Vintage C&D Review: The Power Brokers (Aug ’86) – Tri-National Luxury Car Championships

(first posted 3/31/2017)    I love comparison tests. Oh, sure, some infuriate me, like when a car receives a glowing review but isn’t rated the winner because of some subjective nonsense, or when the author has had to overly condense the discussion on each car. For the most part, though, they are a delight to read. This applies especially to comparisons from years ago, like this 1986 shootout between luxury sedans from Germany, Japan and the US.

The featured comparison test appeals to me as it features one of my favorite loveable losers, the 1986-91 Cadillac Seville. Good luck finding much information about these on the net as they seem to have virtually no enthusiast following. Even the (arguably worse) 1980-85 Seville has some vocal fans and even a nickname (“slantback”).

Cadillac had made some token efforts at tackling the increasingly popular Germans. The first-generation Seville offered luxury car buyers German dimensions and American luxury, although it was still very apple pie Americana in its execution. The Cimarron seemed vaguely European on paper but its execution was horrible. There was an Eldorado Touring Coupe but it was really a trim and suspension package on a decidedly American car.

The downsized ’86 E- and K-Bodies were perhaps the first real effort to tackle the Europeans. Downsized and riding a 108-inch wheelbase identical to the Mercedes 300E, greater effort had been invested in making the Seville (and Eldorado) handle better; even the base suspension was said to be superior to the old touring suspension option. Gone were the bench seats and column shifters. Like its predecessor, and like the 300E and Legend, the ’86 Seville utilized an all-independent suspension. Alas, Cadillac’s insipid and flaky HT-4100 was carried over from the previous Seville. The new car was quicker as the car weighed 400 pounds less than its predecessor but, despite adequate low-end torque, the V8 quickly ran out of breath. For traditional domestic luxury car buyers, the torque sufficiency made up for the horsepower deficiency. But those who had crossed over to imports, like the 300E and Legend, had discovered powerful six-cylinder engines that liked to be revved.

It wasn’t the American’s moment, however. The indefatigable Germans were marching to the top of the luxury market and Acura was the first upscale brand from Japan. Acura was more a premium brand than a luxury one—the Legend wasn’t really a direct rival for the 300E and its $20k lower price reflected that. But the Legend and later premium Japanese models like the Lexus ES were cause for consternation for GM’s mid-priced Buick and Oldsmobile brands. Cadillac executives would have had some heartburn, too: here was a modern, well-built, well-equipped executive sedan that, despite having a smaller V6 engine under the hood, could run rings around the lackadaisical and seriously lacking Cadillac HT-4100 V8. And then there was the price, almost $10k lower than the Seville.

What was also lacking with the Cadillac was the styling. As the Car & Driver crew noted, the Seville had elegant detailing but a clumsy roofline and trunklid. Compare and contrast with the Legend: an elegant, modern, if somewhat conservative shape, and awful detailing. Look at that grille—no badge, really? Is this an insurance commercial? The taillights also betray the Legend’s Honda origins. After all, the Legend was only sold as an Acura in North America and was called Honda Legend everywhere else. As for the 300E, it was unmistakably Mercedes and, like the contemporary W126 S-Class, managed to successfully mate traditional Benz design cues like the radiator shell grille with some modern curves. There was also a strong kinship with both the S-Class and the smaller 190E.

The Legend’s interior was well-presented and well-made but the Mercedes’ interior was almost timeless in its elegance and detailing. Beautiful wood trim, a logical layout and a gated shifter all worked together in harmony to make the 300E’s cabin still look up-to-date well into the 1990s. The Seville’s interior? It was very much a product of the 1980s, the modular-style dashboard looking similar to that of the contemporary G-Body. By the end of the decade, it looked positively passé although the ’88 Seville STS’ unique wood and leather interior spruced it up a bit. The rear seat showed GM’s former disdain towards passengers, something that would rear its ugly head again in the later W-Body.

As for dynamics, the 300E was unsurprisingly the victor in that category. Anything less would have been an outrage considering the 300E’s much higher price, German engineering, and rear-wheel-drive layout. As for the other two, the Legend had a compliant ride but lost composure at higher speeds while the Seville impressed with its roadholding – judged superior to the Mercedes’ – but disappointed with its steering.

While the 300E was the outright winner of the comparison, the Legend was lauded for its all-round ability. Considering its $20k lower price, anybody who wasn’t too concerned about snob appeal and outright handling ability would have been a happy Legend driver. As for the Seville, from a modern perspective one might think the frumpy Caddy would have disgraced itself. But Car & Driver left it with some kind words, saying, “With 30 more horsepower, 200 pounds less bulk, a livable back seat, and fewer extra-cost options, the Seville would be in the thick of things.” Just a couple years later, the Seville did receive a more powerful 4.5 V8. Alas, the back seat was never rectified, the dashboard remained dated, and even more appealing rivals appeared.

As I said earlier, I love these old comparison tests. Therefore, I must implore Car & Driver and Motor Trend to do what Australian magazine Wheels has done: create a digital archive that users can subscribe to. I don’t want to sound like I’m shilling for Wheels, but the idea is brilliant. Their interface could use some work, mind you, and there are some issues missing from the 1970s and 1980s. But imagine, North American Curbsiders, if you could pay a token amount each month and view digital copies of old magazines from the pre-internet era instead of having to collect and store dozens of old magazines. Clutter be gone!

Was this a fair comparison test? Probably not. I don’t think a 300E buyer would have cross-shopped a Seville, and a Legend buyer was probably more likely to have traded in a mid-priced domestic or upgraded from an Accord. But seeing how these three similarly-sized and yet very different cars compared was entertaining and helps lend perspective. The next generation of Legend and Seville would prove to be closer competition for the Mercedes, but they would be priced accordingly. That would be another interesting comparison.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1989 Acura Legend LS Sedan – The Empire Strikes Back

Curbside Classic: 1988 Acura Legend Coupe – Precision Crafted Performance

Curbside Classic: 1986-91 Cadillac Seville – The Sales in Spain Fall Mostly With The Plain

Curbside Classic: 1986-1991 Seville: GM’s Deadly Sin #24 – And To Think That I Owned One   PN

Curbside Classic: 1985-1996 Mercedes 300E (W124) – The Best Car of the Past 30 Years   PN