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CADILLAC SEVILLE : A Star Is Reborn in America

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For too long, the sighs and celebration at American auto shows have surrounded some mid-engined screamer in Italian crimson or three tons of haughtiness from Europe.

This year, adulation reverted to the domestic and an old star was reborn: The Cadillac Seville.

Poised on daises from Los Angeles to Detroit the prototype was a gorgeous thing with cranberry paint deep as a reflecting pool. Gone was Cadillac’s gaudiness and chrome by the hectare. No more dummy wire wheels, wood putty formed into faux walnut and gold-plated badges tackier than gang jewelry. Which is precisely what most stolen emblems become.

Here was a Seville that showed measures of culture and significance and finally a good reason for being named after a smart Spanish city. This also was a motor car clearly designed as a single unit and not as a Lego limousine assembled by a committee rummaging in a GM parts bin.

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The interior was a living room of unusual, simple taste created from real woods and premium leathers. The exterior was sophisticated slopes all around, a dignified understatement as European as the stiff upper Jaguars in adjoining halls.

Yet this Cadillac also was a hybrid mannequin built for show purposes only. That cran-apple paint was not from GM’s standard palette. The outside was the Seville sedan and the inside was the sportier Seville Touring Sedan (STS).

As corporate window dressing, the car posed an obvious question: How much of this perfect rendition would survive translation to reality and the road?

Well, Cadillac has put metal where its molds were and recently sneaked a production prototype of the 1992 Seville STS into Los Angeles.

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Without groping for superlatives, the real-time 1992 Seville STS is the finest full-size car made in America today. The Seville STS is V-8 powerful as always, but it now has a steering and suspension firm enough to handle its muscular performance. Float and roll have disappeared. The interior is fresh, modern and extraordinarily clean of line. It also exorcises the Cadillac tradition that all insides must be a bazaar of tinny bells, plastic whistles and electronic froufrou.

It is a very large car with dimensions close to those of the 1976 Seville. But it drives and looks like a smaller car. It remains a formal vehicle, but now there’s a touch of aggression in the way it performs.

All of which makes this Seville a much younger, less ostentatious vehicle obviously targeted at buyers with those same qualifications.

Neither Cadillac nor Lincoln has been hammered brutally by Japan’s new and more compact luxury cars. Lexus and Infiniti seem content to pick on performance sedans their own size: Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar.

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But Cadillac sales have certainly been lost to the Japanese. Potential buyers continue to waver and the whine is common: They’d love to buy American, but imported luxury cars look and feel so much better.

“We talked with over 11,000 persons, and the vast majority were the young and affluent who said precisely that,” says Chuck Harrington, a spokesman for Cadillac. “So we built the Seville for them. There is no question that the purpose of the new Seville is to be a Lexus-and Infiniti-fighter.”

There also is no question that Cadillac is hoping the Seville will be an exit from the black hole where its reputation and products have been moaning and groaning for more than a decade.

Remember the downsized Cimarron of 1982 that was nothing more than a tarted-up Chevrolet? There were diesel Cadillacs and a canvas-covered hardtop masquerading as a ragtop. Then the mechanical heresy of a V-8 engine that shut down its systems like a hibernating bear to run on eight, six or four cylinders depending on driving demands.

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Four years ago, all that nonsense was voided; Cadillac was reorganized, and design autonomy returned. The 1992 Seville is the first product of that resurrection--the division’s obvious opening triumph.

The fourth generation of a four-door sedan introduced in 1976, the new Seville is 14 inches longer than last year’s car. An extended wheelbase creates more legroom for rear-seat passengers.

The car’s 16-valve, 4.9-liter V-8 is a continuing update of Cadillac’s venerable push-rod power plant. But horsepower is now up to 200.

Seville comes in two flavors.

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There’s the basic sedan with a sticker price still to be established but estimated by Cadillac as “somewhere around $35,000.” That buys a glide, a ride and a dressier exterior just a little closer to the likes of Cadillac buyers of yore. It has tamer gearing, milder tires and a top speed that is restricted by a computer at 112 m.p.h.

On this model, Cadillac’s wreath and shield emblem is mounted atop the hood, ripe for rip-off.

For about $2,000 more, there’s the more muscular STS with a body-color grille, heavily reduced brightwork and a console-mounted shifter. Modified gearing gives slightly quicker acceleration and the tires are built for faster running. When no one is around, that comes to about 130 m.p.h.

And on the STS, the Cadillac badge is blessedly flush-mounted against the grille.

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Both versions, however, have that striking outline of lowered hood sloping into an uncluttered front end. Last year’s rear window--close to vertical and always looking like someone had bitten into the back--has been contoured into a perfect match for the windshield’s rake.

The rear of the car is large but more purposeful than bulky and quite in keeping with the sporting menace implied by four tailpipes.

Now open any door of the STS.

Cadillac’s Viva Las Vegas look, all fussiness and fuzziness, has gone. Seat and side panel leather is no longer a mess of pleats, buttons and embossing. The wood accents--Cadillac says it is Zebrano wood, a description that seems to have escaped all dictionaries and Encyclopaedia Britannica--are generous and carry no adornment beyond a rich, deep polish.

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The instruments--digital on the standard Seville; analog on the STS--keep optical confusion to a minimum. The binnacle, once square, always horribly obvious, is now a graceful arch flowing from one side of the cabin to the other. And with all this movement away from sharp angles, there is a nuance of Infiniti that is much more flattery than mockery.

Two things jar the STS interior.

One: The canted head of the gear lever with its lock release on the right underside of the T-handle. That means the minor digits, the pinky and its neighbor, must do all the pressing and releasing while the driver’ big fat thumb curls around the handle doing nothing.

Two: The square housing of the driver’s-side air bag clashes with the soft curves of everything else.

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Being a Cadillac means that automatic air conditioning, power seats, rear-seat ventilation, Carnegie Hall sound system and other niceties are standard.

The ride remains big car, but far from floppy, on seats that are large and comfortable yet offer a high level of lateral support. Acceleration is not to the levels of Infiniti and Lexus, but is certainly ahead of other luxury V-8s from Detroit and the more overfed Mercedes. Brakes are huge, anti-lock and stronger than any driver’s right foot.

The Seville’s steering, that grizzled albatross of all Cadillacs, has lost its cotton candy feel and evolved into an intelligent, firm, feeling guidance system. And with the measure of security and sense of precise positioning of car in corner that taut steering provides.

Above all else, Cadillac has managed to produce a vehicle that will not betray its die-hard buyers. At the same time, it will not make newer, younger buyers feel they are driving something inherited from their grandparents.

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1992 Cadillac Seville

COST: * Base Seville: $35,000, estimated. * STS version: $37,000, estimated. (with cast alloy wheels, leather seats, automatic air conditioning, cruise control, wood trim, central locking, driver’s side air bag and anti-lock brakes.)

ENGINE: * 4.9 liter, 16-valve V-8 producing 200 horsepower.

TYPE: * Front-drive, four-door, full-size luxury sedan.

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PERFORMANCE: * 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 9.2 seconds. * Top speed, manufacturer’s estimate, 130 m.p.h. * Gas consumption, EPA city-highway, 16-26 m.p.g.

CURB WEIGHT: * 3,800 pounds.

THE GOOD: * A cure for all that has ailed Cadillacs, including Lexus and Infiniti. * Distinctive European styling. * Simple, elegant interior. * Modern handling for a younger car. * Formal without being dull.

THE BAD: * Gearshift needs redesign. * Ditto for air bag pod.

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THE UGLY: * That it took Cadillac 88 years to get real.


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