Presenting the car that helped to tarnish the name of a once-proud make: the 1982-1988 Cadillac Cimarron. “It wasn’t such a bad car,” said one industry veteran. “But it sure wasn’t a very good Cadillac.” Here’s the unfortunate tale.
When General Motors engineers first envisioned the J-body platform back in 1975, there were no plans for a Cadillac version of the low-cost, front-drive compact. But by 1980, BMW and Audi were taking a generous bite out of Cadillac sales, and the division’s dealers were clamoring for a smaller, sportier model in the lineup. To provide a rapid-response, stopgap solution, Cadillac general manager Ed Kinnard lobbied the GM Executive Committee for an upmarket variant of the J-car, which was already shared by Chevy, Pontiac, Olds, and Buick. Somehow the division got its wish, and there begins one of the more unfortunate tales in Cadillac history.
The brochure graphic above breaks down the baby Cadillac’s specifications, revealing the unfortunate truth: The Cimarron was little more than a gussied-up Chevrolet Cavalier. The only available engine at introduction was a wheezy 1.8-liter, 85-horsepower pushrod four, coupled to an equally unrefined four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transaxle. Naturally, the Cimarron also used the same low-cost McPherson strut front suspension and torsion-beam rear axle as the rest of GM’s J family, with some Cadillac tuning to improve the ride and handling. Only one body style was offered, a four-door sedan, and its styling bore an almost uncanny resemblance to the Cavalier.
To make a Cadillac out of the little beast, a long list of luxury, appearance, and convenience features were piled in, including leather upholstery, aluminum wheels, and a high-end stereo system. As a result, when the Cimarron was formally introduced on May 21, 1981, it sported a base price of $12,131—roughly twice the price of a Cavalier.
A bit surprisingly in hindsight, the automotive press was kind overall to the dinky Caddy. Reviewers spoke warmly of the tight, responsive road manners and the luxurious interior appointments. However, nearly all the testers pointed to the Cimarron’s most obvious shortcoming: the thrashy, underpowered drivetrain. Road & Track recorded a 0-to-60 mph time of 15.9 seconds and a quarter-mile performance of 20.3 seconds at 68.0 mph. “Painfully slow,” the magazine observed, without an ounce of overstatement.
One area where the smallest Cadillac in history lived up to its name was in the cockpit (above). Large, comfortably designed, and covered in luxurious materials, the seats were among the best ever found in a GM small car. Unfortunately, the chairs seemed almost too big for the cramped J-body cabin space, producing an oddly claustrophobic effect.
Thanks in no small part to Cadillac’s weak planning and hasty execution on an already unsuitable platform, the Cimarron was a dud in the marketplace. First-year sales amounted to barely 26,000 units, a third of the division’s projections. Several facelifts and an upgrade to a 130-horsepower V6 for 1985 failed to reverse the situation, and in 1988, the Cimarron’s final year, only 6.454 units were produced. Total sales amounted to around 132,000 cars over seven model years. While it was by no means the only misstep by the GM luxury division in those days—the 8-6-4 engine and the 4100 V8 come to mind—the Cimarron has become a symbol for Cadillac’s decline, from which it still struggles to recover.