(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.
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
I’d forgotten this generation of Seville, and you had to remind us!
GM styling at its absolute and utter worst. Call it the goofback.
I just call these Seville’s ….. stumpy
Or the “Meh-ville,” perhaps. GM was capable of producing clean, interesting designs, but not in this case.
In taking this comparo in a vacuum, I’d likely go with the Cadillac, (Furrin’ cars have no appeal for me YMMV.) But the similarly styled Buick Electra was larger and less expensive, even though it “only” had a 6. Say what you will about the gen 2 Seville, I didn’t look like anything else in the GM line up, Sometimes that’s all it takes. (for better or worse).
While I’m the exact opposite of you in that I’d be MORE likely to buy a foreign car, I do agree that this generation of Seville looks TOO MUCH like a Buick. I even had to study the picture to “find” the Cadillac. And didn’t Buick have a more reliable engine in that time period?
Had an 86 300E. Grey in grey. Bot it BC it was already 14 yrs old and cheap. But in good shape. Air con was spotty would work one day and not the other. Other than that it was one solid and I mean solid car. I liked driving it. It ended up with 340k b4 I sold it. And it was still driving just like new.
That final chart tells a sad tale. Cadillac: last place in every single category (except handling where it tied with Acura for second/last).
It would be expected that Cadillac would have trouble with Mercedes. But to fare so poorly with a car sold as a Honda outside of the US, just sad. Even worse, Cadillac was really trying with this car.
I’m not sure what the Acura being sold as a Honda has anything to do with anything. Cadillac is made by GM who in that year made mostly garbage. A car being called a Cadillac does not make it good (take the cimmaron, please!). A car being called an Honda does not make it worse.
I don’t particularly like Honda, and I remain convinced that Acura lost the plot decades ago. But the Legend, and its many virtues, (and it’s awful vice of being particularly boring) are exactly the same when badged as a Honda, an Acura, or even a Daewoo.
I believe his point is that that Seville was an actual Cadillac, not a rebadged Chevy, yet it still wasn’t as good as a rebadged Honda.
I have driven too much in this generation Mercedes to ever pick one for myself as a private car. The seats are too hard, the steering wheel too large, The automatic transmission is not flexible in hilly terrain, why you tend to downshift manually to avoid dragging uphill in too high gear.
I prefer the next generation by far, which I have also driven a lot, had they not had the big rust issue.
I would never consider the Honda a luxury car. Too much plastic.
The Cadillac has a look of its own, But that is exactly what is charming about it. It is a car you will be able to spot in a parking lot any time.
I would enjoy cruising down the highway steering it with two fingers only and support from even armrests, even in cross wind, whereas you need to have a firm grip with both hands on the steering wheel to control the Mercedes on the highway whilst driving over 70 m/h.
That is why it was very common here that 2nd or 3rd owners lowered the front suspension. Looked weird, but apparently it helped.
So, you had to drive the car? Too many non-attentive people doing 80 Inn the interstates these days.
An interesting detail is that the “too much plastic” complaint was also leveled at the Legend in Japan. Late JDM sedans got a facelift with more chrome and revamped, woodsier interior (at least in senior grades), but American Honda apparently vetoed it for the U.S.
They were work cars for me in the 1990’s.
Badging it Stirling /Rover didnt work out very well. The faults appeared far to early in the cars lives.
Of course it was a fair comparo! This was exactly the time that many people transitioned out of their old style Cadillacs into German and Japanese luxury-mobiles. Cadillac was the undisputed luxury car leader just 10 short years before the 86 Seville, with high residuals and record sales. By the time this disappointment debuted, sales came to a near halt – at least when it came to the all-important baby boomer set. Look, GMs downfall has all been hashed and rehashed before, but I actually can’t think of a more fitting group of comparison cars than these 3.
BTW the car itself wasn’t all that terrible. My dad had one (a ’90 with the slightly improved 4.5) and although it was stubby looking and one would sit way too low in the cockpit, and yes you did slide around a lot on those greasy leather seats, it had fairly decent driving dynamics for a FWD car. It just couldn’t shake the “OMC” syndrome with the pimpish styling, red button tufted seats and wire wheel covers.
By this time, GM/Cadillac clearly lost the narrative.
I can’t help but notice that they tipped their hand at the beginning of the article. Of course the Mercedes is great, it’s a Mercedes! Cadillac’s trying to pawn a cheap car off on you, but Honda pulling badging off a Honda and selling it as a luxury car is great because Honda knows what’s best. As I read the rest of it, I could imagine Csere going into the test disliking Cadillac generally and coming out of it having convinced himself that (in spite of any particular merits or demerits) the Cadillac was in fact garbage.
And at the end, their conclusion matches exactly with what they showed us at the beginning. Of course the Merc’s the winner, the Honda’s great, and the Caddy just isn’t quite there. I was surprised, though, when they were generally complementary toward the Cadillac interior. Maybe had I been exposed to Mercs as a kid I’d think more highly of them, but as an adult I have never been able to wrap my head around why people thought ’80s Mercs were luxurious or even attractive inside. I call it the Caviar Syndrome-I’ve had caviar and washed it down with Dom Perignon, and I’m convinced the only reason people say it’s tasty is because it’s expensive and they want to look sophisticated instead of stupid for eating disgusting slimy salty chunky snot.
All that said, though, they’re right to call out Caddy for their performance. Performance has always been a hallmark of luxury. The recent CC article on the End of Luxury/Fusion Platinum rightly calls out the performance advantage luxury cars had way back when. Even in the malaise era, the Lincoln could give much of what was on the road a run with its giant 460 V8. The ’86 Seville, though? There was a significant chunk of GM’s own product range that could give it a run. Hell, the Buicks could probably outrun it. This is the point where countering that old-school luxury involved comfortable torque instead of fire-breathing performance falls down because, again, the Buicks could do that too.
I dunno, I guess I’d have to have had the chance to see and feel all of these new to have a better formed opinion. To this day I can probably count the number of Legends I’ve seen on one hand, and I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on the Mercs.
Oh, anyone who thinks a W124 is luxurious is crazy and lost. It was, however, the finest car in production at the time, if you like driving hard and fast, I’d enjoy the feeling of incredible solidity. There is more to rating anything than just one dimension.
I don’t think the Cadillac had any real problems other than poor construction quality and GM walking the line of not giving the luxury quotient traditional Cadillac buyers liked at the time, without actually providing the things that appealed to Mercedes buyers of its day.
There is nothing wrong with a contemporary DeVille that building it properly and a durable engine wouldn’t fix. Some people want sybaritic luxury, others want a more stern form of comfort and an ability to drive down the highway at 90 mph with one hand on the shift knob and the other scratching an itch on their head. Cadillac brought the former to the table, Mercedes the latter.
You can build a car that does both, Mercedes does with the current S-class. But nobody did that in 1986. And it costs a lot more than ~$70k in today’s money.
Oh, anyone who thinks a W124 is luxurious is crazy and lost.
Well then, I’m crazy and lost.
How about you define “luxury” for me, so that I might become less crazy and lost?
Extravagance. Which is the diametric opposite of the W124, which is merely an excellent tool. It’s like saying a Snap-On is more luxurious than a Pittsburgh. As Honda once demonstrated, quality is not a luxury, neither is excellence in engineering. It is a separate function.
Comfort while driving is not a luxury, it is a fundamental requirement of safety. Beyond features that remove distractions to allow you to focus on driving, the W124 has no luxury, especially when not optioned up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the W124 isn’t good: it’s peerless.
The W124 is a premium product by virtue of its excellence. The Cadillac is a premium product by virtue of its extravagance of features.
If you strip away the infernal climate control (and replace it with the Euro semi-auto system), the memory power seats, the electric windows, and all the other items standard in the US, but optional elsewhere, the excellent automobile remains. If you strip away the luxury features on the Cadillac you have a generic GM front driver with a bigger (but worse) engine and an independent rear suspension.
Paying extra for the Cadillac verses another, similar sized GM car of its time is an act paying for extravagance. Paying extra for the Mercedes versus, well, say the Acura Legend (a good car, but not close to the Mercedes in quality, durability, safety, or engineering integrity) can be justified by the virtues of the car’s basic excellence.
I don’t actually think we disagree on this subject. I think we disagree on definitions of certain words.
Obviously, it’s a word that is subject to many definitions. But I happen not to agree with yours. I think the most important aspect is prestige/exclusivity/quality, and that’s precisely why Mercedes and other European brands got such a strong foothold in the market.
A luxury item is used to project prestige and exclusivity much more than it is to coddle its occupants in pillow-top upholstery.
All one has to do is look at all the ads for expensive watches. They’re all sold on their exclusivity and superb quality, regardless of whether they’re more comfortable. Back then, Mercedes had the same image.
Even in the 80s there were still more extravagant cars than Mercedes, I mean Rolls Royce and Bentley didn’t go anywhere, and are still with us in basically the same mould today, and really those were what traditional Cadillacs were at a time closer to in terms of aspiration, before they became noticeably decontented and barely a cut above a Chevy.
The Snap On vs Pittsburgh analogy is spot on. They do the same dirty work the same way, look the same but the Snap On is clearly better made, can take a greater beating and will last a long long time. I do know some tool snobs who will look down on you if they see a harbor fright receipt in your toolbox, but they aren’t exactly oozing with wealth, if I saved my pennies I could match their toolkit. They’ve just got the hottest tools for the trade. But the reality is some of my cheap Pittsburghs/duralasts ect. work fine, and some of my Snap Ons have, well, snapped.
A 1986 Mercedes Benz can be had used for about the same cost as an 86 Cadillac due to depreciation and condition, because both cars ultimately got used the same way through their life cycles, just like the tools. A 1986 Rolls Royce however, while definitely depreciated, is still not likely to be seen in a Walmart parking lot like a Seville or W124. You tell someone you have an old Rolls Royce and they’ll think you’re rich, tell them you have an old Mercedes and they’ll think you’re trying to steal used cooking oil. That perspective may not seem pertinent to Mercedes perception in 1986 but that long term perspective is the difference between discerning what WAS fashionable because of what’s trendy and what’s fashionable because of true exclusivity.
Luxury for me means not wasting time going to the dealership and spending untold $$$ on repairs.
The W124 was legendary – among the best Merc ever made.
Now, from the same people – C&D, the Honda beats the E Class:
Why the pedestrian Honda Accord out-achieves the new Mercedes-Benz E-class.
Better engines, better performance, better handling and surely more reliable.
If that word means soft and cushy, along with obviously cheap materials (often obviously shared with a Chevy), slapped together then yes, the Seville was more “luxurious”.
If luxury means sitting in a car that surrounds you with only the very best quality materials everywhere you look and feel, a very palpable sense of being in a car unlike just about any other, then the Mercedes was vastly more luxurious. The Mercedes exuded prestige; the Seville didn’t, except maybe in certain parts of the country.
Curiously enough, I briefly “inherited” an ’86 Seville at the same time I owned an ’86 300E, so I know what I speak of. The difference in interior quality and ambiance was very profound. the Seville’s dash and console screamed “cheap”, and the leather was drastically lower quality.
Never mind how the two drove. Day and night. I don’t have time to fully get into that right now. It’s all here: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1986-1991-seville-gms-deadly-sin-21-and-to-think-that-i-owned-one/
I understand that in some parts of the country, the Seville might have seemed the height of luxury, but I can tell you that in the Bay Area in 1987, it screamed “cheap pretender”. Hence the fact that I had to lower its price to a ridiculous level to get rid of it. It had zero prestige value.
So yes, if you prefer a Lazy Boy to an Eames chair, the Cadillac was was your car; so much more luxurious.
Spot on. And this comparison brings it all home quite nicely. This is why I paid someone to sew a custom cover for a ’90’s vintage Eckornes chair rather than replacing it, and it’s the same appreciation for quality that explains why you can still spot a few W124’s on an average ride through many locales today, but you’d be hard pressed to find a Seville of the same vintage. A W124 with a $1200 repair looming is still viable, while the imaginary Seville with the same repair on the horizon is…well….not. Is that indicative of luxury? I’d say so.
When these cars were new, I was in college on the East Coast, and there was no doubt that Cadillac was “out” while the other two were “in”–even though they competed in different price classes. Likewise, in my hometown of New Orleans, Cadillac was definitely not considered desirable by buyers in the target audience age-range.
The shift in NOLA was dramatic in the 1980s–the city went from being domestic-centric to import-centric in the span of a decade. These were the years, and the cars, that drove that change, and it happened across huge swaths of the country, not just on the trendy coasts.
as an adult I have never been able to wrap my head around why people thought ’80s Mercs were luxurious or even attractive inside.
Please look at the two images below. Both were new luxury cars in 1980-1981. Which one is more attractive or luxurious? Ok, that’s a subjective question.
How about which one obviously showed the way forward in interior design, as in every car eventually copied its basic design direction, one that still can be seen today? And which one was obviously a total dead end in interior design?
So well used Cadillac interior in the worst(imo) color with wrappers strewn about, ash tray filled with cigarettes and destroyed armrests, in poor lighting no less, or Mercedes interior in the best color in a primped well lit brochure shot…. what a difficult proposition.
I too have been in both, and while I prefer the period Mercedes interiors overall, they still don’t seem very luxurious, they’re like being in a Ford with much better material quality. And the seat comfort is really debatable, Mercedes seats are both stiff and bouncy, and that’s very much subjective in preference. I’d rather have the cushiness of the Cadillac seats with the side support of the Mercedes seats, so neither do much for me there as is. The dash, eh… forward thinking or not I think the linear dash in the Cadillac will always remain timeless – the execution is kind of crappy in that specific car mind you! But the core shape of it has been beautifully executed before and since.
I might add this is not the ’86+ Seville either (unless my eyes deceive me)–it’s the older model. I don’t know if that was intended or not as I don’t know anything about the Mercedes pictured.
I was responding to her comment about “early 80s Mercedes”, more than about which generation Seville.
Yeah I’m fairly certain it’s a bustleback pictured. The 86 used a dash binnacle, so it was a bit more international looking than this.
Honestly, I generally ignore your opinions on these sorts of articles. Why?
You have a dog in the fight. You’ve detailed before that you bought a Benz with your own money, and you’ve detailed before your views on the Seville. It is highly unlikely that someone coming from your background and social status and geography in that era is going to do anything except vehemently defend the choices they made. You’ve told us about which cars were “in,” which were not, and about how the ones you bought were always the “in” choices. I mean, I’m glad you enjoyed your 300E. Based on what what you’ve written over the years, I suspect you’re much like Csara-convinced the Caddy was garbage going in and finding the things you needed to convince yourself it was garbage on the way out.
And your interior photo question is absolutely a loaded, and leading, question. Besides the fact you chose a Mercedes press photo and compared it to a car a couple decades old with the owner’s trash visible, you’re also confusing correlation and causation. Who’s to say that Cadillac couldn’t have remained the style leader and standard-bearer had built their mid-’70s cars better, not released the V-8-6-4, and not done a shameless try at a money grab with the Cimarron?
Said another way-we can’t know whether Benz would have become the style leader without Cadillac crippling itself, so the suggestion that their design was so good that it set the standard’s only a half-truth at best. It may have, or perhaps Cadillac would not have lost the sway it once had and set the standard. Perhaps a competent Cadillac would have stumbled onto the same standard anyway. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.
And since you felt compelled to launch a preemptive strike should I answer with the choice you didn’t like, I think it safe to say you confirmed my earlier statement with what is one of the biggest tells for cognitive dissonance. I mean, the very notion someone might answer with the Cadillac (since tufted leather is always the correct choice, I hate gated automatic shifters like that, and I’ve always found Benz’s IP designs from that era cheap-looking and ugly with that yellow font) when you bought the “in” cars and were apparently in the vanguard of trends back then could certainly challenge one’s self-image in such an instance.
But yes, based on photographs, since I was just born when those cars were made, I like the look of the Cadillac better. If that means I have no taste in your eyes, then allow me a moment to brag about it.
The picture of the two interiors is one I had handy, admittedly not fair, in certain regards. It’s point was simply to show that the 1981 Mercedes W126 interior was not the drab, stark taxi-cab interior that it’s often made out to be. And that it was clearly a style-leader, which was widely copied to one degree or another, including Cadillac’s own 1992 Seville, which finally “got it”, albeit too late.
Who’s to say that Cadillac couldn’t have remained the style leader and standard-bearer had built their mid-’70s cars better, not released the V-8-6-4, and not done a shameless try at a money grab with the Cimarron?
Me. And the market, which was clearly and obviously shifting away from Detroit’s increasingly insular idea of what good design was. That was very much under way in the early-mid 70s in large coastal cities, and well before Cadillac spoiled its reputation with bad engines and the Cimarron.
It wasn’t just some of the bad engines that killed Cadillac. Keep in mind that buyers at the time weren’t always aware of those engineering issues until some years later.
It’s real simple: there was a profound dichotomy of taste and perception of prestige under way, that started in the late 60s-early 70s, that favored European design, style, and other features, at the expense of American design and features. I didn’t invent this; it really happened.
And Cadillac/GM, given their location/insularity, failed to grasp it until it was way too late.
The simple reality is this: most average buyers are not really sophisticated in their taste, especially back then. If Cadillac had been a genuine design leader back then, its buyers might well have gone along with the program.
It’s the old saying that is all too true: You can sell an old man/woman a young man/woman’s car, but you can’t sell a young man/woman an old man/woman’s car. But that’s what Cadillac was doing, at its peril.
Here is a data point to add to this argument. As I have posted on here before, my grandmother’s next door neighbor (Georgia Belle) was the matriarch of a family that owned a Cadillac dealership. Her late husband had acquired the franchise in the early 1960s (to add to Pontiac and Buick franchises). Cadillac made them rich, and they were enormously grateful–you could not have found bigger brand cheerleaders anywhere.
Georgia Belle’s sons ran the stores day-to-day, and they were savvy entrepreneurs. They sold the business in 1985, and I remember my Pop and I talking with them and Georgia Belle about the decision to unload their pride-and-joy Cadillac franchise. It was pretty straightforward: the disastrous engines were killing them in the service department (and increasingly on the showroom floor), they were horrified by the Cimarron, and the icing on the cake was the downsized FWD line-up. When they saw the shrunken C-Bodies in a dealer preview, they decided then-and-there that it was time to get rid of the store. Everything Cadillac had stood for in the eyes of consumers was being destroyed. The family knew that it was going to be a train wreck, in part because they were listening to their increasingly dissatisfied customers, their prospects who left without buying, and also noted who was no longer even shopping for Cadillac at all (younger, affluent customers). It was a painful decision for the family, because they loved what Cadillac had been, but they were alert enough to see that those days were over by the mid-1980s. And these weren’t leading-edge types clustered in a trendy East or West Coast hamlet. This was in Mississippi.
Like I pointed out, the article was right to call Cadillac out on the inadequate performance. And, there’s nothing there to suggest the Caddy should have absolutely been the winner. The vehemence with which you go on the attack when even the article was reasonably complementary toward the Seville seems out of line, though, especially since they themselves about the Benz remark on leather being the upgrade option and refer to the flat-black all-business “never quite luxurious” interior.
You argue that because Mercedes and other imports were gaining traction in coastal cities in the mid-’70s that it was set in stone that Mercedes was going to be the style leader. There’s nothing to support that, though-it’s absolutely a Post hoc ergo propter hoc argument. As you point out, Cadillac had not yet blown their reputation. That means it’s entirely possible that Cadillac, with better execution and engineering, could have remained in the forefront. By the mid-’80s, though, it was already well and truly done.
Said another way, just because Mercedes had that interior design does not mean that was automatically the future of design. It’s entirely possible that Cadillac’s self-immolation did in fact make them sort of perverse style-leaders, albeit by driving many more buyers to Mercedes and other import makes and thus shifting the Overton Window of automotive design.
What probably would have happened in the universe in which Cadillac didn’t f— up like they did from ’80(ish) onward is the normal process where everyone gets inspirations from everyone else and trends evolve. Remember, Benzes once had tailfins. It’s entirely possible a healthy Cadillac in 1986 would have had enough market share and reputation to still be in the fore. Cadillac in ’78-’80(ish) still had it in ’em to remain the leader.
Obviously this is all a big game of “What If,” but that’s also kind of the point. By the time this article was written, Cadillac *had* already soiled themselves, and opinions like yours had already taken hold. So, it surprised me the article was as complementary to Cadillac’s interior as they were, but it did not surprise me that they were laudatory to the Benz.
Mercedes Benz manages to sell its cars all over the world and they are sought after despite prohibitive tariffs imposed.
Cadillac managed to sell some cars on the American market
Right on Bryce, Mercedes-Benz is the Global Luxury Emperor. Unlike Lexus, Infiniti, Acura and Cadillac, which are all local sideshows at best.
No doubt Cadillac would have had a better reputation in the mid-1980s if it had paid more attention to build quality in the 1970s, and never released the disastrous variable displacement V-8 and the Cimarron.
But the exterior and interior design of this Seville (and its Eldorado sibling) would still have been a big handicap. Cadillac was trying to appeal to the Greatest Generation just as the first of the Baby Boomers were flush with enough cash to buy a luxury car.
This isn’t just a case of anti-Detroit bias. Consider the case of Ford. By 1980, it had a WORSE reputation than Cadillac when it came to quality. But then it improved quality and brought out the aero-Thunderbird/Cougar, followed by the Tempo/Topaz and finally capped by the Taurus/Sable. And lots of young people bought those vehicles.
The exterior styling was fresh and exciting, and the interior design was light years ahead of the interiors on the downsized Cadillacs, including the interior of this Seville. When a lowly Ford Tempo looks better designed and has a more substantial looking interior than a Cadillac Seville, I’d say it’s a big problem, and one that wasn’t invented by Csaba Csere and his fellow writers at Car and Driver.
Cadillac was trying to preserve yesterday’s styling cues and design philosophy in a radically downsized (and cheapened) package. It ended up screaming to the customer that they were receiving less for their money. Ford, which had its back up against the wall in 1980-81, gambled that customers were ready for a new look and design philosophy. It ultimately worked.
geeber: Good point about the shifting demographics and perception of quality. Although, as a previous owner of a Topaz, I can’t say I agree that it had a better designed interior than a Seville. Now, if you were to say Taurus, I would agree wholeheartedly.
What I find amusing/horrifying is that with all of GM/Cadillac’s recent attempts to compete with the German “Big Three” luxury car makers, there’s an undercurrent of commentators that repeatedly claim Cadillac should get back to making (essentially) comfy cars that were like the ones in the 60’s & 70’s.
I’m assuming that these are younger folks who did not witness the fall of Cadillac; and have no idea of the awful years of flat seats, floaty barge like handling, strip speedometers and no ancillary gauges other than a fuel gauge. I agree that every car has a story, even the crappiest cars have a redeeming feature. (Which explains my irrational love of Yugos)
Just being on the cusp of Gen X, I witnessed the older portion of the Boomers near-total rejection of anything automotive that came before them. Growing up in the rust-belt, many of us were aware of how we were fed, but plenty did not feel that affiliation and left for ‘greener’ pastures.
After a certain point, Cadillac could not cope with: CAFE, Roger Smith’s antics, trying to keep the Greatest Generation and the Boomers interested at the same time and intense pressure from Japanese makes who were taking no prisoners.
You just live in a different world where it’s not targeted.
Those two interiors are chalk n cheese one is a blingy Holden the other is roughly what Im driving today.
For years, GM saddle tself with the notion that the target market for Cadillacs wss different than that for Mercedes. They could have made a true knock-off Merc, but resisted doing so for years. The traditional Caddy buyer didn’t read C&D and didn’t share their priorities. In turn, C&D didn’t truly understand the.Cadillac buyer.
We can see that here, the Merc is better in almost every demonstrable way, so how could the Caddy be viable? Turns out the Caddy buyer really doesn’t care enough about that function.
However both knew that traditional buyer was aging and younger buyers did not share those priorities. When GM was forced to pursue them, their offerings (ie the Catera) were poorly adapted for the American market. Had GM made the business of a knock-off Merc a priority, they would have been better prepared when the crunch came.
Car and Driver does have an archive like what you want. Click http://www.caranddriver.com/reviews and up come almost 200 pages each with around 20 reviews going back well over thirty years. Lots of late-night reading options just scrolling through the pages and picking out the ones to read.
Legends used to be all over the place in SoCal as did W124’s. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Legend here in Colorado but W124’s are still roaming the landscape. The Caddy? Not a whiff of one in over a decade for me.
Compared to the 300E, the Legend was a bargain. Not quite as good or solid but a far greater car than the cost difference would indicate. Lexus for sure caused the Germans to wake up for good a few years later, but I believe that Acura’s Legend was a canary in the coal mine a half-decade earlier.
I have to post this image from my Seville DS; the very definition of a prestigious, luxury car.
Get help, dude. Your brand/locale snobbery is hard to bear. One person made one comment and you go off the rails. What’s your real issue?
Watching what was once the most successful and profitable corporation with a world-class luxury brand systematically destroy itself, with one bad car after another. And the ’86 Seville was probably one of the worst of its offenses. It was very painful to watch in real time, so yes, maybe this is all part of my therapy. Or perhaps we shouldn’t do posts on these cars anymore. I thought I was getting over it.
But my Cadillac-PTSD is obviously deep-seated. Do you know anyone who specializes in this sort of thing?
I’d refer you to the Golden Rule.
Watching what was once the most successful and profitable corporation with a world-class luxury brand systematically destroy itself, with one bad car after another.”
Things go up and down and it’s a matter of nature. Many other things would follow, like Mercedes, Toyota, or the United States. It’s the people behind them anyway and there is no way to change the humanness.
Cadillac was world class before World War Two, but not so much afterwards. In particular, before WW2 the series 75 line, all Fleetwood trim, was composed of coupes as well as a number of sedan models. After WW2 the series 75 line degenerates into basically a limo (with or without a divider). What is left of the Cadillac line after WW2 is basically the Cimarron of the pre WW2 line.
Cadillac was planning an up market sedan which was upstaged by Ford’s Continental, and then became an overdone Eldorado Brougham which bombed. The original plan was a sedan in the $8000 range.
Cadillac came out with the Series 60 in the mid-1930s, which helped save the division, but it was a smaller, less expensive car built using a fair number of off-the-shelf GM components. In those days, however, that was not necessarily a bad thing.
Unlike the Packard 120 and 110, the Series 60 was not in the medium-price class. It basically helped create the “modern” luxury car market, which was dominated by people who drove their own vehicles and didn’t need or want a chauffeur.
The market for the large “Cadillac Fleetwoods,” as they were called in period ads, was evaporating, even as the economy improved in the late 1930s. Packard and Lincoln were abandoning that market, too, and Pierce-Arrow had gone out of business trying to cater exclusively to it. So one can’t necessarily blame Cadillac management for making the moves that it did in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Yes the luxury market was changing. Cadillac had renumbered their series for 1935 with the series 10 at the bottom. Then in 1936 they redid it again. The long wheelbase was going away, primarily because the luggage compartment was being added on to the rear, making bodies much longer. I think this was the reason for the 1938 Sixty Special.
I would argue that Cadillac maintained a world-class leadership in luxury cars into the mid 1960s. A 1963 Mercedes might have been beautifully finished and trimmed and meticulously assembled, but it was slow, had a not-very-well-matched automatic transmission, and lacked a whole host of comforts that a Cadillac buyer could get – for less money.
A Cadillac of 1963 or 1965 was truly a “fine car”. Speed, handling, materials, the coldest air conditioning in the world, it was an excellent vehicle.
I am in the minority on one point, in that I think all the American companies should be cut some slack in that the CAFE system hit them in the one place where they had built a competitive advantage – big, powerful, luxurious cars. Add in the 55 mph speed limit here and it is easy to see that Detroit’s engineers were actively dissuaded from building the kind of car that would acquit itself well on the Autobahn (which was M-B’s natural habitat by then.)
But a top of the line Buick or Oldsmobile was probably equally nice and capable.
JPC: Technically, GM/Cadillac could build a Maybach killer; but for some reason they still play along with the whole CAFE system.
Maybe because they don’t sell enough fuel efficient cars to offset their high profit trucks, I don’t know.
But other car companies’ cars that don’t meet CAFE standards are hammered with the fuel surcharge. But, the cars are high-end enough, they appeal to a class of buyer who don’t worry about such things.
It was somewhere in the late 1960’s when Cadillac started chasing volume that the wheels fell off the wagon. Even though I think the 1977 redesign actually helped their image, the damage had been done.
Is this alternate universe day at CC? I am stunned by the ’86 Seville love fest going on in the comments today. By both objective and subjective measures, these Sevilles were an absolute disaster for GM. That fact makes me very sad, because I am a Cadillac fan (from their glory days, anyway) and I really would have loved to see them field world-class competitive product back then (maybe one day they will again…). But they didn’t in the 1980s. Period. History speaks for itself in the results.
I think after seeing the variety of the whole world, the basic ability of making decision is lost because there is no way to cover even a small piece of them. Even for the best cars, there would be plenty of people dislike and even the sorriest car people can manage to like them. Too many universes just don’t line up.
What love fest are you seeing here? I think the article itself was the most complementary commentary about the Seville on this page.
Well, I’m seeing quite a lot of pushback that people are being too “hard” on the Seville and “elitist” if they like the Benz. The harsh reality was the Germans redefined luxury in the American market in the 1980s across a large cross-section of affluent buyers all around the country. I saw it first-hand at the time. People weren’t being biased when they preferred the Mercedes–it was widely considered the best choice, by everyone from Car and Driver to Consumer Guide–while these same publications were disappointed with the Cadillacs. I have all the issues and can share if anyone wants to see.
Cadillac wasn’t just driving buyers to the luxury imports during the 1980s. Lincoln benefitted from Cadillac’s woes, as plenty of people who preferred traditional American luxury bought a Town Car instead of a DeVille.
Cadillac had been outselling Lincoln by better than 2-1 in the 1970s. By 1988 their sales totals were very close.
Still not seeing it. I myself was surprised how complementary to the Seville the article was, especially about the interior-I was expecting the usual “Cadillac is garbage” based on pure elitism and bias (of the sort I believe PN to have) sort of thing. It’s one thing to like one car or the next. It’s entirely another to look down on someone that likes the next instead of the one. I was honestly delighted to see an entire comparo of these cars that didn’t use the words “provincial,” “Midwestern,” “unsophisticated,” “backward,” or “agricultural.”
The saddest view of the Seville has to be the rear end shot where it’s just dwarfed by the Honda and Mercedes. How the mighty have fallen. Even sadder than that the Seville was arguably the best looking of the fully downsized Cadillacs – yikes!
The Legend was a good car but I have to agree it’s styling details were very generic -“introducing the 1986 Car” – but inside they were very nice. My grandparents had a red one with tan leather interior, it was every bit as nice as a Mercedes of the era. In fact probably the most endearing parts of both early Acura and Lexus were their interiors, they had a perfect balance between the material quality and design of the German car interiors and the plushiness of the American interiors.
Mercedes, well, you just cannot beat the engineering. Just look at the underhood shots and that’s all you need to know. These cars just are a joy to wrench on if/when you have to, you can even tilt the hood up on the hinges a full 90* if you had to take the engine out! And when you consider how complex and high tech they were that kind of long term accounting for vehicle longevity really says a lot about the product planning. Most modern vehicles are now as complex or more and are effectively throwaways, “sealed for life” in critical service areas, including new Mercedes models.
I think it’s very hard to predict what would be good or bad in the future, as the cars they were releasing themselves would define what would be good or bad in the future. People judge good and bad from the existing cognition, while the cognition in the future buyers would be determined by the products they release in the future. It’s easy to look back but it’s so hard to predict.
I remember when this test came out, and it confirmed my sad realization that Cadillac was in deep trouble. At the time, affluent buyers (ranging in age from their late 30s to their 50s–the premium automotive sweet spot) were expecting “functional” luxury. It’s what was in style then. The Cadillac simply was not good looking, and its performance was subpar–fatal for a car trying to compete in the fierce, status-conscious luxury market. Had the ’92 generation Seville been introduced for ’86 (or better yet, imagine that Cadillac had offered the 32-valve Northstar V8 in the 1980s), then the outcome could have been dramatically different.
A few years after this test, Lexus arguably split the difference between Cadillac’s “soft” luxury and Mercedes engineering credentials to produce the landmark LS400. Toyota correctly realized that they could aim above Acura/Buick/Volvo “upper middle” cars to produce a formidable challenger to the German and American luxury brands.
Spot on, GN. I was in my 20s in the 1980s and knew quite a few Cadillac owners who gave up on Cadillac during that decade. A few went Mercedes, but more went Honda/Toyota/Acura/Lexus and the more traditional went Lincoln. Cadillac really lost a lot of middle America in the 80s.
Lexus really figured out what Cadillac had been in the 1960s when they came out with a soft riding, comfortable, well-built car that exuded luxury, both in high equipment levels and in basic materials and construction.
I wonder how much stench of the Cimmaron was still lingering in people’s minds when Cadillac downsized most of their line in the middle of the decade. That car was woefully out of step, and really highlighted how out of touch Cadillac was at reading market trends. That no doubt had to have somewhat dissuaded a traditional Cadilac buyer looking at these at the time. And arguably the biggest mistake the Cimmaron made was repeated again with these; take our premium luxury car and style it to emulate a compact that costs a third of the price. What could possibly go wrong?
Just reading this is reason I would never buy a copy of Car and Driver. Doesn’t matter what cars are tested, they will always fawn over European or Japanese cars. Sickening. Snobbish. Crap.
No, crap is what GM was putting out in 1986.
Take off the blinders guys (and gals). Get over it, it’s truth.
I can’t believe that I’m going to defend Paul, but here goes:
I’ve never owned a Mercedes-Benz or a Cadillac, but did own 3 Honda Civics and an Acura Integra, I’m not crazy about Mercedes or Cadillacs. That said, I actually liked the 1st generation of Seville, then Cadillac “lost me” for about 25 years…the styling went from ODD to downright ugly, or at least incredibly bland. And the interiors? Sorry, but in my opinion they are just styled (over-styled?) to look like glitzier Chevrolets. Sure, it could be said that the interior of a Mercedes of the 70s or 80s looks bland, but it was functional. Same for a Honda/Acura….functional first, goodlooking second.
Engineering? Did Mercedes or Honda/Acura ever produce something like that marvelous V8-6-4? Not before they had the “bugs” worked out. Engineering? Compare the front and rear suspension systems used by Cadillac and compare them to those used by Mercedes and Honda.
To sum up, and also use the (feeble) arguments in praise of the Seville here, Mercedes built a well engineered car, that used quality materials, both where you could see and where you could NOT see. Cadillac? Produced a car that LOOKED like luxury car, BUT ONLY WHERE YOU COULD SEE IT.
And by the way, I’ve said it many times, I think when Car&Driver assembles cars for a comparison test they have picked the winner ahead of time, and often “stacks the deck” to ensure their pick wins. But in this test, the Cadillac deserved it’s last place. The rest of the world had moved on after the 60s and 70s, GM, and Cadillac didn’t seem to think they needed to move on with the rest of the (car) world.
I agree partially. Many things simply doesn’t need to move with the time because it’s good, and when it moves it gets bad. And time really moves very differently in different part of the world and the difference of time in the world is not measured by hours, it’s measured by centuries. It’s not always necessary to move with the time on the other hand.
Certain luxury cars are just as good as they were many decades ago in another form but used by the similar group of people.
GM thought that all they had to do was bring out “smaller cars with nice interiors”, since 1985 was predicted to be ‘dark ages’ of motoring, with $5 a gallon gas and “small, smaller, smallest.”
GM was in strife because they had the cash to downsize/decontent/whatever pretty much all their cars in line with this expected doomsday scenario – which, incidentally, was in line with what other nations were paying. When that didn’t eventuate in the US, they had egg on their faces – and in the showrooms.
To throw my hat into the ring, I will admit, I would rather have the Mercedes. Even though I am a dyed in the wool, hardcore, flag waving, lover of the American luxury car. I will not overlook the fact that the Seville, (and really every Cadillac of the 80s barring maybe the Brougham) is the absolute Nadir of GM and the perennial symbol of its decline in the marketplace. A shrunken, poorly styled, cheaply made, FWD crapbox that’s loaded with the absolute worst engine that Cadillac has ever saddled in an automobile, and I’m supposed to take it seriously against even an Acura? Yeah, right. If you wanted traditional American luxury in this era, you could’ve just gotten a Town Car or a Brougham, no they weren’t revolutionary designs, and yes they were underpowered and riding on outdated tech with mediocre interiors. But at least you had cars that were better styled, conveyed a better sense of American luxury, and had engines that weren’t going to break themselves in normal use because of how poorly made they were.
Also, to Xequar’s point about “Caviar syndrome”, while that may be true in certain circles, that is not true all the time. To me, comparing the W124 to the 86 Seville, or really, just comparing any European luxury car to an American luxury car, is like comparing a top end New York Strip from a five star restaurant, to a hamburger that costs less than 15 or even 10 dollars. I can appreciate the New York strip, the care that went into making it, it can leave me satisfied, but I would much rather have the burger any day. But, that burger has to be made well, even if it’s flawed, it has to get the basics right. The 86 Seville is the worst kind of burger, the kind where it slides out of the bun every time you bite into it, slathered with a million ingredients that don’t work, is covered in enough grease that it could slide under it’s own inertia, and the burger patty itself is drier than the Sahara desert.
So, yes, complex and off-kilter metaphors aside. I would take the Mercedes over the Seville, because even though the Mercedes is not my kind of luxury car, the Seville is my kind of luxury car poorly executed. I would rather have something I don’t care for but is well made, than to have something I love but it’s made with apathy, disinterest, and sloppy workmanship.
I have to agree that the MB is a fine automobile…I owned a 1993 model with the twin-cam M104 engine, black, matte black bumpers and cladding instead of the normal gray, and black perforated leather. It was an amazing car and much faster than the older M103-powered ones.
There is NOTHING that MB sells today that is of any interest to me. Same with Cadillac and Acura for that matter. I must be getting old and grumpy because they just don’t excite me. Too much electronic gadgetry, too much pleather in place of high-quality leather, just yuck. They’ve all gone off-track.
Interestingly, if your Mercedes had perforated leather, it was actually MB-Tex. Leather in Mercedes of that era was solid, only the MB-Tex was perforated. Now, of course, MB-Tex of that era (and today as well) feels and wears significantly better than most of the “leather” supplied in cars today.
I’m going to be the contrarian and say it’s the Legend for me, specced out exactly like the test car but in blue, with a buttery ’80s Honda manual transmission and that really plush (but tasteful then and unmistakably ’80s now) wears-like-iron velour upholstery.
It’s like all the good attributes of a Seville combined with those of a CRX. I’d give that the Mercedes was a better car, but in a typical northeastern US use case a lot of that just wasn’t accessible.
What a great conversation on what a luxury car is. You folks are terrific.
For me it’s what Howard Kerr said above: money spent where you can see it and where you can’t. The problem with GM in the 80s is that they spent billions on dumb things while not trying to create world-class powertrains. All the paint spraying robots in the world won’t sell cars with Iron Dukes and HT4100 engines. And cool stuff like the Riviera CRT can’t make up for a parts bin engine and suspension.
I think there’s probably a market for “American-style” luxury as long as it’s competently engineered. I could argue the Chrysler 300 is the last of the old Cadillac/Lincoln style luxobarges and it has been pretty successful, because it’s actually somewhat competitive from an engineering perspective.
I’m hopeful the new COntinetal will fill that role as well.
I would probably take an Iron Duke over a 4100. Honestly…the “parts bin” engine in the Riviera was superb…the 3800 V6. (By 1986, the 3800 had sequential EFI and a roller cam.) It would probably have been a better engine for the Seville than the awful HT4100.
I finally checked the dimensions. They’re close enough that the Caddy shouldn’t look “shrunken” compared to the others, yet it does, to say nothing of the resemblance to the much cheaper (Integra/Jetta priced) Olds Calais… but I digress. GM Design in the Rybicki years seemed to have a knack for making the already-smaller-than-what-came-before luxury cars look even smaller than they were .
Wow has this turned into a hornet’s nest! So I’ll toss my two cents in. For a long time American luxury car makers didn’t really have any real competition. Post WWII they built larger, more powerful, better equipped cars than those turned out for the average consumer. As time passed the average, popular priced American domestic standard car was fast approaching that level of refinement and performance. Think of Chevies, Fords and Chryslers of the late 60s. European luxury cars did not approach the expected level of integrated comfort accessories until the mid 70s. Jaguars were plush, but unreliable. Benzs were quality and well built, but didn’t have the integrated and effective a/c systems American buyers took for granted. Then into the 70’s the American luxury makes concentrated on their concept of styling and flash. Think of the ElDorado and Lincoln Marks. When downsizing hit, Cadillac didn’t know how to connect with their heritage, which had been reduced to being an overstyled, over plush standard American car. Cadillac and Lincoln have struggled trying to stay relevant. Luxury car buyers are much more affluent than they were in the past. American luxury cars can’t compete in this arena. Back in the day, a ’51 Coupe de Ville couldn’t be confused with a Rolls Royce but it could run the wheels off of almost anything. Think of the Carrera Pan America. What happened?
I will take none of the above, I would prefer a loaded FWD Buick Electra (sportier suspension options if I wanted better handling).
GM actually put out some much more contemporary cars–the FWD Electra, Ninety Eight, and H Bodies were not junk and in some cases sold better than the RWD models. If you wanted traditional, you could still load up a Fleetwood Brougham or Caprice Classic.
I see this Seville as a Cadillac problem, not a GM problem. They would have been better to dispatch the Eldo and the Seville, which no longer looked or served any different purpose than the FWD DeVille. And then they could have thrown all their resources into a better DeVille and Allante. No Brougham interiors in the forward looking models. No hedging bets within models, the Brougham already was answering the demand of the traditional buyer. Cut it down to “old school Cadillac” “new school Cadillac” and “Cadillac sportscar”.
Why consider only one manufacture (such as GM)? Why not consider the best vehicle for your dollar.
Not sure what you mean if that’s directed at me. If I had to pick between these three I’d take the Acura. Never said I’d only buy GM. Felt the FWD Electra was a great combination of looking more contemporary without going all out minimalist/EurAsian. So I’d prefer it. If Chrysler had made it instead I’d have preferred that. But they were making K Car New Yorkers.
This comparison test is one of the bases of my contention that the 1992 Seville is what the 1986 car really should have been. The 1986 car was certainly not without strengths — C/D was consistently impressed with the chassis, both here and on the Eldorado Touring Coupe; it was quiet; and while the engine was underpowered in this form, the four-speed auto was excellent — but styling and interior finish weren’t among them. The 1992 did a much, much better job of repackaging Cadillac design cues in a Boomer-friendly modernist format and the 200 hp 4.9-liter engine had perfectly adequate snap, but by then, the competition had once again moved on in that price range.
From an interior finish standpoint, American luxury cars like this Seville have always frustrated me. I’ve said before that I think Car and Driver‘s obsession with old-school Teutonic severity (everything matte black and free of brightwork) was extreme to the point of absurdity. I appreciate the intent of the trad American luxury interior aesthetic, like having actual colors (BMW’s recent-ish embrace of blood red leather notwithstanding), using wood paneling to warm up the ambiance, and having chrome or bright metal highlights, but by the ’70s, Detroit was usually only willing to use the grimmest woodgrain appliqués and flimsy plastichrome. (I could also mention the frequent misconception that plush upholstery and reasonable seat support are somehow mutually exclusive.)
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with offering real alternatives, aesthetically or dynamically, but it’s important that they not feel like inferior substitutes, and it’s hard to manage that when your products end up feeling like you have a team of MBAs standing over the shoulder of each member of your development team saying, “Okay, but it can’t cost any more to build,” which was the unifying characteristic of most ’80s Cadillacs.
I have an 87 300E that has been in the family since new. The first time I saw my Benz, I was comparing it to my then new Toyota Camry. The Camry had, for a car of it’s class, a comfortable, mostly functional interior. Adequate instrumentation, acceptable switchgear, solid but not visually exciting materials. BMWs of that era took that functionality to the next level rendered in all black with white markings. Mercedes took that level of functionality and dressed it out with real wood trim and high quality upholstery. Mercedes was the definition of functional luxury. Cadillac was still clinging to their old Harley Earl-esque idea of creating luxury by hanging chrome on parts and components. That method worked at one time, but by the mid 80s, Cadillac quality was so bad, luxury dress up was like putting lipstick on a pig.
My sister had an ’87 Legend that she absolutely loved. It was identical to the tested one here – color, upholstery and all. Hard to believe that the Acura was 1/2 the price of the Mercedes and almost 1/2 of the Seville! I can see why they sold so well. They were built like tanks and ultra-reliable, especially for what was being offered in the mid to late 80’s! Plus they gave a great driving experience and were nicely styled, if maybe just a little too bland.
I really don’t know if the Legend customer was cross-shopping a Seville at the time – maybe a Maxima or Cressida. I even doubt they were looking at the 300E. Also the 300E customer probably never considered a Seville or a Legend. The price differences were so great it may have scared such customers away. Moving up to the Legend from a domestic or possibly from a Maxima or Cressida seems more realistic to me. Back then anything over 30k was considered a lot of money for a car. For the Legend to be introduced and be available for under 20k was a remarkable feat on Honda’s part.
A couple of things blow my mind here. First, the “as-tested” price of the Cadillac at $34,218 ($79,343.38 adjusted). I can’t get my head wrapped around that on any level. Second, that the Legend did not even offer leather as an option. I’d wager that few people under the age of 30 have ever even seen an Acura with a cloth interior.
What did in the Seville was an ill-placed c-pillar in relation to the rear wheel arch. GM could ill afford to make such an odd-looking rear wheel treatment. The formal roof line doesn’t help either. In any case, there should only have been one standard Seville, a less chromed touring model, with standard alloy wheels and blackwalls. Take it or leave it.
The ’86 Seville looked like a contemporary version of the original ’75 1/2. However, the styling of the ’86 is still missing something. Perhaps Pininfarina could have done the redesign for the ’86 Eldo and Seville to give them that something extra to fit in with the Mercedes/ BMW crowd but still be American. Another issue has to do with the Seville having too much glitz and glam which doesn’t make it look like a competitor to the European brands. Cadillac has a history of half executed ideas that have potential but are not quite up to the level. At least Cadillac also has a history of taking the chance where Lincoln does not want to play at all. Cadillac gave us the Cimarron even if based on the Cavalier, it was there in the universe. Same for the Allante, Catera and now Celestiq. Cadillac has the history of dabbling in the field being just as good as but not better than the competition. Again, at least Cadillac tries over and over again where Lincoln shows not interest in wanting to play. Lincoln didn’t even consider a version of the Escort which could have worked if totally restyled in the Lincoln fashion. They showed a concept Lincoln Vignale but that’s has far as it went which was too bad because i thing the Vignale could have helped Lincoln. The only time Lincoln attempted to play was with the Lincoln LS and even that was not allowed to advance and refine ending after just 6 years with now real replacement. (No, the MKS and MKZ were not considered replacements)
Harry: I tend to agree with you mostly. But I do think you forgot that Lincoln did try the Versailles. Years ago I owned two (both purchased used). One 1977 in maroon and one 1979 in black. I actually liked them for being a overly nice Granada.
So here I am again, odd man out. I know this is an old article that’s been recycled, but none the less I enjoy reading them. But boy oh boy, this site has more GM haters than any site I’ve been on.
Here’s what I like about the Seville against the two imports. It looks different and distinctive. I started selling cars in 1988, only two years after this article. I’ve sold this model Seville and I recall customers trading in the MB, BMW’s and even an Acura for them. When the next gen came out in 1992, we really started to see the imports being traded. The common thing we would hear was that they loved the car (insert brand here), but they were tired of the costs and high maintenance of them. All we had to do was get them behind the wheel of the Seville and the rest was easy. They were (are) quiet, comfortable and rode well even with the better handling from the previous models (slantback). One customer that I still recall like it was yesterday. He had a 1988 or 1989 Seville and then traded for a 1990 Acura Legend top of the line trim. He had the Acura for less than a month and came back and traded it on another Seville. Yet another who drove a really nice BMW 7 series and he loved his BMW. However, every time he went to the dealership it would cost him $400 just to open the hood and a lot more if it needed work. He kept coming in trying for over a year to buy a new Cadillac and just couldn’t make the switch until one day he drove in. He parked, walked in and said I’m buying a new Cadillac today no matter what. Since this had been going on so long, none of us believed him, but that day he purchased the Cadillac. When asked why today, he said because the BMW was dead that morning and had to get it jumped. He drove to the dealer and several other service stations only to be told the new batter would be $425. In some cases, they told him it would need to be ordered as well and could take up to a week to get. He went back to the BMW dealer, had the new battery installed and drove directly to our store. As far as I know, he never left Cadillac.
As a side note: I not only have a pristine 1986 Seville with 22,600 miles that I just found, but I also have a pristine 1988 Cimarron with 61,200 miles and I love them both.
Fast forward 37 years, and it’s Mercedes-Benz that has lost the plot. The new E-class has touch screen and LED ambient lighting overload, the W124’s classic gated shifter is long gone, and the whole car is seemingly designed to be replaced after a 3-year lease, just like an iPhone (even with “over the air” updates, the processing power behind the screens will be hopelessly out of date in a few years)
Yet MB is the only one of the three still selling cars in volume.
Cadillac (besides the Escalade) is pretty much dead to anyone under 70, and going all-EV isn’t bringing those people back as they all hate EVs, yet the younger generation isn’t going to want to explain why they got an EV Cadillac when other choices exist.
Acura started out so promising then starved itself somehow and now subsists on people leasing MDXs and a few RDXs instead of a Volvo or Lexus RX, I don’t think Honda itself knows what it wants from Acura.
True. Inertia is probably keeping Acura alive. The only Acura that appeals to me is the Integra, but even there the Honda alternatives (Civic Si and soon Type R) are better. Acura models could all be replaced by Honda “Elite” or “Touring” models and the combined sales volume wouldn’t change much.
Honda still sells cars in volume though. The latest Civic and Accord have interiors that are closer to the W124 than any of the current M-Bs, either cars or SUVs. The 2023 Accord hybrid has even gone back to a classic shifter from a row of pushbuttons.
“yet the younger generation isn’t going to want to explain why they got an EV Cadillac when other choices exist.”
That statement applies to M-B’s EVs as well, indeed just about all EVs from the established “legacy” automakers. More than a century of internal combustion heritage goes out the window.
I meant it more in the vein of I don’t believe Cadillac is going to magically experience a rebirth just because they are going all-EV. The people not buying Cadillacs now aren’t likely to consider them just because they start to produce EVs.
Mercedes is starting to produce (actually they are well ahead of Cadillac in this regard) a lot of different EVs (EQS, EQE, EQC, EQB, some commercial stuff etc, much more of it available outside of the US than inside the US currently). Some people here on this site may not like what Mercedes has been doing but the market in general seems to and they likely won’t have a problem buying their EVs seeing as how Mercedes sold over 2 million Mercedes branded cars last year (just counting the passenger vehicle division) worldwide.
Cadillac sold maybe 400k with about 194k of those in China and 134k in the US – which is actually more than I would have guessed. If anything Cadillac is starting to have the Buick problem, i.e. becoming more popular in China than in its homeland.
And Acura sold under 100k units last year which really isn’t sustainable, although most of their vehicles are essentially different versions of Hondas which sold around 4 million units in total with lots of small kei cars in there too. (In that vein, many of the US Cadillac sales are the Escalade, i.e. a Tahoe/Suburban). Acura is probably sucking up some of Honda’s cash the same way that Cadillac is sucking up some of GMs cash.
I feel that it is safe to revisit this topic six years since it first appeared.
I was a subscriber to Car and Driver at the time and was very interested in this comparison. I had traded in my ’77 Coupe de Ville for an ’84 Mercury Cougar and was quite curious where Cadillac was going in the market.
What I found interesting was that this second downsizing cycle reduced their cars to a kind of “toy like” sensibility. The size was toy like, the interior dimensions and design were toy like, the quality was toy like, and the power and performance were also toy like.
Post War, Cadillac became the “Uber” American car. It was the standard big American car, with more goodies, more power and more dramatic styling. This convention worked until the rest of the domestic products caught up to within 90% of Cadillac’s level.
The product of the first downsizing, the ’77 model, was a thoroughly modern re-set of the original concept. It was the best Cadillac in years. My ’77 was similar to my ’70, which was similar to my ’64, which was similar to my ’57 and ’56 models. They were all well engineered, reliable, powerful, impressive looking cars of reasonable quality. The coach built, hyper expensive, exclusive, Cadillacs had died with the Second WW.
That ’86 Seville demonstrated how Cadillac lost their way. But by ’92, Cadillac brought a new Seville that a couple of years later was powered by one the most powerful engines on the market at the time. I had a ’94 Seville and it was a very impressive car. At first, Cadillac was lauded for the FWD platform. Later, the magazines started beating up GM for just that treason. It wasn’t until Cadillac moved to RWD models that they started to regain some legitimacy with the media.
While it’s fun to second guess and critique the past, it’s all kind of irrelevant. Cadillac still markets a wide range of models. Besides their SUVs, they still build actual cars, some are considered to be quite good. I give Cadillac credit for being able to survive, the question of how well their products compare to their competition is up to consumers to decide. Unfortunately, Ford/Lincoln threw in the towel when it came to sedans, and Cadillac is the last American car standing in this market segment.
If you read the details on the engines, note the Cadillac had dual throttle body injectors compared to port injection of the MB & Acura. Eventually, GM increased the displacement of the HT to 4.5 ltrs and installed multi port injection raising both HP and torque on this engine.
IIRC, GM Rochester did all the work on throttle body injection which first appeared on the 2.5 Iron Duke, then it spread to other GM engines due to ever stringent emissions regulations. I understand these systems were very reliable compared the rest of the GM parts bin.
Thanks for bringing this one back. This test appeared not long after I started my professional life…I wanted a 300E so bad…it seemed to be the bleeding edge of premium to me. Advanced styling, engineering and much of the money hidden from view…like a Mercedes was supposed to be, and the antithesis of where Cadillac was playing. The price was too much of a stretch from me in those days, but I like to think the thought of owning such a fabulous machine is one of the things that made me want to get ahead.
not4one – go and find a nice low KM 300E, they are out there. It’s a car you can have forever, and a joy to drive.