The Cadillac Cimarron was an entry level luxury car produced by General Motors in the 1980s. The car was Cadillac's second attempt at an entry level car (the Seville was the brand's initial attempt in 1975), and was intended as a competitor to its budding European rivals. At the time, the idea of a smaller Cadillac was good in theory for General Motors. In typical 1980s GM fashion, however, the idea was poorly planned and executed, and the result was nearly the downfall of Cadillac.
The idea was simple: to produce an entry level car for the Cadillac luxury division to compete with compact cars from European rivals such as Audi, Saab, Volvo, and BMW. A smaller Cadillac was also necessary because tougher fuel economy standards were forthcoming from the federal government, and the brand wanted to avoid being penalized. The car was also necessary because the brand's core buyers were aging, and Cadillac needed to bring in new and younger buyers to sustain the brand. After a list of names was finalized (including Caville and Carmel), the name Cimarron was chosen for this new Cadillac.
The Execution (or Lack Thereof)
Even before reaching production, the Cimarron was likely doomed in the planning stage. In 1976, General Motors began developing a small car platform (which later became the ubiquitous J-body) intended to be used by every GM division including Cadillac. The brand sought to introduce the Cimarron later in the 1980s, but Cadillac dealers were clamoring for the car. GM's then-president Pete Estes was quoted as saying to Cadillac then-general manager Ed Kennard, "Ed, you don't have time to turn the J-car into a Cadillac." Nonetheless, the warning wasn't heeded, and the Cimarron was rushed to the market.
The Cimarron was introduced in 1981 as a 1982 model. Because it was hurried into production, the car ended up looking more like a rebadged Chevrolet Cavalier and less like a Cadillac. (The resemblance to the Cavalier earned it the nickname "Cadvalier".) The same could be said for the interior, which looked more at home in a Cavalier. It was even initially marketed as "Cimarron by Cadillac", and the Cadillac name was nowhere to be found on the car. However, this strategy backfired on GM as sales (almost 26,000 cars) were about 1/3 of their ambitious projection for that model year. In 1983, it was rebranded as the Cadillac Cimarron.
The Cimarron was originally powered by a 4 cylinder engine (Cadillac's first since 1914) and was coupled with a 4-speed manual transmission (Cadillac's first stick shift since 1953); a 3-speed automatic was optional. The engine only generated 88 horsepower and predictably offered anemic performance. A 2.8 liter V6 engine was added in 1985 to address the lack of power, and later became the standard engine in 1987.
Cimarrons were well equipped with many standard features like air conditioning, leather interior, and a sport tuned suspension. However, those features created some sticker shock for potential buyers as the base price was over $12,000 (approximately $31,000 today). Though the price was nearly double the cost of its J-body brethren, a similarly optioned J-car would come close to the price of a Cimarron. The availability of these features, including the V6 engine, on a Chevrolet Cavalier made the Cimarron less desirable to potential buyers.
Although the Cimarron received many improvements over its 7 year run (including more Cadillac-like styling to differentiate it from its J-body brethren), buyers didn't notice them and sales never improved for the car. The writing was on the wall for the Cimarron, and it was mercifully cancelled after the 1988 model year after only selling 6,454 cars.
On paper, this was a good idea for Cadillac and General Motors. In reality, however, the Cimarron was an abject failure for GM and nearly was the downfall of Cadillac as 25% of its core buyers left the brand altogether. It was and still is considered one of the worst cars ever produced, and the very mention of the Cimarron name evokes bad memories. Legend has it that former Cadillac product director John Howell had a picture of a Cimarron on his wall with the words, "Lest we forget".
But, there were a couple of silver linings in this endeavor for Cadillac. In the beginning of its model run, the Cimarron brought in nearly 75% new buyers who had never before owned a Cadillac. The car also brought in younger buyers to the brand as the median age of Cimarron owners was under 50.
Cadillac has since tried again to develop an entry level car (with some success) with the Catera, the CTS, and the ATS. But perhaps with a better car platform and a little more development time, the Cimarron could have been a game changer for Cadillac and GM.