(first posted 1/21/2020) If yesterday’s Curbside Capsule of a 1988 Cadillac Cimarron whet your appetite for Cadillac’s 1980’s flagship of mediocrity, this should be just the main course to satisfy you. It is natural to wonder what Cadillac was thinking when it introduced the car. This article may somewhat answer that and it will definitely tell us what auto journalists were thinking about it. Surprisingly, much of it was rather upbeat.
Above is the very first car magazine I ever acquired. I was 10 and visiting my grandparents. My grandfather had this Motor Trend, not because he subscribed or anything, he just said he liked to read them every once in a while to see what was new in the car world. He was no car enthusiast, but he did have good taste and an instinct for buying GM’s Greatest Hits (see the CC article I wrote about his cars). Accordingly, he did not buy a Cimarron, but he did pass the magazine on to me. I’m sure the Bandit Trans Am article was what most interested me. I kept the magazine, and started subscribing three years later. I have continuously subscribed ever since and kept all those issues as well, so I went into the archives and pulled out the Cimarron articles I could find.
The first will be Motor Trend’s in-depth look at the car on its introduction in mid-1981 (as a 1982 model) with a road test of a pre-production car. The second article is Car and Driver’s first road test of a production car. Finally, we’ll look at how the Cimarron progressed after it’s main mid-cycle revisions with a Motor Trend comparison test between the 1985 Cimarron, BMW 318i and Audi 4000 Quattro.
Motor Trend, June 1981. However much of the article you read, you should definitely read the first paragraph above. The first sentence in the 1981 Motor Trend article is meant to be positive, but in hindsight could be read negatively. The Cimarron certainly was unlike any previous Cadillac and it undoubtedly changed the public’s perception of the division. Just not necessarily for the better.
The third sentence really sets the tone and my first thought was that the author was being facetious or quoting a Cadillac manager. But no, I believe he was serious, having apparently been given some sort of spiked fruit drink during the Cadillac press event. He goes on to describe the rushed development, which is, of course, at odds with the claims of quality and refinement. The main rub with the whole car is clearly identified, though: “Since Cadillac division had little to say in the final design of the 4-door sedan used for the Cimarron, they could only improvise on the J-car’s fertile bed”. While Cadillac clearly did what they could to improve the Cavalier, without being able to change the platform, body panels, engine or transmissions, they were severely limited in how much they could differentiate the vehicle from its economy car brethren.
The author also puts his finger on the panic at Cadillac that led to the car. In the wake of the second gas crisis, in the bottom of the worst economy in many years, sales were bad and the underwhelming Diesel and V6 engines were not helping. Dealers wanted something to sell to compete with foreign sport sedans and they wanted it yesterday. Cadillac could have used the X-body to do its treatment to, but decided on the J-body because it was newer. That was probably wise, since the public’s perception of the X’s was already pretty well set by 1981-82. Now, if Cadillac had been willing to do as much modification of the basic car as they had done with the original 1976 Seville, things might be different. However, they committed to an under-two-year timetable which didn’t allow for changing any of the J-car fundamentals. At least they would be introducing a car based on something nobody had seen before, with a clean perception slate.
Not only was the car new, but the whole concept of an American car trying to compete directly with foreign luxury/sport sedans was previously untried. Detroit had done sporty for years, and even pseudo Euro sporty had been done with cars like the Pontiac Sprints in the 60’s, Grand Am in the 70’s as well as the aforementioned Seville. The Cimarron was a bit different in that is was similar size to foreign cars and sold in only one configuration, with everything essential to its competitive mission standard. Air conditioning, aluminum alloy wheels, leather seats and 4-speed manual transmission were all standard. Only one suspension configuration was offered and it was the area Cadillac put the most development into. Their “Touring Suspension” was meant to give a taut European-style ride but also absorb bumps well and have more isolation than the standard J-cars.
The primary target car during development was the Audi 4000. This was realistic, as the 4000 rode on a front drive platform shared with a more economy-minded Volkswagen. At 2,594 lbs., the Cimarron was actually 400lbs. heavier than the 4000, which was quite the featherweight. Can you imagine a compact car with luxury pretensions weighing 2,200 lbs. today?! Audi’s entry level sedan today is the A3, which weighs 3,197 lbs. Take a good look at the comparison picture above, we’ll come back to that near the end of the story.
This page (40) is interesting, wherein the author evaluates the drive train. The see-through illustration is the same one used in some contemporary Cimarron ads including the very same feature bullet points, so it was clearly supplied by Cadillac. In the third paragraph down, the author states, “On the surface the Cimarron appears to have every sport sedan prerequisite” and he goes on to make a pretty good case for that.
The mental exercise I played was to imagine it’s 1981 and I block out all I know about how the Cimarron exercise and GM’s 1980’s history played out. The J platform is GM’s newest car and I’m not very familiar with the Cavalier. The muscle car era ended about 10 years ago and power outputs have been dropping like yesterday’s birthday balloons for many years. Most cars don’t have much over 100hp and sub-100 power numbers in popular cars are not unusual.
With that in mind, I read “The performance of the 1.8 engine is exceptional”. Read today, that’s a jaw-droppingly optimistic statement, but remember, it’s 1981. 86hp isn’t much, but compared to the Audi’s 78hp it doesn’t sound so bad. 0-60 in 13.73 sec matched the Audi, though the top speed of 90 mph was 10 less (3.65:1 final drive. That 400 extra pounds hurts it here). Plenty of contemporary cars couldn’t match that time, though today I think every car in the U.S. market could beat such tortoise-like acceleration.
If you are old enough to remember the 80’s, you probably remember the term Yuppie. Maybe you were one yourself. The word loosely stood for Young, Upwardly-mobile Professionals, and they were known to be partial to upscale foreign cars. The term is not used in the article, but Cadillac really wanted to capture a slice of the Yuppie market.
The last page (121) covers ride and handling. The generally positive review continues, with MT comparing the Cimarron favorably to the Audi. They seem to like the handling better overall, especially on the highway and in snowy conditions. The article claims that the Cadillac will have a similar price to the Audi, but ended up being substantially higher. The Cimarron had a base price of $12,131 ($32,333 in 2019 Dollars), vs the Audi’s base of $10,865 (which being 1982’s inflation conditions, was over $1,000 more than in 1981). In fact, the conclusion asserts that the Cimarron beats the Audi at its own game.
Those Yuppies were in their sights. Let’s see how Car and Driver thought their aim was.
Car and Driver, August 1981. In the mid-80’s, I also subscribed to Car and Driver. I still do, but there were large gaps in between. I have acquired a few earlier ones, though, and I happen to have a 1981 issue where they subjected a production Cimarron to a full road test. Then as now, C&D tended to have more lively and readable writing as well as being a bit less prone to manufacturer butt-kissing. Even so, the review is generally positive. The author (Rich Ceppos, who is still there in 2020) identifies much the same facts and factors involved with the car’s development that the MT author does, but puts them more succinctly. He seems rather excited to have a Cadillac that is such a departure from the norm. “The 1982 Cimarron represents nothing less than an about-face in Cadillac marketing–one of the boldest moves ever made by a car company.” This is certainly true and (unlike the MT article) doesn’t make one wonder what he drank at the Cadillac presser.
Car and Driver was predisposed to like the Cimarron because they were an outfit that had no use for Cadillac’s traditional models and this new Caddy was an astonishing departure. The cars the Cimarron was ostensibly competing with were totally in C&D’s wheelhouse and this was the first Detroit product to legitimately enter that market segment.
From that I’m-living-in-1981 perspective, the review makes the whole idea of the Cimarron not nearly so implausible as it seems today in hindsight. On paper, it lines up pretty well with the market segment. It’s more expensive than the Audi or Honda Accord (by about $2000), but has about the same performance. It is slower than the BMW 320i and Volvo, but also substantially less expensive. The base price ($12,131) was pretty high, but it came well-equipped in base form and even with most of the available options other than the sunroof it came in under $13k.
The break-out section “The Making of an UnCadillac” is worth reading for insight into the Cimarron’s development.
The low-profile tires on the concept drawing could be straight out of 2020! The article makes it clear Cadillac did not want to make a miniature Sedan DeVille, but rather a unique Cadillac that would play to the sensibilities of younger, foreign car buyers, a.k.a Yuppies. Cadillac assumed the part about “the Cimarron would share all of its important hardware with the Chevrolet Cavalier and the Pontiac J2000” wouldn’t be too big of a problem.
I always liked the Counterpoint section in C&D road tests, where other writers summarize their opinions in a few short, pithy paragraphs. They were generally not afraid to slam an unworthy car. With the Cimarron, even the Counterpoints are pretty positive. The closest to nailing the long term reality of the car was Don Sherman, though even he got it somewhat wrong in predicting that existing clientele would “buy this one in droves”. That idea probably originated from the case of the original Seville, which sold quite well but mainly to traditional Caddy customers rather than the Mercedes customers the car was allegedly aimed at. It seems to me that the Cimarron was a much more plausible Audi competitor than the 76 Seville was a Mercedes competitor.
For much of GM’s history, its dominance and sales success was mostly a given. In 1976, GM was still the king, but by 1981, it was well into the process of being dethroned. Most people just didn’t realize it yet.
In both the 1981 Motor Trend and Car and Driver road tests, the Cimarron is given grace as a well-intentioned newcomer. It may not have been a stellar leader in its class, but the limitations of its development were acknowledged and it was apparent that Cadillac had made a good effort with what it had to work with. It had potential and if Cadillac could continue to aggressively improve it, it was credited as a legitimate future competitor to the best imported luxury sport sedans. So, how did that play out? If we fast forward four years, how competitive was the Cimarron with Audi and BMW in 1985?
Motor Trend, July 1985. This Motor Trend test is definitely not an apples to apples comparison. For starters, the $16,000 as-tested Caddy (equipped with every option in the book by my calculation) is going up against a $18,600 BMW and a $19,400 Audi, a.k.a. prime Yuppie-mobiles. The 3 Series had moved to a new generation since the Cimarron was introduced. The 4000 hadn’t but had received a heavy facelift, a new 5-cylinder engine and Quattro model. The 4000 Quattro had a unique all-wheel-drive system and the 3 Series rode on a rear-wheel-drive platform not derived from an economy car. While both Germans had bespoke engines and 5 speed manuals, the Caddy came with a Chevrolet engine and a 4-speed manual (5-speed manual would be standard in 1987). The fact that Cadillac supplied Motor Trend with an automatic tester may be a clue to how focused they were at that point on their foreign competition.
The start of the article’s Cimarron section makes it clear that the goodwill the Cimarron had in 1981 has evaporated and by 1985, among auto journalists at least, it was not taken seriously as a player in the sport compact field. Apparently the Long Term Test on the 82 Cimarron did not particularly endear it to the editors, nor had any of the improvements made prior to 1985.
As before, on paper it wasn’t obviously deficient. However, look at the photos in this article and then go back and look at the group photo with the BMW and Audi in the 1981 Motor Trend article. Putting my mind into “I live in 1981” mode, I’m reading that 81 MT issue in May and I’ve never seen the Cimarron or the Cavalier before. Next to a new BMW and Audi, it looks comparable, more modern and even quite attractive. I then move to this 1985 article and adjust my mind to “I live in 1985 (Michael Jackson and Madonna are awesome!)” mode. The Cimarron looks a lot like the Cavalier I rented last year. Even with the new front end and wheels, it’s starting to look rather dated. The Audi and BMW have progressed in appearance quite a bit, but the Cimarron looks pretty much like it did in 1982 and is transparently similar to models sold by every other GM division.
Still, the Cimarron had recently received a major power upgrade and finally gotten a set of real performance tires, among other enhancements. Would it be enough to change the auto journalists preconceptions?
Actually, as far as the article is concerned, it sort of did change their conception of the car. “It became immediately obvious that there was probably a lot more to this car than what hurt the eyes.” The line is funny, but he makes the point clear that the Cimarron has functionally improved leaps and bounds from the car they remembered from 1982.
The author says “It’s embarrassing to be so cock-sure of what a car can and cannot do, only to find out that your preconceptions weren’t even close to reality.” He also allows that Cadillac has “radically transform[ed] a ho-hum car” into a legitimate performance sedan. However, he concludes by saying that the interior and exterior appearance will keep it from achieving many conquest sales in the market.
The Cimarron had the most horsepower and torque, best acceleration time (0-60 10.08 sec.) and skidpad number (0.83g), with the worst braking distance (60-0 162 ft.) and gas mileage (19 mpg combined) despite being the lightest car in the test. Overall, reasonably competitive and did I mention it was the least expensive car by a good margin?
They don’t exactly say who came in second and third, but it appears that the Bimmer pulled silver. The author considers that it’s quality, luxury, attention to detail and engineering justify the lust that many have for BMW while basically saying that this base version was lacking enough in power and handling qualities to be uncompetitive at the price. He considers the much more expensive 6-cylinder 325e to be fully lustworthy at any price. The Audi definitely came in first in this test, though. The all-wheel-drive system is the same as that used in the famously successful rally-racing Quattros. The smooth 5-cylinder engine had excellent response and adequate power. Despite not being first in any of the listed performance categories, it walked away with the test based on its excellent handling, overall quality and high level of equipment for the money.
As a point of historical perspective, the 2020 Audi equivalent, the A3 Quattro, goes 0-60 in 5.4 seconds (almost exactly half 1985’s time). It costs $36,500, which at $15,300 adjusted to 1985 Dollars is actually less than they charged in 1985 while having more standard equipment. The state of our world is at times lamentable, but things like this remind us in some ways it’s getting better!
Whether Cadillac had done right by the Cimarron could be looked at two ways. One is that Cadillac made significant improvements. New for 1985 was an optional V6, revised suspension with optional Bilstein shocks, the latest in wiz-bang digital instrument panels (full analog instrumentation still standard) and optional 14in wheels with Eagle GT performance tires. The base price was still under $13,000 and now included a fuel-injected 2.0L engine (since 1983, shared with other J-cars), 5-speed manual (also since 1983 and shared with other J’s, the V6 still had a 4-speed), and power windows, locks and antenna (all newly standard for 85). The front end was lengthened and revised, but still tasteful.
The other way to look at it is that three years is a long time. In 1981, Cadillac could be forgiven, with only a year or so development time, for offering a lightly modified Chevrolet Cavalier. Three years is enough car-development time to do almost anything, though, and the mid-cycle refresh for the Cimarron could have been much more ambitious. It still shared all its sheetmetal, standard drive train and even dashboard with the other J-cars. The optional V6 was the exact same engine used in many other GM cars. The 1985 1/2 Cimarron was a much improved 1982 Cimarron, but you could certainly argue that by this time it should have been far more evolved and was essentially still a lightly modified Cavalier. It was now obvious that Cadillac wasn’t serious about raising its compact luxury sedan above its plebeian roots or trying to truly compete with foreign sport sedans.
The mid-year 1985 revisions seen in the 1985 MT article would be the most substantial changes Cadillac bestowed on the Cimarron. Sales increased slightly in 1986, but fell off fast for its last two years. They continued to make minor enhancements and increases in standard equipment without much increase in price through 1988. So, the 1988 survivor we looked at yesterday was definitely the best Cimarron made. If they had introduced that car in 1982, they might have had a success on their hands. They would have been throwing down the gauntlet that they really wanted to compete. If they had then followed that up as soon as possible with even more substantial enhancements, both visual and functional, who knows what could have been possible? Maybe some of those Yuppies could have been convinced that Cadillac was a player.
In yesterday’s article, I called the Cimarron Cadillac’s Flagship Of Mediocrity. By the end, it wasn’t a bad little car, but “not a bad little car” is a terrible standard for the Standard Of The World. Selling a mediocre car when they needed to have a fantastic one was truly a deadly sin for Cadillac (officially GM’s #10).
But what say you? Is there any way the Cimarron project could have been successful, or was it doomed from the J-car jump? Is there any realistic way in the early 80’s that Cadillac could have gotten in and been competitive in the Yuppie car market? Would those status-conscious rejectors of tradition ever have accepted anything with a crest on it?
As one of GM’s most famous and flagrant missteps ever, the Cimarron has been covered plenty here at Curbside Classic. It’s been several years since we have had an in depth look, though, and never any vintage magazine articles. Here are a couple of the previous reviews:
*Special Cimarron Bonus Section: I’ve been wondering if the Cimarron was an overpriced Cavalier, or if it was more of a regular priced Cavalier after taking into account all the standard equipment that you’d pay for as options with the Chevy. Have you wondered the same thing? Well, I did the math so you don’t have to.
Using my handy Standard Catalog of American Cars, as well as brochures , I calculated what a Cavalier would cost if equipped as closely as possible to a Cimarron.
1982 Cavalier CL sedan with 1.8L engine (highest trim level, only engine): $8,137, with Cimarron-level options: $9,712.
1982 Cimarron with 1.8L engine and no options: $12,181
The gap turned out to be $2,469, though the Caddy came standard with several things that weren’t available on the Chevy, most notably leather seats. So, for 1982, Cadillac’s pricing was a bit ambitious and there was a definite premium charged just for the Cadillac badge. How about a few years later, when Cadillac may have had a bit more realistic and humble appreciation for the Cimarron’s prospects in the market?
1986 Chevrolet Cavalier RS sedan with 2.8L V6 (highest trim model, top engine): base price $8,451, optioned as close as possible to base Cimarron (V6): $11,361
1986 Cadillac Cimarron with 2.8L V6, no other options : $13,228
So, $1,867 difference (and a smaller percentage difference, since prices generally were slightly higher) and the 1986 Cimarron came standard with even more equipment not available on the Cavalier, such as: power antenna ($65 option on Buicks), dual electric remote mirrors ($91 option on Buicks) plus a number of smaller items like: front and rear center armrests, fancier pushbutton climate controls, etc. Plus, it still came with leather seats (Cadillac charged $400 for leather in the Eldorado and Seville, and you could get leather-edged cloth seats for a credit, not available in 82), nicer seats apart from the leather trim, leather wrapped steering wheel ($105 option on DeVilles), nicer-looking fake aluminum dash trim, etc. Perhaps the Cadillac also came with some intangibles like smoother ride, better paint and more care in assembly, but that may not be the case at all.
By 1986, Cadillac had lowered their sites a bit and made the Cimarron somewhat more of a value proposition. If 1982 was the original deadly sin, at least the latter day version of the Cimarron was more righteously priced. By then it not only looked like, but was certainly priced more like, the very well-equipped Cavalier it was.