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New Car Review: Road impressions - Cadillac Seville STS

12 October 1998

by Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

SEE ALSO: Cadillac Buyer's Guide

oldsmobileIt's a funny old world. Automotive journalists will get up in Europe, brush their teeth with Colgate, shave with Gillette, put on their Levis, tuck into their Kellogg's cornflakes, listen to Madonna on the radio and contemplate whether to see the new Spielberg film in the evening. So far so good as far as American cultural imperialism is concerned. So far. and then the latest Cadillac Seville arrives for a road-test. Yank-mobile they cry in unison, a curse only one up from impeachment. Justified? Reasonable? Or sheer prejudice? Probably a little bit of each. American cars have, by and large bombed in Europe for a variety of reasons. The roads are narrower, the cost of fuel is at least triple of the US price and somehow the natives convinced themselves that the last American built automobiles worthy of a name were the Jeeps which waded ashore on June 6, 1944.

The big American companies were not particularly bothered, the home markets were huge and the two giants- GM and Ford- had and still have pretty successful subsidiaries making cars all over Europe. Built by the locals and bought by the locals. Henry Ford -unless I am very much mistaken- started to build cars in Manchester England as far back as 1932. Times have changed. The Europeans invaded the United States with their cars and with varying degrees of success. Renault failed miserably as did Peugeot, Rover (Sterling not Range) Yugo, Alfa Romeo to name but some. Others, notably Mercedes-Benz and BMW have done very well and of course the States became an extremely lucrative market for the Japanese manufacturers. Now GM has decided that it was time "re-invade" Europe, this time with the Cadillac Seville. Will they succeed? Is it sufficiently international? Is it a viable alternative to the 7 series BMW or the S class Mercedes?

oldsmobileThis is what I have been trying to figure out over the past few days whilst driving the Seville STS with its brilliant 4.6 litre V8 DOHC engine- surely one of the finest anywhere in the World.

It has an awful lot of standard equipment such as a 4 wheel anti lock braking system, side air bags, traction control, a Bose audio system and an engine which can be driven for 50 miles without coolant in what GM calls a "limp home" mode. To my surprise things such as Z rated tyres are an extra 250 dollars. This is puzzling because if the car is capable of speeds only Z rated tyres can cope with then fitting it with tyres, which can not cope with, high speeds -regardless of speed limits- is grossly irresponsible. I am sure this will be rectified in the future. Asking 495 dollars for a wood trim package- steering wheel and shift knob on top of a basic price of $46,995 also seems pretty outrageous and strikes me as pure greed.

Still, these are details. The question is -how does the STS go? Would it, could it, sell in Europe and elsewhere. The company is apparently planning to sell it in 40 countries.

In the United States it has -from I can gather- a serious image problem. Whilst the STS is a very quick automobile at first glance or even at second glance, a non-automotive person would simply say oh, well, another Caddy, another lady with a blue rinse, thick glasses and a probable top speed of 25 miles per hour...everywhere! I've lived in Naples Florida -this is exactly what they do. The problem is there are only so many old ladies in Florida and they cannot sustain the Cadillac factory, certainly not at a profitable level. And yet, judging from reactions to the car in Northern California the image prevails- other drivers could not get away from "my" Caddy fast enough, assuming that I was yet another member of the blue rinse brigade. Balding maybe, blue never!

oldsmobileOn the way to Monterey I had a chance to observe what people were driving. I can honestly say that I did not see one person driving a Caddy who was under 70 years old. A great shame because the STS is a very good car. It is very quick, very comfortable and fun to drive although with certain reservations. For someone like me who is used to firm rides and razor sharp handling a la BMW everything was just a little bit too vague, particularly the steering. For someone who is happy to settle for the "home" comforts with the added bonus of an outstanding engine it might be just fine. I can see it selling in Belgium where they have a long tradition of American cars. In the Middle East, where they would appreciate the excellent A/C. In Germany it will only sell to tycoons who want to be different, who do not want to be seen in Mercs and BMs but they already have a home made alternative, the seriously understated yet brilliant Audi 8.

I am not convinced that the marketing costs of trying to sell it in 40 countries will ever be re-couped. At US gas/ petrol prices maybe. It is very frustrating for Europeans to see the price of a barrel of crude oil at something like 13 dollars whilst still paying astronomical prices for their motoring. On the other hand governments know that people will eat less before they give up their cars and they take full advantage of it.

It will be interesting to see whether I am right or wrong. Those who will buy the car -who can afford it in the first place and can afford to run it- will have a great time cruising in total comfort and at speeds, which will not embarrass them on the German autobahns. They will be able to keep up with everything apart from the odd 911. It will also have great curiosity value with the neighbors. Whether they -and the rest of Europe- are ready remains to be seen. Purely on merit, leaving all other considerations aside and at the prices at which it is being offered in Europe, it is a perfectly viable alternative. The rest is down to the natives. As for the future of Cadillac in the United States it would seem bad form for an outsider to query the future of one of the oldest, greatest names in the history of the automobile. And yet, I wonder. The Catera from what I can gather is not exactly eating BMW 528s for lunch and with the imminent arrival of the new Jaguar in that market segment things will get tougher by the day.

I dare say that there are some exceedingly fine brains at GM HQ trying to figure out the problem right now. They have immense resources at their disposal. Maybe, just maybe, the sensible thing would be to move even more upmarket -with correspondingly huge profit margins- on a reduced scale and accept the fact that Caddy in the next century will be an extremely exclusive and expensive product competing with the forthcoming Mercedes Maybach and VW's new Bentley