The Cadillac Cimarron was a compact car built by Cadillac based on the GM J platform. It was first introduced in 1981 for the 1982 model year, and sold through 1988. During its seven-year model run, 132,499 Cimarrons were built.
Cadillac's first foray into smaller cars, the 1975 Seville, was intended to answer the sales threat from Mercedes-Benz luxury cars. The Seville was a relative success, but the political and economic climate of the 1980s suggested a need for something smaller. A crucial factor was the advent of CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements from the U.S. federal government, which severely penalized automakers if their fleet average fuel economy dropped below the minimum. Another was the success of imported compacts such as the BMW 3 Series, Saab 900, Volvo 240 and Audi 4000.
Since 1976, GM had been developing the J-body, an economy car platform shared across all passenger car divisions. Each had the same 101.2 in (2,570 mm) wheelbase, MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear suspension, and engines. The basic body/frame structure used a unibody with a front subframe that carried the lower front suspension, engine, and transmission. Although Cadillac had intended to introduce the Cimarron later in the 1980s, it was rushed into production early at the insistence of Cadillac dealers. The result was a small, slow car whose "econobox" roots were obvious. Technologically, the Cimarron was far behind the luxury imports with which it was meant to compete.
The name was selected from a list of seven finalists, including J9000 (after the Pontiac), Carmel, Cascade, Caville (similar to Seville and DeVille), Envoy (later revived by sister brand GMC for the GMC Envoy), and Series 62, with a preference for an initial "c". Cimarron topped the list in favorable reaction, though ironically, it evoked economy, while Caville suggested the opposite.
The Cimarron, introduced on May 21, 1981, was initially advertised as "Cimarron, by Cadillac" (similar to how Cadillac's Seville and Eldorado models were marketed in previous years) and sales personnel were instructed by GM to not refer to the car as a Cadillac and to inform customers that it was, technically, not a Cadillac. This strategy failed, and it became the Cadillac Cimarron for 1983. Rear of a 1982 Cimarron showing Cavalier style taillights
The new compact Cadillac had the unconventional, for Cadillac, straight-4 engine (the first 4-cylinder Cadillac since 1914) and a four-speed manual transmission (Cadillac's first manual since 1953), with a three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic automatic optional. Power steering and air conditioning were standard. The high level of standard equipment pushed the base price to US$12,131 (equal to $29,294 today), nearly double its J-body siblings.
The Cimarron was coolly received by Cadillac buyers. First-year sales were only 25,968, about a third what Cadillac anticipated. The Cimarron's compact dimensions did not appeal to traditional Cadillac buyers, while its humble origins and barely competitive performance did little to appeal to the buyers of European imports. The standard four-cylinder engine was also roundly criticized for its lack of both power and refinement. A V6 engine became optional on 1985 models and was made standard in 1987. Its arrival was welcomed, but the V6's availability on less expensive J-platform vehicles still left questions about the Cimarron's value.
Even though the Cimarron had grown comparatively more refined by the end of its production run with more Cadillac-like styling to further distinguish it from other J-cars, buyers stayed away, and the car was discontinued after 1988 with a production run that year of only 6,454 units. The Cimarron's failure was part of a series of events throughout the 1980s and 1990s which eroded the brand's share of the US market from 3.8% in 1979 to 2.2% in 1997.
The Cimarron accomplished at least some of what Cadillac hoped it would. Among early purchasers of Cimarrons, nearly three quarters had never owned a Cadillac before. It also helped bring younger customers to the brand. The average age of a Cimarron buyer was under 50 years old. However, one quarter of long-time Cadillac owners would never buy another Cadillac, instead switching to the new Japanese luxury marques like the 1990 Lexus LS 400. It has been said that the Cimarron did pave the way for the Cadillac CTS, another compact luxury sedan, that was credited with reviving the marque in the 2000s.
Yet even years after the model was discontinued, the Cimarron's legacy remains negative. The car has become a staple of books and articles about bad cars. Forbes placed the Cimarron on its list of "Legendary Car Flops," citing low sales, poor performance and the fact the car "didn't work, coming from a luxury brand." Author Hannah Elliott explained that the Cimarron "appealed neither to Cadillac's loyal followers, who appreciated powerful V8s and Cadillac's domestic luxury edge, nor to buyers who favored Europe's luxury brands, whose cars out-handled and out-classed the Cimarron in every way." In 2009, CNN Money noted in "GM's junk heap" of unsuccessful nameplates that the Cimarron was, "In all important respects, a Chevrolet Cavalier. It also added thousands to the price tag. In all, it was neither a good Cadillac nor a good value. Even GM executives will readily admit today that this was a bad idea." According to Car and Driver, current Cadillac product director John Howell has a picture of the Cimarron on his wall captioned, "Lest we forget." TIME magazine named the car to its list of the 50 worst cars of all time, stating that the Cimarron represented "everything that was wrong, venal, lazy and mendacious about GM in the 1980s ... in a flagrant insult to the good name and fine customers of Cadillac," and that the car "nearly killed Cadillac and remains its biggest shame." The magazine then went one step further, describing the Ford Mondeo-based 2001 Jaguar X-Type as "the English version of the Cadillac Cimarron, a tarted-up insult to a once-proud marque and a financial disaster for the company", although the X-Type received positive reviews from the motoring press and shared far fewer parts with its mass-market siblings that the Cimmaron did, as the notion that it was badge-engineered made the X-Type unpopular.
The Cadillac Cimarron, with mostly cosmetic changes from its lower market siblings, is cited as an example of what not to do when badge engineering a luxury car from a mass market variant. Other manufacturers have since produced badge-engineered luxury cars that have been successful, as these had distinct branding and style, high-quality interior materials, wide range of convenience features, and performance powertrains, attributes key to distinguishing them from mass market equivalents. Top-selling re-badged luxury cars following this trend include the Lexus ES, Acura TL, and Audi A3.