B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
When Henry Leland founded Cadillac in 1902, he didn't intend that his company would compete with the world's best automakers for prestige and luxury. He merely wanted to make quality cars that were stylish and reliable. General Motors acquired Cadillac in 1908, though, and within a decade Cadillac had assumed the mantle of luxury car builder for the world's biggest carmaker.
Throughout its adolescence and adulthood, Cadillac built some of the most desirable cars on the road. Powerful motors, spacious cabins, luxurious materials and high attention to detail made vehicles like the Sixty-Special sedans of the '30s, Sixty-Two coupes and convertibles of the '50s, and the front-wheel drive Eldorado of the '60s the most sought-after cars of their times.
Times change, however, as have Cadillac's fortunes. Cadillac's market share began slipping when fuel shortages steered buyers away from gas-sucking 8.1-liter V8 engines. Increased pressure from European imports, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, further put a dent in Cadillac's pocketbook. Although Cadillac's defenders may chalk up these problems to outside influences, it is hard to ignore the internal missteps that took this company from greatness in the '50s and '60s to mediocrity during the '70s and '80s.
In an attempt to stem the tide of defectors looking for fuel-efficient imports in smaller packages, Cadillac unleashed two abominations on the American public in the 1980s. The first monstrosity was called the V-8-6-4. This variable cylinder engine appeared on the Seville's optional equipment list in 1981 and was standard on other models that same year. Designed to maximize fuel efficiency while minimizing power loss, the engine was supposed to alternate the number of cylinders at work, depending on driver demands. It may have seemed like a decent idea at the time, but lousy reliability kept it on the market for just one year, angering drivers who expected more out of a company that claimed to be "The Standard of the World." The second fumble occurred when Cadillac introduced its BMW 3-Series fighter, the Cadillac Cimarron. Following quickly on the heels of the V-8-6-4 debacle, the Cimarron debuted in 1982, featuring all of the luxury and gadgets that Cadillac could dump onto a glorified Chevy Cavalier. Featuring an obnoxious 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and questionable parentage, this J-body compact had a $12,000 price tag. Needless to say, this Chevrillac did little to keep buyers from shopping for Bimmers.
The late '80s and much of the '90s didn't offer Cadillac project mangers much hope. A new breed of imports cropped up, this time from Japan, offering great value, reliability and performance for less money than European and American luxury cars. Cadillac did not respond quickly enough to this new threat, striking out with its move toward a front-wheel drive lineup, just when everyone else figured out how to offer better performance and handling in a rear-drive car. Its image builder, the two-seater Allante convertible, was also a flop. The Allante alienated traditional Cadillac buyers who hadn't seen a two-seater droptop in the Caddy lineup since the Roosevelt administration, while failing to woo shoppers away from the mega-buck Mercedes-Benz SL convertibles. Worse was its aging client base; Cadillac buyers were typically past retirement age, not exactly the demographic Cadillac wanted to ride into the next century.
Facing these cruel market forces has caused Cadillac to rise to a challenge that some members of my (albeit younger) generation may not have thought possible. In 1992, Cadillac introduced one of the best engines the planet has ever seen: the Northstar V8. That same year saw the renovation of the Seville model. What was first conceived as a dumpy, bustle-butt four-door had finally blossomed into an impressive sport sedan. Similar updates to the Eldorado and DeVille, along with the cancellation of the Fleetwood and the introduction of the Catera, invigorated a company that seemed to be perched on the brink of obsolescence for the last decade. Unfortunately for Cadillac, the competition also improved at a breakneck pace, so while the Seville and its siblings looked impressive upon introduction, they were outmatched by 1997.
Enter the 1998 Cadillac Seville STS, a car designed not just to meet the competition, but to leave its rivals choking on charred Goodyears. Over the last few years Cadillac has learned that luxury buyers place as much value on performance as they do on doodads. As a result, the new-for-'98 Seville has got performance enhancing gizmos up the wazoo. Among the more important features are performance algorithm shifting, traction control with StabiliTrak, antilock brakes and the awesome Northstar V8 engine.
Performance algorithm shifting is designed to match the car's shifting pattern to a driver's level of aggressiveness. This means that Sunday drivers get smooth shifts that move the car along placidly, while aggressive drivers get high-rev shifts that make the most of the 300-horsepower Northstar engine lurking under the STS's hood. In addition to monitoring shift timing, this smart gearbox has sensors that keep the car from shifting during hard cornering. This means that drivers don't have to worry about unwanted power surges in the middle of a tricky turn.
Cadillac has also equipped the Seville with a sophisticated traction control system that features yaw control in addition to regular wheel speed monitors. The traction control system works like many others in a straight line, with ABS sensors monitoring the speeds at the front wheels and employing either of the front brakes and cutting engine power if the tires don't have traction. What sets the Cadillac system apart from the one found on the Chevy Lumina, however, is the stability enhancement feature that monitors the angle of the steering wheel and the car's direction of travel. If the steering angle is significantly different than the car's current direction, the yaw control system selectively applies one of the car's antilock brakes to put the vehicle back on course.
The Northstar engine doesn't really need an introduction; those familiar with American V8s have undoubtedly read countless glowing reviews of this motor since its introduction. Nevertheless, we can't pass up the opportunity to talk about some of its highlights. The all-aluminum overhead cam 4.1-liter V8 engine found in the Seville's engine bay is a revelation. Making 300 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque, the Seville STS gets to speed as fast as America's favorite pony car, the Ford Mustang GT. If more overhead cam engines produced this much low end-grunt, the overhead valve versus overhead cam debate would be forever silenced.
Cadillac buyers want more than performance, however, or they would all be buying Chevy Camaros and dumping their savings into the stock market. Cadillac shoppers are also looking for luxury and gizmos, and here, more than any other manufacturer on the market, Cadillac delivers the goods. The Seville that we tested came from the factory with a healthy standard equipment list and was then outfitted with every conceivable option. Adaptive seats? Check. Console-mounted CD changer? Check. Lotsa' wood on the steering wheel, center console and shift knob? Check. Trunk storage system? Check. On Star Communications System? Check. Hands-Free Cellular Phone? Check. Hmmm, how about a Nepalese Sherpa to carry your packages to the car after a shopaholic bender at the Beverly Center? Ha, they did forget something! Other than that obvious oversight, the Cadillac Seville can cater to the most demanding gadget-hounds on the road.
Some of the Seville's features are so interesting that they warrant further explanation. Take the adaptive seats, for example. These chairs aren't to be confused with anything you'd find down at the La-Z-Boy warehouse. In fact, they incorporate more technology than my first computer. The adaptive seats are equipped with six air bladders that inflate and deflate according to input received from various sensors located in either of the front chairs. This means that the long ride from Brentwood to Palm Springs will be made easier for drivers with poor posture because the seats will automatically compensate for any driving position. Go ahead and slouch, this car won't send you to the chiropractor.
Another cool item with which to impress snooty friends is the On Star Communication System. Let Acura and BMW owners fumble around with hard-to-read LCD navigation displays and disembodied voices giving dubious directions. On Star puts you in touch with a real person via the car's hands-free cell phone. This real live human being can not only give accurate directions to wherever you need to go, but can also make reservations for you at a restaurant of your choosing, direct you to a hotel that fits your price range, and will notify emergency vehicles if the airbags in your car deploy. Heck, the On Star system can even unlock your doors via remote control if you accidentally lock them in the car, or flash your headlights and beep your horn if you lose your vehicle in a crowded parking lot. (Just call the On Star number, give them your password, and tell them what you want them to do. They can probably take care of it for you.)
We weren't as impressed with the trunk storage system, a foldable contraption on the floor of the trunk that is supposed to keep papers organized while stowed in the rear of the car. We found that the unit was hard to open and felt flimsy. It also takes up a lot of trunk space and precludes owners from placing anything heavy on top of it. With a $265 sticker price we think that it's definitely a rip-off. We suggest a nice satchel or briefcase to keep your papers organized.
Two of Edmund's editors took turns with the Seville on a weekend trip to California. Both found the car satisfying, but ended up with different things to rant and rave about. Points of agreement centered on the car's excellent powertrain and exceptional balance. For such a large car, the Seville is able to get to speed in a hurry, and doesn't feel overly clumsy when being hustled along a winding road. One of the drivers found the Seville's steering a bit vague, but was impressed with the car's brakes. The other complained about the brakes after he heated them to the point that they made a chuffing sound until cooled down. Both drivers were impressed with motion control in this big Caddy, but neither felt that it was as fun as a rear-wheel drive competitor such as a BMW 5-Series or Mercedes-Benz C43. The StabiliTrak and Performance Algorithm Shifting systems made the front-wheel drive Seville seem friendlier to our aggressive drivers, letting them tackle challenging roads swiftly and confidently. All in all, the Seville STS turned out to be a fast, entertaining drive with few mechanical glitches to gripe about.
The interior of the Seville is another story. Despite the fact that we liked the seats and the switchgear, we found many of the controls hard to operate and were alarmed by evidence of shoddy build quality. New drivers of the Seville may find themselves confused by the multitude of dials, switches, gauges and buttons, many of which are counterintuitive. Take the hands-free cell phone as an example. Our editor-in-chief was stymied when trying to answer an incoming call while driving the Seville. The problem? In order to answer a call, you have to push the "Send" button on the steering wheel. That makes sense, right? Another problem is the complicated climate control system. It required so much attention that our drivers were afraid to change the fan speed while hurtling down the road for fear of rear ending a slow moving vehicle. One of our staff members summed it up best when he said, "The bottom line is that part of the definition of luxury, in my book, is simplicity of operation, and the Seville fails miserably here." Build quality issues included an A-pillar molding that easily popped out of its moorings and paint that had begun to peel off the On Star steering wheel buttons.
Do we like the Seville? You bet, and we think that you might too. It provides a nice balance between power and poise, offering the buttoned-down performance of an import, while not forgetting that Americans like to be coddled. Look before you leap, though. Our Seville's problems, while not staggering, are something to be considered when plunking down $50,000 for a car.
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