Cadillac’s Small Mistake: The 1982-1988 Cimarron

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.


19 thoughts on “Cadillac’s Small Mistake: The 1982-1988 Cimarron

  1. I remember a visiting a friend in New Jersey who wanted to show off his new restaurant. To let me know he had ‘made it’ he bragged about his brand new Cadillac and took me out back to see it. It was a black Cimarron with lipstick red velour upholstery. I don’t think I was able to stifle a giggle. Not that the Lincoln Versailles was any gem either.

    Sergio Marchionne may be a bit addlepated, but he’s a genius compared to the US auto execs of the 70s and 80s. The effects of their idiocy persist forty years later. To this day, Cadillac wants to be a BMW clone instead of ‘the standard of the world’.

  2. Equally “notable” were/are the Cadillac buyers who blindly purchase the cars (and trucks?) with the crest. Those who wanted to sue General Motors because – after purchase – they “discovered”, or someone else pointed out, that their Cadillac had a Chevy engine! Horrors! Also the gentleman who drove into a gas station (remember those?) I was working at, and asked us what was the noise coming from his ElDorado.
    “It’s dieseling” we told him, “It’s what diesels do”. Had no idea his car had a diesel engine; said it looked good on the showroom floor, so he bought it.
    And this, the econobox Caddy.
    “What hath GM wrought?”, Henry M. Leland must be thinking.

  3. I think Cadillac would have been perfectly happy with is X body Nova based K body Seville with the Oldsmobile engine which is a great car and properly sized but what REALLY pushed Cadillac to the J platform and making Cimarron was the Corporate Average Fuel Economy fuel Standards. Ah , the government again. These standards killed good cars and produced terrible compromised cars. If you were used to a Mercedes 300D or lower, the Cimarron’s lack of acceleration would fit you nicely.

  4. I simply have to weigh in on this essentially negative post. While one cannot make a silk purse from a sows ear , the GM J-body platform utilized from 1975 to 1991 was reliable and handled extremely well. I drove Pontiac 6000 iterations for thousands of miles as a rural mail delivery vehicle for the U.S. Postal Service and the 1986, 1987 and 1988 units performed admirably over rural Iowa gravel roads. The 2.8 Liter V-6 was an excellent power plant and I drove two units over 245,000 miles each before having to retire them due to body rust out. For 17 years I was able to replace brake discs , pads and shoes and rotate tires in my driveway. Carrying rural mail is extremely hard on brakes and tires.Frankly I wish GM and all other U.S. auto manufacturers were still offering this kind of vehicles to ply our crowded roads. I would love to acquire a low mileage last year 1988 Cimarron to drive and enjoy as a low budget luxury car. That’s how a retired rural mailman sees things. See you on the road.

    • The Pontiac 6000 was a GM A-body car. Many said at the time that the Cimarron should have been based on the A-body rather than the J-body, given the excellent manners and performance of the Pontiac 6000 STE.

      • Thanks for the correction , Luke. Is the article incorrect in saying the Cimarron was a J-body ? What other GM cars were J-Body platforms ? The old and senile 81 year old retired rural mail carrier needs to get his facts straight.

      • The GM J cars included the Chevrolet Cavalier, Buick Skyhawk, Olds Firenza, Pontiac J-2000 and Sunbird, and Cadillac Cimarron.

  5. Everything you say about the Cimarron is right on yet still loved the Cimarron I inherited from my grandma, maybe because it was the first nice car I ever owned. The interior felt like a Jaguar. I drove slowly to get away from the noise and roughness.

    • While the 2.8 was a nice addition to the Cimarron it took five years to get it. The cars gutless reputation by then was perceived by all. Pulling a rabbit out of the hat like they did with Seville ( 1975-79 ) with a Olds engine out of the Nova X body was not to be for Cimarron. They got it right with the Seville. Thank John DeLorean for that well handling X body of 1975-79.

  6. You could easily buy a well equipped Chrysler Fifth Avenue or Mercury Grand Marquis of the same year for around the same price, + or – a couple Benjamins.

  7. While these are not good Cadillacs, they are the world’s greatest Chevrolets. When analyzed as such, they’re not bad cars. It’s just unfortunate they have a wreath and crest on the hood.

    There are a lot of parallels to the story of the 1957-58 Packard; in both cases, a decent cheap car was gussied up to become a subpar expensive car, and could not live up to the expectations people had based on the name on the decklid.

  8. A few years ago, I was at the Corvette factory for a tour. While there the guide told us they were tooling up for a two seat Cadillac. We did see a two seat Cadillac out back of the plant.
    Was this car ever in production?

    • Yes, it was known as the Cadillac XLR, and was available in the 2004-2009 model years.

  9. My Mother gave us her 82 in about 94 it only had 20,000 miles and was like new great mileage and interior was leather it was not bad to drive however the module that controlled the fuel system would only let the motor idle with A/C on if you turn the A/C off motor would die – Cadillac could not fix it and the module was discontinued – a good example of 80’s engineering and why Americans gave up on Detroit.

  10. Here in Australia we got that car as the Holden Camira in about 79. It had a SOHC 4 that started as a carby 1.6 and ended up as a multipoint 2 litre. And it was a GM engine ‘family 4’ made in Australia for the ‘world’ car. A Vauxhall in the UK, Opel in Europe and a Daewoo in Korea. Made in Australia. The family 4 engines were used in [badge engineering] Nissans, Holdens, Daewoos.
    The later ones were ok cars but all gone now.
    Looks like Americans got ripped off even more as they got a pushrod motor. Though the LS is a pushrod but that is the only resemblance.
    I guess they were scrap in about 5 years!

  11. The average Joe could see it was a dolled up Cavalier, even when spotting it at the curb. Still, I was mildly fascinated as an owner of a ’83 Coupe deVille.

  12. I always say, when you trash the Cimarron, remember that Cadillac gave you a choice of the V864, the olds Diesel, the HT4100, or the Cimarron. Choose wisely! the idea that Cadillac’s “demise” was because of the Cimarron is silly. Its demised was cause by building cars that wouldn’t run, while Ford was building Lincolns with fuel injected window 302’s. People notice cars that won’t run.

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