The Cadillac Cimarron was the short lived attempt to bring a smaller vehicle into the luxury market. It’s considered the poster car for everything that was going wrong with engineering and with GM in general at the time. This half hearted attempt to enter this smaller car market nearly killed the Cadillac brand and still remains one of the biggest shames in the auto industry.
Cadillac’s first attempt into smaller cars was with the Seville in 1975. This attempt was successful in bringing buyers who wanted a smaller, luxurious vehicle to Cadillac from other luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi. These other car makers, in anticipation of law changes in reaction to the fuel crises of the late 1970’s, engineered methods to increase fuel economy. In the early 1980’s, the U.S. government instituted the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. This required automakers to maintain a minimum fuel economy or face substantial penalties. Cadillac, in response to this new requirement, was forced to rush Cimarron into production earlier than it expected. The results of this force to production resulted in the smallest and least distinguished Cadillac model produced to date. The Cimarron was introduced by Cadillac on May 21, 1981.
In order to get the Cimarron into production so quickly, Cadillac utilized the GM J platform which was being shared across all of GM’s passenger car division. The Cimarron shared the same wheelbase, basic MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear suspension and the same engine. The unibody basic body/frame structure with front subframe for the lower front suspension, engine and transmission was refined for the Cimarron with the addition of hydraulic dampers between the subframe and the body with an attempt to improve the handling and the ride of the car.
The engine for the Cimarron was the un-Cadillac like I4 motor. This was the first 4-cylinder engine used by Cadillac in almost 70 years. The Cimarron came standard with a four-speed manual transmission, this being the first standard manual transmission in 30 years. The three speed Turbo-Hydramatic automatic transmission was available as an option. The only other significant differences between the GM models and the Cadillac were in styling details, standard features (power steering and air conditioning were standard) and pricing. The base price of a new Cimarron approached $12,000 which was nearly double that of the other J-body (like the Chevy Cavalier) vehicles being offered by GM.
The first year sales for the Cimarron, just over 25,000, were only about a third of those anticipated by Cadillac. The compact dimensions were not in line with what was expected by either traditional or new Cadillac buyers and the close similarities to the other J-cars did not appeal to those in the market comparing the Cimarron to other high priced imports.
The Cimarron did receive positive reviews from auto critics but this was not enough to cause an increase in the market share for Cadillac. Consumers expected Cadillac to develop its own specific model if it was going to enter the compact market and not just produce what was in there opinion a well-equipped Chevrolet Cavalier with top of the line fabrics, Cadillac emblems and a price tag that was twice as much. Some experts further criticized Cadillac for the smaller four cylinder engine and the lower power it provided. The larger V6 engine became an option in 1985 and standard equipment in 1987.
Cadillac continued to refine the Cimarron throughout it production run with more Cadillac-like styling and engineering in attempts to further distance it from the other GM J-cars. Even with additional changes, customers continued to stay away from the Cimarron and the car was finally discontinued after the 1988 model year. This model year was one of the weakest for Cadillac with only 6,454 vehicles being produced.
The Cimarron proved to Cadillac executives that just placing the Cadillac name on a lesser vehicle will not bring in a large number of customers. Cimarron placed significant tarnish on the prestigious image of Cadillac and in fact nearly drove this division of GM into bankruptcy in the 1980’s. While many at Cadillac would like customers to forgive and forget, new executives use the Cimarron as a symbol of what can go wrong if you don’t focus on what is right for the company and expected from the customer.