What do you get when you take a Corvette, wrap it Art and Science sheet metal, swap the LS1 for a less powerful Northstar, and charge a nearly fifty-percent premium? My good people, I give you the Cadillac XLR.
In the early-2000s, Cadillac was on an upswing, hastily revitalizing its aging lineup with newer models in an attempt to be more competitive with German luxury brands and attract younger buyers. As part of its restructuring plan, someone thought it was necessary for Cadillac to have a flagship roadster, that would be aimed squarely at the Mercedes-Benz SL. Sound familiar?
Of course, I’m referring to the Allanté, Cadillac’s first open-aired roadster, which the brand sold from 1987-1993. Introduced in attempt to go after yuppie Mercedes SL buyers, the Allanté’s body was designed and built by Italy’s Pininfarina, and famously shipped across the Atlantic on special 747 aircraft, where it was then attached to a shortened version of the Eldorado’s platform. Initially powered by Cadillac’s infamous HT-4100 V8, the Allanté would soon be upgraded with the better HT-4500, and ultimately, the very same engine found in the XLR, the 4.6L Northstar V8.
The Allanté featured clean styling, a modern and sumptuous interior, and competitive power (at least in its final season). Despite its front-wheel drive layout and heavy nose, handling was generally cited as good thanks to a fully-independent suspension with speed-sensitive shock absorbers and variable-assist steering. But the Allanté failed to hit its initial sales target of 8,000 units per year, finding just over 21,000 buyers over the course of seven years, most of whom were likely the most elite Cadillac faithful rather than Mercedes conquests.
One could nitpick at a number of reasons to why the Allanté failed to make a fortissimo presence, but the most grande reason for failure was likely its price. By 1993, the Allanté retailed for over $61,000 USD (just under $100,000 in 2015). Although this was still a relative bargain compared to the base $85,000 300SL, it was nearly double what the next-most expensive Cadillac was going for at the time.
But as the old saying goes, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. It took Cadillac a decade, but in 2003 that’s just what the brand did. Naturally, most fine details would be different, but looking at the big picture, the XLR was largely the same old song with the same old meaning since the Allanté had been gone.
Possibly the XLR’s greatest improvement over the Allanté was its choice of platform. Instead of riding on a chopped version of the El-vier-nado’s unremarkable E-body, the XLR rode on the Y-body, the platform of General Motors’ most serious sports car, the Corvette. Although the XLR used the 1996-vintage C5 Corvette as a basis (the C6 wouldn’t arrive for another year), it was still a perfectly competitive chassis for Cadillac’s luxury sports roadster.
From here, Cadillac stretched the wheelbase one inch, and reduced overall width and length by one and two inches, respectively. Weight, however, was up some 600 lbs. largely thanks to the Caddy’s power-retractable hard top. While power-folding hardtops may have been all the rage, the XLR’s met criticism for its lengthier and clumsier lowering process than chief rivals.
As previously mentioned, the XLR was fitted with Cadillac’s familiar 4.6L Northstar V8, although now mounted longitudinal and making 320 horsepower in the XLR. Although output was lower than the Corvette’s LS1, this 4.6L Northstar did have a small horsepower advantage over the heavier SL500 (which did have more torque). Transmissions were automatics only, initially a 5-speed unit, and beginning in 2007, an all-new 6-speed.
The 4.6L was capable of propelling the 3,840+lb. XLR from zero to sixty in a semi-decent 6.25 seconds. Thankfully for the speed demons, an XLR-V arrived in 2006. With a supercharged 4.4L Northstar V8, the XLR-V packed 443 horsepower and 414 lb-ft of torque, good for a 4.6 second 0-60.
One of the car’s biggest weak points was its interior. Although obviously plusher than any Corvette’s, the $75,000 XLR’s interior used most of the same austere surfaces that were questionable in a $30,000 CTS. Compared to competitors from Mercedes, Lexus, and Jaguar, the Cadillac’s interior was laughable. This was only made worse towards the end of the XLR’s run as interiors of lesser Cadillacs were becoming much nicer.
Most contemporary reviews throughout the XLR’s run were generally positive, crediting Cadillac with a solid entry in an exclusive club. However, when compared to the benchmark Mercedes SL, the XLR always managed to come up short, earning demerits for greater body roll, cheaper interior, cumbersome folding hardtop, and a less solid feeling of construction. Still, more customers would’ve likely been able to see past these faults, if it wasn’t for one glaring issue.
Like its dearly departed Allanté ancestor, the XLR had one monumental force working against it. Price. Beginning at $75,387 in 2004, that figure had climbed to $86,215 by 2009. For the XLR-V, base prices in ’06 were initially $97,485, reaching an astronomical $104,215 by 2009. For what it’s worth, actual buyers probably paid somewhat less due to dealer discounts and negotiating, but those who were expecting a bargain relative to the foreign competition were sadly mistaken. It should also be noted that XLR-V sticker prices were several thousand more than a comparably-equipped Mercedes SL550 or Jaguar XKR.
Never intended as a high-volume model, Cadillac’s initial sales projections were 5,000-7,000 vehicles annually. Yet after six model years, the XLR found less than 16,000 buyers globally. In that same period of time, the SL sold nearly 50,000 units alone in the U.S. and Canada.
Like the first-generation CTS and SRX, the Cadillac XLR was a respectable step in the right direction, but in most key areas it wasn’t quite up to the same levels of refinement as European rivals. 2009 saw GM shed a multitude of cars and brands from its portfolio, and without much fanfare, the XLR was one of them. Just like the Allanté, the XLR was indeed an exciting venture for Cadillac, but neither cars were ultimately successful enough for GM’s luxury marque to continue its investment in.
These XLRs are absolutely beautiful. An SL may be an objectively better car but they are a dime-a-dozen and they look like every other Mercedes. But these? Gorgeous. One of my favourite exterior designs of the past decade or so! And the interior could have been better but it at least looks better than the first-generation CTS and STS. Lofty, lofty prices though… Cadillac wasn’t there yet. I hope they revisit the XLR concept, though. Or release a production Elmiraj.
Nice looking car but the high pricing is silly if it wasnt as good as the competition shades of the CTS pricing here Cadillac projected prices around 90k NZ pesos before the launch then cancelled Ebbets motors bought the entire shipment and another UK bound shipment and flogged them at around 47k Holden money they sold really well giving Caddy a presence in NZ for the first time since WW2.
I generally like the “Art & Science” Cadillacs, but these just don’t quite work for me. The nose is nice, and the interior is ok, but the rest is just meh. Too square, and something bugs me about the proportions.
I do kinda like the Allante though. The dash is just soooo 1987, but otherwise I think they’ve aged pretty well.
Either way, these are going to have to depreciate a lot before I am the target demographic. 😉
I’m in the same boat here. The proportions are just a little odd. They do look better in person than in photos though (the owner of a local restaurant/bar has one that can sometimes be seen street parked in front of the establishment.) The Allante though–one of the most underappreciated designs of the 80’s.
Where they really fall down, though, is that interior. So not deserving of a place in an $80K car. And the decision to use the Northstar seems a little odd when the CTS-V uses the LS V8.
On that topic, is this the only Cadillac ever to use the Northstar in a longitudinal RWD configuration? Or did the final, RWD generation of the STS use it as well?
Yes, it turned out alright.
The RWD Northstar was used in the RWD SRX as well as the RWD STS. The RWD version of the Northstar was re-engineered, so was a different engine than the FWD versions. There were two basic FWD versions, the first generation which was then replaced for the 2000 model year with a re-engineered version. The second generation was better but still not good.
Except for the leather, the interior just screams ‘rental car’ all the way. Bland and uninspiring for such an expensive car.
The Allante actually looks like a nicer car, despite the Houston mission control dash (cool in its own way). If it could’ve been sold with a better engine, it could have been a contender, and also led to more STS type sales.
The XLR was distinguished mostly by its high price tag.
The Allante was a very good-looking car and closer to what Cadillac should have been offering in the segment.
It was killed by the expense of building the bodies in Europe and shipping them to the US for final assembly (by air freight, as noted).
As you can probably tell by my tone in the article, I love the Allante. Really well-kept ones can be found for around $10,000. There’s actually a used classic car dealer in the next town over from me that has a nice ’93 for just over $10,000. I might go test drive it just for the experience.
DO it. And write up a CC Test Drive.
I LOVE the Allante. I’m confirmed as favoring land yachts, but I think that the Allante is (I know this is going to make some people throw up a little) absolutely as timeless a design as the XK140 or 450SEL. Just as I would love to own one of those if I had infinite funds to pay someone to fix them, so too one of these.
The Allante’s design is lovely. Elegant and restrained. In line with what Cadillac used to be, say in the ’30s. As a used car, I can see why you’d buy one as a keeper.
Modern Caddies look more like they’re targeting the blinged-out Chrysler 300 crowd.
I agree with you Brendan. I love the looks of the Allante(especially its unique 3rd brake light)
The Allante wasn’t killed by that; it was killed by low sales. That’s what usually kills cars.
Yeah, they couldn’t move these at all. I can’t help but think things might’ve been at least somewhat different if it’d come with some more horsepower.
I’m imagining being in that target demographic in ’87 or ’88, and watching that great commercial Cadillac ran where the Allante zips around the Benz.
‘Wow, hey, maybe Cadillac is making something I would actually want’ I say to myself.
The next week, I hit up the local dealership.
…and it has the same engine as a FWD Sedan DeVille and, what, 170 HP?
If the Allante had been built in the same factory as the Reatta it might have been less costly and sold better. However, the Reatta was a lot cheaper and also did not sell….
I think GM needed to give Hamtramck something at the time. Dodge Main was torn down and headed straight to hopelessness ( and still does nowadays. It could be one of the most running down cities around ) and Coleman Young shared the problem at the same time.
I remember the Reatta! It was designed for a niche model that never really existed. Decent looking coupe hampered by excessive weight and an underpowered engine. But, hey, wasn`t that the GM song of the late 80s? Another reason why late 80s GM cars are interesting for all the wrong reasons.
I’m probably going to be an outlier here but I would classify the XLR as a Deadly Sin, specifically a Lutz Era Deadly Sin.
This car was little more than another chapter of Bob Lutz’s niche product addiction, in this case trying to copy the German brands in every market segment without asking himself if their end product could be credible (Same way the Solstice/Sky was a failed attempt to copy the Z4).
A Cadillac badge-engineered Corvette (with a Northstar, no less) was the answer to a question no one was asking, especially at $75K.
+1 I always thought Lutz had lost it by the end of his career, developing cars for himself, not the market. It was very clear in the early aughts that that the 2 seater market was beyond saturated.
I actually understood why Cadillac developed the Allante, as that car, done properly, could have been a true image restoring flagship. However, in addition to the two strikes of high price and insufficient power, the third killer strike was the lack of a power-operated top for the convertible. To me, Cadillacs always excelled at offering the latest in convenience features, so the requirement that the owner lower the top manually just did not feel right. So the whole package was typical GM: an interesting concept let down by being half-baked in too many key areas.
As for the XLR, Caddy was seeking once again to compete in a segment that was well above its capabilities to deliver. While I do think the car was the best example of the Art & Science design concept, in general that styling direction has always looked slightly amateurish to me. The XLR reminds me of something my 12-year-old son would draw: exaggerated proportions and overdone detailing, though definitely striking in its own way.
[In] addition to the two strikes of high price and insufficient power, the third killer strike was the lack of a power-operated top for the convertible. To me, Cadillacs always excelled at offering the latest in convenience features, so the requirement that the owner lower the top manually just did not feel right.
That’s something I can easily see being driven by the expense of air-freighting the bodies halfway across the world – the bean-counters balk at big line item and make the product people offset it by reducing content.
Poor decision if that was the case. I don’t see why they just didn’t pay Pininfarina as a contract design house and build the body themselves in the US. It was an attractive car that could have enjoyed better success.
In addition to being manually operated, in its first iteration the Allante’s top had a clumsy folding mechanism that could bind while being folded; I seem to recall announcements about it being revised at least twice during the model run.
It makes me wonder if there wasn’t something in the design of the body that required the folding top to negotiate an awkward angle in order to clear something. I’m convinced the Solstice had a similar compromise in the design of its top.
Personally, I think that the Lexus SC430 ate into the sales of the XLR more than the Mercedes SL, even though the SL was the intended target. Jeremy Clarkson’s musings aside, I found the SC430 to be as easy to live with as a Camry (and drives much like one), reliable, and generally hassle-free. Just not particularly thrilling…
I generally agree, but I would put it like this: Even if the XLR had been more polished, had better interior materials, etc., the world wasn’t (and isn’t) crying out for a rival to the SL-Class or the big Jaguar convertibles. The reason the SL and the big Jag coupes and convertibles have survived for so long is that they’ve found a niche. I think buyers in that class have a pretty good idea what to expect from those cars and no compelling reason not to buy one if that’s what they want. If you want to tempt them, you have to offer them something different.
For that reason, I think the price comparisons are to some extent beside the point; the stinginess of the rich should never be underestimated, but in this price class, it’s not like a couple grand one way or the other is really going to sway someone if they’re interested. These are the sorts of cars people buy as an indulgence, to salve a midlife crisis, celebrate a big bonus, or apologize to the spouse for that affair.
What would have probably worked better is if instead of the XLR, Cadillac had produced something like the Sixteen concept car. Join two Northstar engines together, make the hood as long as the average city block, and give it eight exhaust pipes with their own LED sparklers. It might have ended up vulgar and grotesque (not to mention ridiculously expensive), but at least it would earned the right to be considered or disdained on its own weird terms, not on how it compared to an SL500 in a nickel-and-dime price/features comparison. And, not to start any fistfights, it would have given Escalade fanciers a reason to come back to the Cadillac showroom besides getting their oil changes.
What are all those buttons on the side of the Allante passenger seat? It looks kind of like a wearable accordion from here. That is a very beautiful interior, I just have a hard time thinking of that many things you could do with a seat.
Those would be the power seat controls. They had 1 button for every movement, but hey, it was the 1980s. The number of buttons was something of a sign of status.
I never noticed that before. Pretty mind-boggling. And profoundly un-ergonomic. I can see a new passenger getting in and wanting to adjust their seat. “How do I move my seat back?” “Down there in the dark; good luck…maybe you’ll win the Allante seat control lottery”.
Compared to Mercedes’ brilliant little seat control that anyone could operate in the dark or while driving at 120mph, this is a…bad joke.
At least it wasn’t the Fleetwood Sixty Special with 22-way power seats 🙂
Wow! That trumps the 18-way power seats in the Oldsmobile 98 Touring Sedan . . .
Let’s see: up/down, forward/back, backrest recline, lumbar support in/out…under-thigh support….. I give up: what else can you adjust? Upholstery colour?
As an old-school, hard-driving Cadillac salesman and friend of my Dad’s was heard to say, “Those seats do everything short of giving you a b***w j*b!”
It reminds me of how Fifth Avenue gets a whole dashboard of gauges ( or fake gauges ) compared to the original dash in F-Body.
I would say… “If you don’t succeed the first time, ad more rockets” but the GM just did it.
400 plus horses is a very good number, but the price killed the car. I would have bought a Jag instead.
Do you guys remember when Cadillac called Robert Plant to sing in those commercials???
I have no interest in these, but I liked seeing the Vette platform used for something else.
How can a mass producer justify devoting so much money and talent to such a low volume brand? Blah blah tradition of excellence yada yada…the Vette was a parts-bin special back in its salad days. Now I gather it’s a competitive “supercar,” but why not get some more mileage out of the sunk costs?
When Wifey and I laid eyes and sat in an XLR at one of our auto shows years ago, our collective jaws dropped – and drooled! We loved that car.
This was our dream car!
It still is. Simply a beautiful ride.
I liked the idea of this car from the beginning. If anyone at GM should have been offering a high-end roadster, it was Cadillac. The car’s styling was perfect. But it appears to have been let down by execution and price.
A square-jawed American luxury-performance roadster made with first-rate materials, but that undercuts the price on the snooty Benz by $15-20K should sell. A more rigid structure, a better interior and a lower price might have made this a contender.
The frustrating thing is that the principal criticisms the Corvette has gotten since the C3 have centered on materials and quality, perceived and otherwise. Particularly since the C5, it hasn’t lacked for performance or technical sophistication, but there’s been the lingering sense of cheapness that makes all but the most tolerant non-U.S. pundits turn up their noses. The idea of keeping the performance and taking it up a couple of notches in price to give it a really world-class interior is actually kind of appealing — I’ve seen buff book writers calling for something like that since at least 1969, so I assume I’m not the only one who thinks so. However, the XLR wasn’t it.
Cadillac should have kept the XLR platform and refined it. Then we would still have a tasteful alternative to the Corvette. And, no, I don’t think much of what’s on the M-B lots these days can be considered tasteful.
I have always liked the look, and the concept behind the XLR, however as they say, “t’wixt the concept and reality lies the void”.
I got to drive a couple of these back when they were new, at those “Drive us and our competitors back to back and compare” events attempting to lure me out of my BMW. Lexus, Audi, and BMW were all giving me invitations to these events regularly back before the economy went away.
Anyhow, coming out of a Jaguar, and then a Mercedes, the first impression upon sitting in the XLR was that it was appallingly cheaply made. The famous ‘zebra wood’ paneling looked exactly like polyurethaned plywood. The seats seemed flat and uncosseting, and (this will sound odd, I know) the interior seemed just too huge. I felt like I was sitting in a small room on an upholstered chair – it was more like being a cheap dentist’s waiting room rather than in a sports car. The dash reminded me of a mid 80’s Camaro. The final impression just seemed sort of ‘Communist best effort to copy the West’ rather than a real $100,000 car.
All of these events had a sort of gymkhana course where you try the various cars. Here the XLS was clearly the best handling pickup truck there. It actually handled well but there was nothing luxurious about the way it went about the job.
As an American patriot, I came away crushed.
Sidenote – a one of the Lexus events they had a Jaguar convertible and the line to drive it was the longest of any of the dozen or so different vehicles available. The Lexus guy handling the crowd logistics expressed his puzzlement as the Jaguar wasn’t that great a car. I got to explain to him that the Jaguar was exactly like the beautiful girl that everyone wants to date but nobody dares take home to meet mom.
And the Lexus guy would probably have no clue as to why Jeremy Clarkson and James May chose the Lexus SC 430 as the worst car ever made.
I have never warmed to Cadillac’s curious mix of protractor right angles & curves in their exterior styling.
A cohesive styling look it is NOT.
^This. While I normally like some straight lines to go with gentle curves instead of the complete ‘melted jellybean in the rain’ look which has been so popular after the first Ford Taurus and ’83 Thunderbird hit the scene. The XLR’s ‘edge’ styling goes way too far in the other direction. In fact, it reminds me a lot of an old toy auto factory where a roof would be laid on top of what was a very flat car as it came down the little toy assembly line. The XLR’s hood and trunk are just way too flat and the fender drop-offs are too much of a sharp 90° angle.
I’m not a fan either. Unlike some unhappy styling trends, I understand exactly what they were thinking, and it has produced some interesting concept cars, but to my eyes, the production cars end up looking oddly proportioned and kind of unfinished. They’re also very angle- and color-dependent — in the right color at the right angle, they look pretty good, but then you step a little to one side and the car no longer looks right.
It’s also starting to feel played out. This particular theme dates back to what, 2001? There have been lots and lots of iterations, none of which I’ve particularly liked, and at this point it makes the launch of any new Cadillac seem kind of anticlimactic.
XLR-a nice car, but the interior is probably the most sterile looking one I`ve ever seen-especially for its huge price tag.Amazing how Caddy always seemed to miss the mark in their attempt to get a foothold in the premium luxury-performance 2 seater market. Maybe someday they`ll get it right,but until then…………
I had no idea the XLR got the Northstar until now. Being Corvette based I always assumed they were only a skin deep Cadillac, sharing the LSx engines with the Vette, which in hindsight they probably should have done. Everyone knew these were Corvettes in drag, and everyone knew of the Northstars reputation by the time these were out, the Corvette’s V8 was the C5 and C6 generations greatest asset, yet the Northquasar was substituted, WTF!
I did always like these though, they look way cooler in person than in pictures. I really only begrudgingly accepted the Art & Science look when it came out on the first gen CTS, just because it seemed to be a step in the right direction(not necessarily that I wanted it to stick around forever) but the XLR with it’s long low body just wore it so awesomly I genuinely accepted it. But damn were these overpriced!
The RWD Northstar engine is completely different from the FWD. As far as I know the RWD Northstar was actually put together right with headbolts that would hold. I wound my SRX V8 to 6000+ numerous times and at 91,000 miles on it, oil consumption was about 1 pint in 12,000 miles (my usual oil change interval).
Yeah, until this article, I thought exactly the same thing, that the XLR was just a revamped Corvette, complete with the Corvette drivetrain.
In fairness, I can fully imagine the kind of disgusted sniffing that would have been heard in the automotive press at the idea of a pushrod LS-series engine in an SL-Class rival — having nothing to do with its actual capabilities, mind you, but just on general principle. So, I can understand why Cadillac wouldn’t want to go that route.
I saw it at the NY auto show back in those days. I still really like the IDEA of a Cadillac roadster.
Just not what they’ve come up with to realize that idea.
The Allante was a good looking car that unfortunately was only ever offered with Cadillac engines. The price was too high because of the several thousand mile long production line. The ‘elite Cadillac faithful’ that drove them were also known as the wives of the dealers.
The Allante might have been the lesser car but at least it looks pretty darn good. I’d take one any day. The XLR, on the other hand, looks just downright silly and amateurish, like an overgrown pinewood derby car built in a high-school shop class.
It’s always interesting to ponder why certain cars did or didn’t sell. My notion is that the Allante was perhaps originally aimed at the Mercedes SL crowd, but their real demographic was the former buyers of Eldorados. And that demographic had simply shrunk at the arrival of the Allante.
The 71-78 Eldo sold between 30-50 000 cars per year, evening out at around 40k cars most of the years. The 79-85 Eldo sold about 70 000 cars per year, up until the ’86 Eldo when it shrank do about 20 000 cars. That demographic should’ve been ripe for the Allanté, but that just didn’t happen.
And why? I just don’t know. They died out and everybody and their Floridian grandmother got either an SL or a Corniche? And the Allanté was benchmarked against the R107 and was dead and buried with the arrival of the R129. While the Corniche had a several year long waiting list for those who could afford it.
What happened in 1986? Why did the demographic just change all of a sudden? It can’t be the cars only, there should’ve been enough GM faithfuls to fill the very modest goal of 8000 cars per year.
I don’t think it was demographics. It was clearly targeted at the MBZ SL demographic, which may have overlapped a wee bit with the Eldo demo, but not very much. The Eldo was less than half as expensive as the Allante or SL.
The Eldo sold well to folks who had done reasonably well in life, worked hard, and wanted to treat themselves with a Caddy in retirement or near retirement. But the overwhelming majority of these folks were not “rich” at all. Often they came from pretty humble backgrounds. And the leap to an SL or Allante was realistically out of their reach.
The “richer” buyers had long moved on to Mercedes or such.
The Allante arrived with the miserable weak-chested 4.1, and FWD. It was a pathetic joke compared to the SL. Cadillac’s image was already so badly tarnished and declasse, that MBZ buyers wouldn’t touch it. The sales it did get were form the pool of Caddy buyers who did have enough to make the financial leap.
The Corniche does not even belong in this discussion; it’s in a whole different stratosphere.
Obviously, the stratification I have described was not without exceptions. But Cadillac had long slid in its image and pricing, and had become a everyman’s car long earlier. And when retired plumbers and electricians drive Eldorados, it made the brand (and the Allante, by association), less then desirable.
I think brand inflation is serious these days. It won’t be long before Mercedes, BMW or Lexus are no longer considered luxurious ( and I suspect if BMW is a luxury brand now when a 180-200hp 4-cylinder sedan can come at $31k either with VW or BMW badge, probably vinyl seats in BMW’s case ) and the next target will be Maserati and Bentley. It’s happening in MSU at least as I know, where a Mercedes E-Class could be as plain as Dodge Avenger according to some students, and I don’t really appreciate that.
Do they happen to be foreign students?
What happened was that many of Cadillac’s best customers gave up on the brand in the ’80s. I had family on Staten Island, where Cadillacs were king in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Not only did everyone have them, they also had to have the current ones. If anybody could tell a ’77 Coupe De Ville from a ’78, it was the denizens of Rosebank and Southbeach. Because they bought new Cadillacs so often, they knew the 368 was weak compared to the 425. They knew the V8-6-4 was a failure. They knew the HT4100 was a disaster. Then the comically-proportioned ’85s showed up. All the twenty-something guidos that drive BMWs and Range Rovers today; their fathers were driving Coupe De Villes and talking about Eldorado Biarritzes thirty two years ago. By the late ’80s, they were driving everything on the market as they looked for a new talisman to replace the Cadillacs that were part of their uniforms a few years earlier.
Paul this is a great observation. The Allante was aimed at the Eldo demographic except that they didn’t have the buying power to make the leap to a much more expensive level. They were topped out financially to afford the Eldo. It was not like they chose the Eldo and had a surplus of money left over. Buying a new Cadillac for a working man was a the realization of a lifelong dream. Sure there were traditional wealthy buyers who valued Cadillac’s reliability, high performing a/c, and ease of service, but I think these buyers were decreasing in number as the 80’s approached. The car was losing it’s exclusiveness- a fatal failing which is being repeated by some of the current European makes. There was an excellent article in the August 1987 issue of Collectible Auto. It was titled: “Cadillac in the eighties: Design Dilemma” It’s conclusions were that the ” rich” were different now, More numerous and much more wealthy. They are able to spend much more than the price of a Cadillac on a new car, and they do. They are multi-national in heritage and don’t feel any patriotic allegiance to buy America’s best. They are better educated and better traveled and find the Cadillac to be a denial to their education and experience. Cadillacs have always been corporate cars built with the best components available from GM and topped with audacious styling. Just jacking up the price to a level commensurate with an MBZ or BMW,doesn’t mean the cars are real competitors. Consider the original Seville, Cimmaron, Allante, and XLR. The inflated price didn’t make them world class cars. Affluent buyers saw through this sham. Though GM got away with it for awhile with the first gen Seville. So where does that leave Cadillac in the market? The article suggested that they aim for a spot above Buick but below BMW. Keep building the best cars they can and price them accordingly. Kind of like the earlier offerings from Acura, they were good cars and well received, but nobody was mistaking them for BMWs. Actually Cadillac seems to have done this with the release of the early CTS. I think that this is their mass market car. I think new models have to not only be good, but be a good deal if they are to be successful. Really GM can’t compete anymore with the world’s most exclusive auto makers but they can sell a lot of cars and make a lot of money if they play their cards right.
Many Caddy loyalists went to Lincolns in mid 80’s, hence the rise in Town Car sales. Just a guess. But at same time, the Allante was too costly for Eldo owners expecting 1979 era prices.
When the Allanté debuted, it benefited from its main competitor, the Mercedes SL, already being 15 years old (new for 1972). The Jaguar XJS also dated back to the mid-1970s. Certainly the Allanté’s creases and angles looked sleek next to the SL’s 1970s battering ram bumpers! As another poster pointed out, the Allanté was a lame duck once the R129 came out for 1990.
As for the XLR itself, I was in middle school when that car came out, and I had high hopes for it. I was still in awe that Cadillac was capable of building the CTS instead of just barges for bingo players. But by the time it was discontinued in 2009, I had forgotten it even existed in the first place. Much like the Lexus SC430 it competed against, it faded off the map after initial hype (and criticism, in the Lexus’s case).
I think that the concept car (Link to Evoq here) was better. Something was lost in converting to the Corvette’s platform.
Isn’t that the typical GM way? Seems like whenever they come up with a good-looking concept that they decide to put into production, it really gets fouled-up in the process, sometimes in the most tragic of ways (looking at you, Aztek).
The Corvette platform was changed for the XLR, but the XLR was not the Evoq. The build the Evoq would have required a new exclusive platform and costs would have been very high.
It must’ve annoyed the old-time GM guys no end that a Cadillac couldn’t sell at a Mercedes-Benz price point. Guess that’s what decades of cheapening out on materials quality and skimping on engineering does for your brand equity.
Cadillac’s biggest problem moving XLRs in 2009 is the same problem it has trying to sell CTSs in 2015, and will likely continue having for years to come (unless the brand is killed off first.) The problem isn’t one of quality, either, or memories of the Cimarron. It’s that, with limited exceptions, Cadillac is only viewed as a premium brand by decidedly non-premium customers.
Forgive me for being non-PC, but more gangsta types aspire to own a Cadillac than do successful business owners, bankers, doctors, lawyers, etc. Usually, those in the former group can only afford a Caddy once it’s passed through its second or third owner, by which time the gilding has largely worn off to reveal the inherent GM cheapness underneath anyway.
It doesn’t matter anymore how good the cars might finally be. By all accounts the ATS and CTS are fairly competitive in their classes, but they’re gathering copious layers of dust on Cadillac lots as the respectable types have moved on to German and (to a lesser extent) Japanese luxury brands.
That only leaves the Escalade – a muddled and thoroughly illogical owner demographic I won’t even attempt to understand – and a slew of undesirable cars and a middling CUV that, after incentives, do battle for the same near-luxury customers as Buick.
This bothers me enough to prompt me to defend the Escalade, which is a vehicle I find aesthetically and conceptually repellant.
I’m troubled by the deep-seated racism of the argument that Cadillac (or at least the Escalade) still having aspirational appeal to black buyers is a bad thing. Luxury vehicles — successful ones, anyway — usually appeal to people who can’t yet afford them new. Hell, in the modern world, that’s at least 80 percent of the point, since for the most part really expensive cars no longer have a substantial edge in comfort, performance, or technology over more affordable ones. That appeal is bolstered by associations with real or fictional celebrities; how many non-car nerds would ever have heard of Aston-Martin if not for James Bond?
Nobody bats an eye if the celebrities or the aspirational buyers are white or assumed to be white. I have yet to see anyone seriously argue that the image of BMW or Mercedes-Benz is diminished by the surfeit of cheap lease rates, “preowned” cars, and heavily depreciated used models putting them in the hands of many thousands of (presumptively white, or at least non-black) people who couldn’t afford the tariff for a new one. Yet have a few black hip hop stars or pro athletes buy something — many of them a lot wealthier than the thousands of middle-management working stiffs piloting CPO 5-Series around L.A. — and suddenly it becomes a brand management crisis. Like I said, this is racism and I think it’s pernicious.
So, let’s talk about the Escalade. As I recall, the Escalade started off as a straightforward me-too response to the success of the GMC Yukon Denali, but found its metier in becoming considerably more cartoonish. Its appeal, like it or hate it, is that it is sort of the rolling epitome of Conspicuous Consumption. Even if you can make a rational argument for owning a big SUV (and I’m not going to start that argument), this is clearly not a vehicle you buy because you need to, but because you can and you want everyone to know you can.
In its over-the-top way, it’s also probably the most unapologetically American vehicle GM makes — it’s not trying desperately to convince anyone it’s an alternative to a 3-Series. In fact, it has all the qualities of the big, chromey ’50s Buicks and Cadillacs that used to inspire equal amounts of contempt and envy in European snobs.
And there is clearly a market for that. The last time I looked, the SRX was Cadillac’s bestseller in terms of sales volume, but I have a strong suspicion that the Escalade is probably Cadillac’s most profitable model and has been for a while. Given the so-so sales of stuff like the ATS, I would not be at all surprised if the Escalade has played a major role in Cadillac’s continued survival in the past decade.
The brand crisis that the Escalade represents is not who’s buying what Cadillac is selling, but that by its very nature, the Escalade’s appeal is not really scalable. Over-the-top conspicuous consumption doesn’t really translate into CUVs or midsize sedans. So, while the Escalade has been successful, there’s really a basic disconnect (visual cues notwithstanding) between it and the rest of the lineup, which Cadillac continues to try to position as me-too responses to the Germans.
I think the Escalade is actually the best example of what Cadillac used to be. An over the top status symbol that was still very usable and practical transportation. I haven’t been making any comments about racial demographics, I was only making an observation of financial demographics. Is a new Cadillac an aspirational vehicle? Maybe. I wanted lots of earlier Coupe de Villes. I had to buy used to get my Northstar Seville. So I’m not a rich guy. Personally for me at 60 yrs of age I really miss the Coupe de Ville, the Eldo and the Marks. To me these were Cadillac and Lincoln.Not a truck, SUV, or mini van MKZ.
Thanks for the reply, AUWM, but I deeply resent your implication that my comments were racist. There’s a distinct difference between “black” and “gangsta,” which is why I used the latter term. Here in NM, “gangsta” doesn’t mean black; it refers to a culture that spans across several racial groups, including more than a few white kids. It’s a cultural demographic, not a race. Make sense?
That said, of course I believe “gangstas” represent an undesirable customer base for a purported luxury brand. (I have a hunch that Johan would agree with me, too – especially since, as you and I both agree, they usually can’t afford to buy new.) This is an association not shared with BMW, Mercedes, or Lexus (with limited exceptions) and I think it’s highly damaging to Cadillac’s current and future prospects as it continues to attempt to move upmarket.
The Escalade was rushed into production in response to the surprising success of the first Lincoln Navigator, if I recall correctly. Initially GM didn’t want to give Cadillac any SUVs, but the success of the Navigator forced the corporation’s hand.
It seems hard to believe now, but it was the Navigator that initially scored a direct hit with the conspicuous consumption crowd. If I recall correctly, there were even rap songs about the “‘Gator.”
Lincoln later dropped the ball, and the second-generation Escalade, which featured Art & Science styling cues, was a major hit, and ran away with that market.
And there is a sedan that embodies some of the characteristics of the Escalade, and is bought by the same type of customer.
Unfortunately, it’s not produced by Cadillac. It’s made by Chrysler, and it’s called the “300.”
Yes the Escalade was brought out after the Lincoln Navigator proved to be a hit. The first Escalade was basically a rebadged GMC Denali.
The success of the Escalade really presents dilemma for Cadillac and GM.
It does represent old school, over-the-top, conspicuous consumption. That works for one vehicle, but the market for that is quite limited in 2015. GM can’t build an entire brand on that image, as it could in the postwar era.
Another challenge is that what makes the Escalade so profitable – it shares a whole lot with more plebian Chevrolets and GMCs – also limits its appeal. Scratch an Escalade, and there is a Tahoe underneath. It reinforces the image that a Cadillac is just a standard GM vehicle with a lot of superficial flourishes to differentiate it from its more humble brethren.
A Mercedes S-Class is over-the-top in many ways, too. Is there anywhere in this country where you can legally cruise along at 130+ mph? But scratch an S-Class, and you aren’t going to find a VW or even an Audi underneath.
Ah, but if you scratch the Audi you may find the VW. Scratching the S-class might have produced a Chrysler once, but not anymore. Mercedes is trying to move the S-class up market into Bentley (VW) or Rolls (BMW) territory.
The only other automaker I know of that seems to do the whole “conspicuous consumption” thing well across the board is Land Rover, specifically with its Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and Evoque.
I always thought that Cadillac would do well to mimic that lineup, first by ditching the SRX for an Escalade Sport of the same size and then by creating an Evoque competitor. You’d be amazed at how many people will eat this up and ask for thirds.
Last but not least, make a flagship based either on the Elmiraj or the “beast” presidential limo – either way, it needs to be a sedan with both presence and class. Why? Just because. Don’t worry about chasing ze Germans with your CTS and ATS and CT6 and whatever – that’s a losing game.
You can see the awkward proportions of the XLR in some of the shots in the article. It looks like a Cadillac version of an El Camino.
And I always disliked the styling of the Allante. So expensive, so generic and so pedestrian. A big yawn and more galling still was Cadillac’s attempt to meld styling cues from it to their mainstream cars.
I think the reason it failed was that there seemed no real connection to the rest of the Cadillac line. While it was new and a different approach, there was nothing memorable about the design. The Mercedes looked like a Mercedes.
It had no presence, nothing that stood out. If you were spending $60,000 at that time you wanted people to know it. This was about as common looking as a Chrysler TC. And less cohesive than a Chrysler LeBaron [2nd Gen] convertible.
The XLR had that Cadillac connection in spades for better or worse, not something I liked either, top up or down.
Great article Brendan. But I think if one bought a good used Allante no one would ever bother to even ask “What is it?”, they’re that bland.
Why do they keep building two seaters? Why not a four seater, one that is reasonably, but not excessively large? Think a size up from a BMW 3-Series convertible, well engineered but just a bit flashy, something like an early 1980s Eldorado in concept.
In that space currently, you’d encounter the Mercedes E-class convertible, the BMW 6-series convertible (debatable), Infiniti Q50 convertible, Audi A5 cabriolet, and maybe 1 or 2 others I can’t currently place. I think that market is getting a bit saturated given the slow pace of large convertible sales. However, if you rewind to 2004, most of those weren’t around. The 6-series roadster was, but none of the others. Benz and Audi were making smaller convertibles (CLK and A4, more aimed at the 3-series), the Infiniti G37 convertible didn’t come along until 2009, and the Lexus SC430 had a back seat that was essentially decorative.
So you might be onto something. However, given the constraints of wheelbase, I don’t know how easy it would be to build a legitimate 4-place convertible on a ‘Vette platform. And I don’t know what else they would have used–the GM cupboard was looking a little bare in the first part of that decade. The CTS had just come out but it really wouldn’t do to try to offer a $70K convertible based on the exact same architecture as your $35K 3-series fighter, even if it was a little larger than that aforementioned 3-series.
There may be an ATS convertible sometime, but perhaps it would be on the next generation platform. Cadillac’s plans are not clear at this time.
I like the concept
dislike the price tag
This has got me thinking…a lightweight low cost version of the Corvette with an Atlas inline 6 motor. Maybe turboed.
GM did so many screwball things it really baffles the mind. Why they even bothered using the more troublesome HT 4100 in the Allante for such a short time and bothering to spend money on it with port injection and tubular intake manifolds when the far better 4.5 was right around the corner makes zero sense. The 200 horse 4.5 made this a better car and more reliable. Too bad then that this new found reliability was flushed down the toilet in 1993 with the very first Northstar head gasket eating DOHC V8.
The XLR leaves me cold. It’s just too plain as if something is missing. Plus that overly long hood and the missing door handles and the tan beige interior remind me why I can’t stand many of today’s vehicles. It never remotely looked like it’s pricetag.