Does the Cadillac Cimarron Deserve Its Reputation?

We’re gonna take a look at the Cadillac Cimarron – or Cimarron by Cadillac – whatever you want to call it. It’s going to be objective, It’s going to be fair, and we’re going to assume it does not have the reputation it does now. Before you lift a finger over the, “You are a GM apologist” key, I am totally a GM apologist. Let’s put down the pitchforks and take a look at what this car actually was.

A Cavalier

The Cimarron was a J-body car. There were at least ten cars on this platform, ranging from the Oldsmobile Firenza to the Daewoo Espero. The most popular car on this platform was the Cavalier. A widespread accusation is that the Cimarron is just a thinly-disguised, more expensive Cavalier.  Here they are side-by-side:

I would say that accusation is not far from the truth, but the Cimarron definitely looks better than the mighty Cav’. To be fair, the Cavalier pictured is returning to the earth next to an equally doomed Saturn, but still.

Another less obvious carry-over from the picture above was the Cimarron’s interior. In typical GM fashion, it was the wrong materials in the wrong places. I can’t find any good pictures of the inside, but I assure you that this is something you can trust me on. Interior quality was a persistent complaint from magazines and owners. Roll-up windows were also available. In a Cadillac.


88 horsepower. The Cavalier had it, the Cimarron had it. The optional 2.8 liter V6 boosted power to 130, but that still was not much. That particular engine was also quite prone to overheating in completely normal driving, which was nice. Transmissions were either a three-speed auto (which John Davis from MotorWeek described as, ‘horrendous’), or two choices of manual transmissions (four or five speeds). Frankly, a manual transmission has pretty much no business in a Cadillac–besides some of the newer ‘V’ models. That’s really where this whole image starts to fall apart. The performance Cadillac wanted in their entry-level sports sedan did not exist. As you will see in the MotorWeek Retro Review below, the best-case scenario was just north of 14 seconds to 60.

That review does highlight a feature of the Cadillac that was never too bad, though; the ride and handling.


This vehicle, like most others, never got worse as it was refreshed year-to-year. One thing that was never bad and only improved was the handling. The car was described as having a good ride, especially on the highway. It was predictable and had rack and pinion steering (as opposed to the numb recirculating ball variety that often found itself in other American cars). The steering feel was initially okay, but it got better and better throughout production.

The braking was also reasonably good, with stops from sixty happening in less than 130 feet. Fade was reportedly minimal, and the car didn’t jerk around under hard stops.

Really, everything about the car (besides maybe the looks) improved as the car’s production continued. In the opinion of the author, the Cimarron’s final edition in 1988 wasn’t any worse than any other American luxury car. It was certainly better than the Cavalier’s other siblings, but it was absolutely not one vital thing.

It was not a Cadillac

Not in a “because it’s a Cavalier” sort of way, but because it was not everything Cadillacs are (or were just a decade earlier). It wasn’t a luxury car in the American sense.

Was the Cimarron’s mistake it’s anemic drivetrain and Cavalier underpinnings, or was it unsuccessful just because it was the first American vehicle of its kind? It was a compact luxury car, something the Germans had perfected with vehicles like the BMW 3 series and Mercedes 190E but had not been explored by any American manufacturer. Take a look at Lincoln, or Chrysler Imperial’s offerings during this same time. They’re still big cars with whitewalls and wire wheels. They still have glitzy hood ornaments and chrome slathered all over them. Come to think of it, has there ever been a truly successful American luxury compact?

Lincoln’s first attempt in 2000, the LS, was undoubtedly a failure. It never came close to touching the 3 Series and often ranked last in comparisons from the period. Lincoln hasn’t tried to do anything like that since, and although Cadillac still tries today, the sales of the ATS never came close to the BMW 3 Series. In 2013, The best year for the ATS, BMW’s sales of the 3 Series were three times as good. That’s a lot of threes. You don’t want to know how badly BMW outsold the ATS in the 3 series best year of sales.

A Poor Attempt at a Sort of Car Few Americans Want (to This Day)

Cadillac’s Cimarron, as we’ve come to find out, was betrayed mostly by it’s shoddy interior and poor drivetrain. Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s the same complaints journalists have to say about compact American luxury cars today. Lincoln has pretty much given up on making a compact luxury sedan. Just look at their current offerings–there aren’t many sedans, period.

So what was the Cimarron really? Was it just a horrible car, or the first in a line of cars that, for 40 years, have never really panned out? Being based on a Cavalier didn’t help, but read a little more into Brian Konoske’s drive in one around 2012. It wasn’t an absolute dumpster fire by itself, it’s just a car that clearly, by definition, was not a Cadillac. I have to imagine that it’s a mixture of both of these things that sunk the Cimarron, and perhaps still drag down Cadillac’s sales today.

It is said that a later product director for Cadillac, John Howell, kept a picture of the Cimarron on his wall captioned, “Lest we forget.” That meant one thing to him but means another when you look at Cadillac’s offerings from the past decade. Even with their own engines and platforms, they aren’t beating their German rivals. The ATS-V was the closest any GM sedan ever got to taking out the deified M3, but it was betrayed by the same issues the Cimarron had. It seems to me like Mr. Howell is right. They certainly haven’t forgotten the Cimarron.

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47 responses to “Does the Cadillac Cimarron Deserve Its Reputation?”

  1. Maymar Avatar

    It might be stretching the definitions of both luxury and compact, but the Tesla Model 3 is successful at countering the 3 Series because it doesn’t try and copy BMW’s playbook (and also, it doesn’t have decades of heritage to restrict it).

    I’m sure part of the Cimarron’s problem is just how much smaller it was than the 2nd gen Seville. Maybe if they had started with something on the A-body as the next step of downsizing, it would have been less despised. Then again, GM misread the future and undersized Cadillac in general.

  2. Victor~~ Avatar

    My wife drove a Celebrity for a few years , just a good old car that never gave her any trouble. Same platform so No it does not deserve its reputation. Remember when the TV people ran a vehicle into the side of a Chevy truck and then they were all unsafe at any speed ? Mostly the Cimmaron got beat up because it was not 19 feet long with fins.

    1. Maymar Avatar

      As the article mentions, the Cimarron was the J-body, same as the Cavalier, while the Celebrity was the next size up, the A-body. Although, I believe some A-body development might have been leveraged to the J-body?

      Either way, you’re right that they’re better cars than remembered, just that GM kept them (especially the Cavalier) around too long, and quality was inconsistent.

  3. 0A5599 Avatar

    My mom bought one about three weeks after they hit the showroom. My dad was driving a bustleback Seville at the time. The dealership was full of displays for V8-6-4 and Vogue Tyres and aftermarket cloth tops and the sales team did make the distinction the Cim was “by Cadillac”, not “a Cadillac”, lest their traditional septuagenarian dentist customer base be put off.

    The car was mechanically reliable, and handling and braking were decent for the era, as indicated in the review. The engine was an absolute slug, though. I remember going on a road trip and attempting to hit top speed. It needed 5 miles of highway to hit 85 mph.

    Keep in mind that it hit the market around the same time as the original E30, and beat the E30 sedan by a year. I think if significantly more power could have been found–perhaps with a turbocharger–then it wouldn’t have developed a reputation as an overpriced Cavalier and been the butt of jokes nearly 40 years later.

  4. Lokki Avatar

    There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the Cimarron as a vehicle, once it got the V-6 engine. However when you take New York State sparkling wine, and call it Vintage French Champagne and charge accordingly…. well…. some people have a problem with that.

    * Discus continues to insist that I log in to post a picture … but also insists that I AM logged in…

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      My workaround for the logged-in-but-also-not-logged-in problem is to go directly to and log out of my account on their home page. That seems to really for-real really reset one’s status. Usually.

  5. Zentropy Avatar

    My daughter thinks that mashed potatoes are “okay”. She doesn’t love them, but she’ll eat them if I put them on her plate. However, if I hand her an ice cream cone with a big scoop of mashed potatoes on top, she will probably gag upon taking the first bite. It’s not because the potatoes are nasty, but because it’s not what she was expecting. She was prepared for sweet, cold, vanilla goodness, and got… potatoes.

    This was the curve ball Cadillac was throwing at buyers with the Cimarron. People were expecting Cadillac ice cream and got Cavalier potatoes. And the Cavalier has never really even been considered “okay”. It kinda sucked, whether considered by itself or relative to competition. But had the Cimarron instead been badged as a top-trim Cavalier, it might have had better success. People would have expected tepid performance and a so-so interior, and wouldn’t have been put off by such things.

    The same goes for anyone trying to build a better 3 Series. You’re not going to meet anyone’s expectations, because the 3 Series already exists. Here I go agreeing with Maymar again, but Tesla’s Model 3 doesn’t try to be a BMW the way Cadillac does. Build what you’re good at. Stick to your core values. I think a good example of this is Lincoln’s latest Navigator. That vehicle is completely embracing its Lincoln-ness. There’s nothing remotely European about the inside or outside of it, and it’s all the better for it.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      Agreed. There’s quite a contrast between the work Cadillac did to turn a Nova into the Seville, and slapping some wreaths and some gingerbread on the Cavalier.

      Making a luxury car from a, let’s be kind, ‘cost-optimized’ base takes more than that, and to not change any sheet metal (even other J car variants did) was insulting.

      1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

        Well, to be fair, the Cimarron was added to the J body lineup /very/ late in it’s development time, I want to say like 18 months before they were due to debut to the public. This is why it hardly had any differences to it’s lower siblings. Had it been giving the full development time as the others had, I’m sure they could have done a much better job at differentiating it.

        1. outback_ute Avatar

          Of course, but it is a large part of why it gets criticized

        2. Sjalabais Avatar

          It’s the whole process that failed here: An independent Cadillac would probably never have accepted such a half-baked mess, but what counts is the result, nonetheless. And that was just not what they were aiming at.

        3. Sjalabais Avatar

          It’s the whole process that failed here: An independent Cadillac would probably never have accepted such a half-baked mess, but what counts is the result, nonetheless. And that was just not what they were aiming at.

        4. Sjalabais Avatar

          It’s the whole process that failed here: An independent Cadillac would probably never have accepted such a half-baked mess, but what counts is the result, nonetheless. And that was just not what they were aiming at.

      2. Zentropy Avatar

        Wow, I had no idea the Seville was derived from the Nova. Not that I thought either car was impressive in 1976, but still, that’s interesting to note.

        1. Amac Avatar

          It was. But it was heavily revised, and shared almost no parts. All the bodywork was Cadillac. All the interior was Cadillac. Suspension got substantial revisions. OK, the engine was Oldsmobile. The first Seville was a long, long way from a badge engineering job. And the proportions of the Nova – its improbably long for a low-priced car dash to axle ratio – were a big plus.

  6. Fuhrman16 Avatar

    Well, I’d say it wasn’t all that bad at the start. You have to remember that this was developed around ’79/80. And as far as the automotive industry was concerned, it was the end of days. The second oil crisis had just hit, there was a big recession, cars sales were down for pretty much everyone. Viewed in that world, the Cinimmaron was a pretty daring and a forward thinking for American standards.
    And when it debut in 1982, it compared well to the competition. BMW was still selling the E21 3 series, which was ridiculously spartan by luxury car standards and its sole engine option made less than a 100 horsepower. The Cadillac’s closest rival, the Audi 4000, looked even worse. It too was based off a humbler car, and offered either a 55 hp diesel or 75 hp gas engine. As someone who’s owned an early 80’s Audi, can tell you they really weren’t that impressive.
    The problem comes when you compare these three only three years later, in 1985. BMW released the all new E30, which was the benchmark for luxury sports for years. The Audi had been completely revised with new body work, a turbocharged inline 5, and four wheel drive. While the Cadillac simply got some new headlights and the same upgrades as it’s lower J car brothen (option v6, optional 5 speed, fuel injection), things it probably should have (and most likely could have) had from the start.
    Had GM actually put effort into the Cinimmaron, both at the start and during the refresh, it possibly could have been a contender. But they didn’t, so it would up being a joke.

    1. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

      two minor corrections on the Audi 4000, the turbo engine was only on the Ur-Quattro coupe, the 4000S Quattro sedan, the Coupe Quattro and the FWD 4000S and Coupe all shared the same 2.2 liter NA 5 cylinder which was far from slow. Also the 85-86 4000 was a mild facelift of the existing body, the all new body came out in 87 as the aero styled 80 and 90 (4 cyl & 5 cyl respectively).

    2. Maymar Avatar

      Also, has the BMW eta engine been semi-erased from history? Those weren’t exactly a huge performance jump over the 2.8.

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        The 2.7L eta in the E30 gave comparable straight-line performance to the 2.8. The cars weighed about the same, and 0-60 was in the mid 9s for manuals. The 2.8 V6 had 4 more horsepower than the BMW six (125 vs 121) but less torque (155 vs 170). Personally, I favor torquey engines over revvers and inline sixes over vees, but objectively the acceleration was similar. The RWD chassis of the E30 is far superior to that of the FWD Cimarron, though, so the BMW would dance all over it in corners.

        Full disclosure: I owned an eta E30 and absolutely loved it, and it’s the only car I ever regret selling. I had a friend with a 2.8 Cavalier– which was lighter and faster than the Cimarron– and wouldn’t have traded him. I’m obviously biased, though. I have a much stronger “big-six” 535i now but would rather have my 325e back.

    3. DanielAMcAllen Avatar

      BMW was still selling the E21 3 series, which was ridiculously spartan by luxury car standards

      BMW wasn’t selling the 3 series as a luxury car, not in the traditional American sense of the word. Mercedes was the luxury European car. BMW was the driver’s car with luxury touches available, not a luxury car.

  7. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    Yeah the original 4 cylinder Cimarron was cynical piece of marketing and a generally crap car. The V6 made it less crap but at the end of the day an optioned up Cavalier with a Cadillac badge and a luggage rack was never a serious rival to a BMW 3 series or a Mercedes 190. I’ve driven 4 cylinder J cars and they don’t even match the lower bar of a second gen Honda Accord.

  8. desmo Avatar

    Sheet metal of american cars of this era was very poor quality and could not compete with the germans.
    Restoration of a BMW E30 or Mercedes W123 is easy. But nearly impossible for contemporary Cadillacs of this time, let alone Cimarron.

  9. salguod Avatar

    “Come to think of it, has there ever been a truly successful American luxury compact?”

    The Seville of the mid 70s was based on the compact Nova and, as I recall, was quite successful. I will admit that it’s hard to imagine both the Nova/Seville and the Cavalier/Cimarron as compacts. The former seem like much larger cars.

    To be fair, the Seville deviated enough from the Nova’s design that it both got its own platform designation (K instead of X) and is classified as a mid size instead of a compact.

    Which makes my point invalid, I guess.

    Carry on, nothing to see here.

    1. 0A5599 Avatar

      Some of the lines blur because size standards have shifted, luxury doesn’t have a precise definition, and “successful” is also vague.

      Do you exclude Corvette and Allante for only having two seats? First generation Cougar for being sold by middle-child Mercury?

      Can we count a J-body Chrysler Lebaron? What about a Fox body Lincoln Mark VII?

      The Cord 810 was called a “baby Duesenberg” at the time. Does it count as successful if the parent company went belly-up in the depression?

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        The Lincoln Mk VII is hardly compact, being a full two feet longer than the Cimarron. It’s a full-sized luxury coupe.

        1. 0A5599 Avatar

          Note my comment about size standards shifting. If the Mark VII had come out a decade earlier, when the compact designation was based on wheelbase (EPA standards switched to interior volume measurements in the late 70’s), it would have been a compact. The Chevy Nova: Compact @ 111″ WB The A-body Dodge Dart was also a compact and had the same wheelbase. The Mark VII rode on a 108.5″ WB. For comparison, the contemporary Coupe de Ville had a 121.5″ wheelbase–THAT’s certainly a full-sized luxury coupe. Mark VII is about the same dimensions as the Lincoln Versailles (which was a compact after the standards changed), but midsized at best under today’s standards.

  10. standfast24 Avatar

    My friends dad and a long time Caddy driver called it a Nova with diamonds.

  11. George G Avatar
    George G

    My Mom had one of the first generation ones. 4 cylinder with the 5 speed manual. Honestly, she loved that little car. It was gutless as hell, but, it had a great interior, it had very nice red paint, was very reliable, and lasted a long time. I agree it wasn’t a “Cadillac.” But it was a nice car, that she enjoyed, and it treated her very well.

    1. Amac Avatar

      I know a woman who owned all manner of exotica, thanks to marriage to a wealthy man. She even once had an “enormous Mercedes that was always in the shop and had power windows that could take your hand off,” – yes, a 600. But she’ll tell you the best car she ever had was her blue Cavalier, known as Bessie. Baffling.

  12. Craig Zimmerman Avatar
    Craig Zimmerman

    Wasn’t “wanna-be luxury” the mission statement of Buick?

    Somewhere I had heard that Cadillac decided, sometime in the mid-50s that they no longer aspired to be the “Standard of the World”. Instead they would go for “Mass-Market Luxury”, again, eating from Buick’s supposed plate.

    Perhaps this was one of the first signs that General Motors had developed a Death Wish.

  13. Slam1263 Avatar

    I loved my 1984 Cavalier.
    The clutch fork failed at 50k, it was made of a formed piece of mild steel.
    Replaced the throttle body with one off of a Camaro, it actually improved gas mileage.
    Wrapped it around a power pole late one night, after hitting black ice.
    Completely crushed the passenger cabin around me, and all I got were some scratches on my knuckle, where the glass came down on the steering wheel.

  14. Indiana Mike Avatar
    Indiana Mike

    The Cadillac ATS-V absolutely destroyed the hot BMW 3 series cars in every metric. Unless you have driven them both, as have I, don’t comment.

  15. LouAnnWatson Avatar

    I worked for Cadillac one summer between semesters at college…it was 1976 and the car that was my favorite was the Cadillac Seville. the car had a luxurious interior and was very comfortable…it had a rather soft ride, but was very stylish and enough power for it’s size. someone told me the motor was built by Oldsmobile, not that it mattered. just a nice car in my opinion.

  16. Gordon M. Strauss Avatar
    Gordon M. Strauss

    I had a 1982. It was the best car I’ve owned, starting in 1966 and including this moment. No joke! It was the opposite of a lemon. When I sold it nine years later, it had 276,000 miles on it, and all the original drivetrain. It was underpowered, but spectacularly reliable. Also, highway mileage was so good that I stopped bragging because people assumed I was BSing them. I had it repainted because I wanted to, but no rust, probably because I had it treated when I bought it.

    I never disputed any criticism about the car, except those that disagreed with what I just wrote. It was “only” a Cimarron, but it was Plato’s ideal Cimarron.

    That’s the truth.

  17. Amac Avatar

    You noted you couldn’t find a photo of the Cimmaron interior. As I recall, the seats were upholstered in a very nice obviously labor intensive tuck and roll pattern. Unfortunately, it was the only part of the interior that came up to luxury standards, as they went Cavalier cheap on the rest. Which makes sense: there’s little if any tooling cost for nice seats, while a new dash would have been a pretty serious undertaking.

    Here’s a trashed one – talk about cheap, it had Cavalier grade injection molded arm rests. But the seat itself: nice.

  18. cheeflo Avatar

    My brother had one. He called it a Chevrolac.

  19. Horologium Avatar

    Lincoln’s first compact was not the LS. It was the wretched Lincoln Versailles, which was nothing more than a gussied-up Ford Granada/Mercury Monarch, with a fake spare-tire bump on the trump lid and a high price for its time (it was the most expensive Sedan Lincoln offered). It was better appointed than the Cimarron (no hand-crank windows or manual transmissions), but unlike the Seville (nee Nova), it didn’t look much different than the Monarch, which was sold in the same showroom (the quad headlights and the trunk bulge were the only major differences). The Granada/Monarch/Versailles were not known for their reliability, either.

    1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

      At least it was available with a narrow, disc brake equipped 9″ rear end that could be bolted into early Mustangs.

  20. lightray9a Avatar

    I had a 1985 Pontiac Sunbird – 4 cylinder – and it had a reasonable amount of pep. No Corvette for sure, but better than 0-60 in 14 seconds. They must have improved it.

    1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

      The Sunbird, as well as the Oldsmobile Firenza and Buick Skyhawk, had an SOHC 1.8L, which was the standard engine by ’85. And the pushrod four banger was enlarged to 2 liters. The Sunbird was even available with a turbocharged version of the 1.8 by this time.

      1. lightray9a Avatar

        The Big 3 had a hell of a time figuring out how to build a decent small car. Took them 30 years, I’d say.

  21. Casey Avatar

    LOL. You want a good small luxury car get an Accord or Integra. Toyota & Mercedes have their good points but I’m fairly familiar with different Hondas. GM still doesn’t get it.

  22. SonfObamaisaSCUMBAG Avatar

    Recalled that one well. I was on a first date with a hottie, and in the process of doing a double take on a Cim coming up on my side, I dumped my drink all over her. Bad date due to a bad car

  23. Manxman Avatar

    I bought one in blue, new from the Caddy dealer in Austin, Texas. It was a first gen with the four and auto, The dealer didn’t want them and kept them in an overflow lot out of sight. It was highly discounted. The fit and finish, especially the leather seats, were on par with the bigger Cads. It was slow, but did alright in traffic. The ride and steering were very acceptible. The heating, ac, radio was much better than the competition. With a turbo it would have been a nice little car. I never drove the v6 version so I have no basis for comparison. I will say that it was reliable, comfortable and stable. As I recall the tires were a special size made by Goodyear that were expensive when replaced. Not a terrible car but not a bad one either.

  24. Theodore Sandberg Avatar
    Theodore Sandberg

    Cimarron doesn’t deserve the bad rap. A$ 12,000 cavalier? I bought a 1987 z-24. Fully loaded. Sunroof, cassette player, pw, locks, etc.sticker was $11827

  25. Robert1969 Avatar

    Thanks for this article. So many writers looking back at the Cadillacs of the 80s look at horsepower and start cackling.

    The horsepower for Cadillac’s of the 80s were pretty much on par with the competition, but everyone will focus on that without any apparent knowledge of the historical context because all of their were pretty much on par with that decade. And the whole conversation pretty much end there because that’s all contemporary writers can seem to think of.

    But that aside, the Cimarron got better and quite refined by time GM flipped the kill switch. It’s good to see someone acknowledge this. By time the V-6 came out Cadillac had nailed the driving dynamics.

    According to a Motor Trend comparison was quicker to 60 than the BMW 318i, quicker in the 1/4 mile, and the best lateral grip. In a Popular Mechanics comparison, it pretty much matched its success, but against higher trim levels of Mercedes 190E and BMW 325es, and also proved quieter at 60mph than both those registering 65 decibels, while the BMW and Mercedes registered 67 and 69 decibels in that test.

    As far as successful compacts by American luxury cars, the first and second generation CTS sold very well, but it was closer to a midsize csr, but priced in that segment.

  26. Robert1969 Avatar

    Oh, something I should have mentioned. From ‘85 on the Cimarron got four more inches of hood length to accommodate the V-6, and it really improved it’s looked and no longer looked like the Cavalier.

    But first impressions are so important, and the minimal differentiation from the Cavalier in its first year really hurt the Cimarron’s chance to take advantage of its later improvement.