Let’s face it, Cadillac’s downsized, front-wheel drive 1985 de Ville (and Fleetwood) do not receive much love, and probably get even more hate than they deserve. Despite better fuel economy and space efficiency, these downsized cars didn’t convey the power and prestige of previous “BIG” Cadillacs, and to many, they simply did not look like a true Cadillac. Thankfully, over the course of their production span some welcomed improvements would come.
Changes for 1986 were ever so slight, but nonetheless appreciated. Stylists gave the de Ville wider rocker moldings and extra trim surrounds for the rear windshield, boosting its “formal” appearance over its Buick and Oldsmobile platform mates. 1987 saw the return of more prominent tail fins, making the rear more recognizable as a Cadillac.
In 1988, the anemic 4.1L HT4100 V8 was enlarged to 4.5 liters, bringing 20 additional horsepower and 45 more pound-feet of torque, for total outputs of 155 and 235, respectively. Despite the appreciated power increase, the de Ville still looked short, stubby, and a lot like the Ninety-Eight and Electra, as well as a number of even smaller, less prestigious GM cars.
Thankfully the trend of change would continue on a larger scale for 1989, when an extensive update gave the de Ville a decidedly more “Cadillac” appearance. Now the volume leader by a large margin, Sedan de Villes were given a 3-inch longer wheelbase for extra rear seat space and wider rear doors. Along with restyled, longer front and rear overhangs, overall sedan length was up more than 10 inches over the original 1985 model.
Although the cars still exhibited the unconventionally low and lean looks of the 1985-1988s, the stubbiness was mostly gone. Overall, the restyled 1989-1993 de Villes looked significantly more grandiose and substantial than their immediate predecessors. In fact, every body panel on the sedans save for the front doors was new.
To reduce weight, front fenders were now made from a composite material instead of steel. Although in the short term this was beneficial in the defense of dents and scratches, over time these fenders became susceptible to cracking.
The redesigned rear, with traditional Cadillac “fin” taillights and wider C pillars, did wonders for the de Ville. With the added length, trunk capacity was up 2.3 cubic feet to a volume of 18.4 cubic feet overall. Even with the extra bulk, curb weight for a base Sedan de Ville still came in at under 3,600 pounds.
Inside, Sedan de Ville presented front seat occupants with a “Dual Comfort” 45/55 split bench in either standard Royal Prima cloth with Contessa cloth inserts or available leather seating surfaces and front headrests with vinyl trim. Six-way power adjustments were standard for the driver and available for the front passenger.
Rear seat passengers gained an extra 2.5 inches of legroom for 43.6 overall thanks to the longer wheelbase for 1989. The wider C-pillars and elongated roofline allowed for a larger parcel shelf complete with a storage box. Rear outboard seats also gained separate headrests, previously only a Touring Sedan feature.
Up front, the bi-level instrument panel was carried over from before. Most essential functions such as switches for lights, climate control, cruise control, and the vehicle information center were located on the control pod wrapping around the steering column.
Although situated within easy reach, depending on steering wheel and seat position, it could become partially obstructed from view by the steering wheel. Unlike the up-level Fleetwood, which featured “Genuine American Walnut” woodgrain veneer, regular de Villes made due with the faux plasti-wood throughout their tenure.
Coupe de Villes, meanwhile, rode on the same wheelbase as before, though they were given much of the sedan’s new sheetmetal complete with larger overhangs for a greatly improved, more substantial appearance.
The following year of 1990 saw the 4.5L V8 gain an additional 25 horsepower for a total output of 180 horses, thanks to sequential multi-port fuel injection. A driver’s side airbag was also now standard, having been a newly-available option the prior model year.
1991 brought an even greater host of changes in the areas of styling, powertrain, safety equipment, and additional comfort features. Up front, de Villes boasted a bolder, more prominent grille that now lifted up with a redesigned “power dome” hood. The big news under that hood was a new 4.9 liter version of Cadillac’s “High Technology” V8 (the final evolution of the HT-4100), now making a very competitive 200 horsepower and 275 pound-feet torque.
Anti-lock brakes, previously optional, were now standard and traction control was newly option. Rear seat passengers gained adjustable heating/air conditioning vents, and the driver gained a safety lock button for the rear windows to ensure that no small child (or dog or drunk person) accidentally opened it and fell or threw something out.
Speaking of windows, standard EZ-Kool solar-control glass was also new to block out more UV rays than before. Automatic door locks were also now standard and new central door lock/unlock switches were added to the driver’s door and trunk. A brand new option this year was remote key-less entry.
Electrochromic dimming inside rear-view mirrors and heated outside rear-view mirrors were newly standard for 1991, as was the previously optional Twilight Sentinel automatic headlights and shut-off delay. All de Villes now featured paint stripes and new 15-inch alloy wheels as standard equipment, with the expected wire wheels discs still on the option list. De Villes also came standard with painted metal roofs, though both a full-padded vinyl roof with electroluminescent C-pillar wreath-and-crest and a full-cabriolet canvas roof were also available for extra charge.
Additionally, 1991 marked the return of the limited production Touring Sedan, which was previously offered from 1986-1988 in both 4-door (pictured above) and 2-door (as the “Touring Coupe”) form. Although no one would confuse it with a BMW, the Touring Sedan was targeted at de Ville buyers who sought a little bit more road feel in their Cadillac.
Although engine output from its 4.9L V8 was the same, over the base de Ville, Touring Sedans featured standard traction control, a speed-sensitive touring suspension, thicker stabilizer bars, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels with Goodyear Eagle GA all-season tires, and a marginally wider final drive ratio.
Visually, Touring Sedans were separated from regular de Villes by different lower bodyside trim, a large grille mounted wreath and crest (as opposed to a stand-up hood ornament), lack of chrome wheel arch trim, and the aforementioned 16-inch wheels.
Inside, Touring Sedans featured an upgraded interior featuring front seats with integral lumbar support and a modest hint of side bolstering, American walnut accents, and French-stitched ultra-soft leather seating surfaces in “Beechwood” color, similar to that in the STS.
The last two model years of this generation de Ville would see few changes. For 1992, the Touring Sedan’s standard traction control and speed-sensitive suspension joined the option list on regular de Villes. The latter would become standard for 1993, but apart from a few minor trim detail changes, this generation de Ville remained relatively unchanged for its swansong season.
While Cadillac may have tried gaining the attention of a few European and now Japanese luxury import buyers with the more driver-oriented Touring Sedan, the reality was that most de Ville buyers were part of a diminishing faction who exclusively sought old-school American luxury car virtues. Those seriously considering a de Ville were unlikely be shopping over at BMW or Lexus, and vise-versa.
Among these luxury car buyers, the de Ville essentially owned this corner of the market, its only true competitors being Chrysler’s New Yorker Fifth Avenue and Imperial, and Lincoln’s Continental. All three of these front-wheel drive, 6-passenger luxury sedans’ sales paled in comparison to the Sedan de Ville.
Truthfully, there was nothing that could have been done to this bodystyle to restore the Sedan de Ville to the former stature of its rear-wheel drive predecessors. Yet its 1989 restyling and subsequent improvements nonetheless created a de Ville that was a huge leap forward over the 1985-1988 models, making it look greatly more substantial, premium, and deserving of the Cadillac de Ville name. While this generation de Ville will always have a scrawny look to it, I think age has treated these Cadillacs well, as they come across as more elegant and finely detailed than their immediate successors.