We’re gonna take a look at the Cadillac Cimarron – or Cimarron by Cadillac – whatever you want to call it. It’s going to be objective, It’s going to be fair, and we’re going to assume it does not have the reputation it does now. Before you lift a finger over the, “You are a GM apologist” key, I am totally a GM apologist. Let’s put down the pitchforks and take a look at what this car actually was.
The Cimarron was a J-body car. There were at least ten cars on this platform, ranging from the Oldsmobile Firenza to the Daewoo Espero. The most popular car on this platform was the Cavalier. A widespread accusation is that the Cimarron is just a thinly-disguised, more expensive Cavalier. Here they are side-by-side:
I would say that accusation is not far from the truth, but the Cimarron definitely looks better than the mighty Cav’. To be fair, the Cavalier pictured is returning to the earth next to an equally doomed Saturn, but still.
Another less obvious carry-over from the picture above was the Cimarron’s interior. In typical GM fashion, it was the wrong materials in the wrong places. I can’t find any good pictures of the inside, but I assure you that this is something you can trust me on. Interior quality was a persistent complaint from magazines and owners. Roll-up windows were also available. In a Cadillac.
88 horsepower. The Cavalier had it, the Cimarron had it. The optional 2.8 liter V6 boosted power to 130, but that still was not much. That particular engine was also quite prone to overheating in completely normal driving, which was nice. Transmissions were either a three-speed auto (which John Davis from MotorWeek described as, ‘horrendous’), or two choices of manual transmissions (four or five speeds). Frankly, a manual transmission has pretty much no business in a Cadillac–besides some of the newer ‘V’ models. That’s really where this whole image starts to fall apart. The performance Cadillac wanted in their entry-level sports sedan did not exist. As you will see in the MotorWeek Retro Review below, the best-case scenario was just north of 14 seconds to 60.
This vehicle, like most others, never got worse as it was refreshed year-to-year. One thing that was never bad and only improved was the handling. The car was described as having a good ride, especially on the highway. It was predictable and had rack and pinion steering (as opposed to the numb recirculating ball variety that often found itself in other American cars). The steering feel was initially okay, but it got better and better throughout production.
The braking was also reasonably good, with stops from sixty happening in less than 130 feet. Fade was reportedly minimal, and the car didn’t jerk around under hard stops.
Really, everything about the car (besides maybe the looks) improved as the car’s production continued. In the opinion of the author, the Cimarron’s final edition in 1988 wasn’t any worse than any other American luxury car. It was certainly better than the Cavalier’s other siblings, but it was absolutely not one vital thing.
It was not a Cadillac
Not in a “because it’s a Cavalier” sort of way, but because it was not everything Cadillacs are (or were just a decade earlier). It wasn’t a luxury car in the American sense.
Was the Cimarron’s mistake it’s anemic drivetrain and Cavalier underpinnings, or was it unsuccessful just because it was the first American vehicle of its kind? It was a compact luxury car, something the Germans had perfected with vehicles like the BMW 3 series and Mercedes 190E but had not been explored by any American manufacturer. Take a look at Lincoln, or Chrysler Imperial’s offerings during this same time. They’re still big cars with whitewalls and wire wheels. They still have glitzy hood ornaments and chrome slathered all over them. Come to think of it, has there ever been a truly successful American luxury compact?
Lincoln’s first attempt in 2000, the LS, was undoubtedly a failure. It never came close to touching the 3 Series and often ranked last in comparisons from the period. Lincoln hasn’t tried to do anything like that since, and although Cadillac still tries today, the sales of the ATS never came close to the BMW 3 Series. In 2013, The best year for the ATS, BMW’s sales of the 3 Series were three times as good. That’s a lot of threes. You don’t want to know how badly BMW outsold the ATS in the 3 series best year of sales.
A Poor Attempt at a Sort of Car Few Americans Want (to This Day)
Cadillac’s Cimarron, as we’ve come to find out, was betrayed mostly by it’s shoddy interior and poor drivetrain. Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s the same complaints journalists have to say about compact American luxury cars today. Lincoln has pretty much given up on making a compact luxury sedan. Just look at their current offerings–there aren’t many sedans, period.
So what was the Cimarron really? Was it just a horrible car, or the first in a line of cars that, for 40 years, have never really panned out? Being based on a Cavalier didn’t help, but read a little more into Brian Konoske’s drive in one around 2012. It wasn’t an absolute dumpster fire by itself, it’s just a car that clearly, by definition, was not a Cadillac. I have to imagine that it’s a mixture of both of these things that sunk the Cimarron, and perhaps still drag down Cadillac’s sales today.
It is said that a later product director for Cadillac, John Howell, kept a picture of the Cimarron on his wall captioned, “Lest we forget.” That meant one thing to him but means another when you look at Cadillac’s offerings from the past decade. Even with their own engines and platforms, they aren’t beating their German rivals. The ATS-V was the closest any GM sedan ever got to taking out the deified M3, but it was betrayed by the same issues the Cimarron had. It seems to me like Mr. Howell is right. They certainly haven’t forgotten the Cimarron.