Story and photo by Bill Vance

1988 Cadillac Cimarron
Click image to enlarge

The 1970s and ’80s, although yielding some profitable years for the North American automobile industry, also saw some difficult ones. The two “energy crises” of the 1970s brought on fuel economy legislation. In addition, there were demands that cars have greater safety and lower emissions.

And along with those challenges was the rising competition from foreign manufacturers, particularly the Japanese, that would soon exceed the market penetration of the Volkswagen Beetle in its heyday.

In times like these, desperate companies will do desperate things. Even Cadillac, with its long reputation for technical innovation, succumbed to the use of questionable measures to improve fuel economy.

The first was the introduction of a diesel engine in 1978. This 5.7 litre 350 cu in.) V8 had been converted from gasoline to diesel by the Oldsmobile division, but it had not made the transition easily. The result was a powerplant with some reliability problems.

The next Cadillac foray into the forest of unusual technology was the V-8-6-4 “variable displacement” engine of 1981.

By deactivating valves in response to changing engine load or throttle position, the V8 was reduced to operating on either six or four of its eight cylinders. What seemed like such a good idea in theory didn’t successfully make the passage into practice.

The Cadillac V-8-6-4 not only resulted in disgruntled and even litigious Cadillac owners, it also besmirched Cadillac’s vaunted reputation for engineering excellence. It was discontinued in 1982.

Another uncharacteristic move by Cadillac, famous for its large luxury cars, was the introduction of the subcompact 1982 Cimarron. The Cimarron was Cadillac’s version of the GM J-car, a cross-engine, front-drive subcompact developed to achieve good fuel economy and counter the rising tide of imports. It was a job the X-cars (Chevrolet Citation, et al.) had been sent out to do, but hadn’t quite achieved.

The J-cars were introduced for 1982. In the ultimate expression of GM’s corporate auto body “shell game,” all five divisions had one: Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk and Cadillac Cimarron.

Although not trouble-prone in the same sense as the diesel and V-8-6-4 engines, the Cimarron would not enhance Cadillac’s reputation as a purveyor of luxury cars. To be fair to Cadillac management, it had not intended to participate in the J-car program. But its dealers, driven by the overriding fuel economy concerns of the period, demanded that Cadillac also have its version.

As a result of coming into the program late, Cadillac could do little else in creating the Cimarron but fit a different grille and dress up the interior with amenities like leather seats. Thus the Cimarron, therefore, looked just like what it was: a deluxe version of the Chevrolet Cavalier; although being a Cadillac, it was loaded with standard equipment.

When the Cimarron appeared, the first four-cylinder Cadillac since 1914, it was intended to appeal to two markets: the BMW/Audi/Volvo crowd, and current owners of large Cadillacs seeking a smaller second car. Import buyers immediately noted that the Cimarron, like all J- cars, was heavier than they had expected, which caused performance to suffer. Cost considerations had forced GM engineers to use existing components from the X-car, while fuel economy goals had caused them to select gear ratios more for economy than for performance.

Car and Driver magazine (8/81) compared an early four-speed manual (an automatic was also available) Cimarron with four imports, a Volvo DL, Honda Accord, Audi 4000 and a BMW 320i. They found that it fell right in the middle in price; was next to the slowest, the Accord, in acceleration to 60 mph (96 km/h) at 13.7 seconds; and was the slowest of all in top speed at 91 mph (146 km/h). The baby Caddy’s performance wasn’t near its intended competitors, Volvo and Audi, although its fuel economy was much better.

In an attempt to make the Cimarron more competitive for 1983, Cadillac upped the displacement to 2.0 litres from 1.8 and added throttle body fuel injection and a five-speed manual transmission. Appearance was revised with a more Cadillac-like grille, handsome cast wheels, and a “D’Oro” option, which was comprised of black paint and gold trim.

The Cimarron slid through 1984 with few changes. For ’85, it got the Chevy 2.8 litre V6 (again from the X-car) and a more aggressive suspension as options, and the exterior and interior appearance was spiffed up.

Cadillac carried the Cimarron on with minor revisions through the 1988 model year, when it finally gave up and discontinued it (GM had stopped marketing it in Canada a couple of years earlier).

The Cimarron never achieved the kind of popularity that Cadillac had hoped it would. While the division’s traditional models were selling in the 300,000 per year range, the Cimarron couldn’t break 20,000. In spite of Cadillac’s prowess with styling cues, and luxury and convenience items, the Cimarron was never able to outgrow its humble J-car beginnings.

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