with similarly-sized or similarly-equipped rivals. Starting in the low $40,000s, it was around $10k cheaper than a Lexus LS400—the big Lexus cost about as much as a loaded DeVille DTS. Those prices also compared well with the Lincoln Town Car, its less modern and much less powerful crosstown rival.

Unfortunately, the DeVille didn’t evolve during its run. Minor feature adjustments were made and cooled seats and a heated steering wheel were new options for 2004. Otherwise, the 2005 DeVille was identical to the 2000. Although the DeVille outsold the LS every year and the Town Car almost always, sales did gradually decrease each year during the car’s run. Overall Cadillac sales and market share experienced an uptick in 2002, but much of this was attributable to the new, entry-level CTS and the increasingly popular Escalade. The brand was the 4th best-selling luxury brand in the US that year, climbing one spot from 2001 at the expense of Acura.

By the 21st century, the Cadillac species had undergone a rapid evolution. To many, it looked like an entirely different creature. The DeVille family, however, scarcely evolved. The 2006 DTS had a more contemporary appearance but it was otherwise little changed. Engines? Still the same, and the Northstar High Performance in the flagship DTS Performance was actually down-rated to 292 horsepower. Interior design and quality? Arguably worse, with an Impala-esque dashboard, hard plastics and even faker woodgrain. Features? Nothing new—Night Vision and adaptive massaging seats had disappeared during the DeVille’s time on Earth. All that was new were Magnetic Ride Control in the Performance trim and a dashboard clock. The family hadn’t kept up with a changing environment and the pack dwindled quickly.

When the DTS became extinct, the XTS arrived shortly thereafter. Perhaps this car is the real evolutionary dead-end, even though its physical appearance, interior design, powertrains, and feature content are reminiscent of its kin. A curious outlier in Cadillac’s otherwise entirely RWD sedan lineup, the XTS is an endangered species – using the Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Impala’s Epsilon platform – and will be extinct by the beginning of next decade. It appears FWD is only for Cadillac crossovers.

Although the 2000 DeVille may be easily lost in the fossil record, situated between the floaty, starchy DeVilles of the 1980s and 1990s and the sharp STS of the 2000s, automotive paleontologists should consider its historical merit. This was a car that brought together impressive new technology with traditional Cadillac virtues like a smooth ride and a big trunk. Reliability was improved, at long last, and handling was better than any ancestor that carried the DeVille name. Unlike the DTS, its performance and technology compared favorably with its much more expensive rivals even if its quality couldn’t match them.

The best part? You don’t have to excavate a site or go to a museum to find one.

DeVille DTS photographed in Outpost Estates, near Hollywood, CA.

Base DeVilles photographed in Washington Heights, Manhattan, NY and near Lafayette Park in Detroit, MI.

Related Reading:

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

Future Curbside Classic: 2006-11 Cadillac DTS – A Letter to GM

Future Curbside Classic: 2014 Cadillac XTS – How To Say Fleetwood In The 21st Century

Future CC: The Smooth, Quiet Road to Nowhere – Cadillac STS