Top Gear has, over the years, been very good at explaining why they have their opinions. However, this is one time where they may not be right in my eyes. The Lexus SC430 has a lot of reasons behind it for being underwhelming. But, crucially, it never really ruined a nameplate. Lexus may have made a mess of the SC nameplate, but people are still buying everything else they make. The SC was bad, but it wasn’t a car that actually sent a brand into a tailspin. That, friends, represents far greater levels of failure–a level of failure that, in my opinion, has only been seen once or twice. However, I’m looking for a car that was bad for the same reasons as the sacrilegious Lexus, but did the job of destroying a reputation.
That car is the Cadillac Cimarron. In fact, there’s other, bigger reasons for why this car was so wretched. Here’s the main issue: The Lexus may have been offensive to the brand faithful, but the Cimarron changed the game and taught everyone else a lesson. It was awful in every single way, while the Lexus could claw back up a few rungs of the ladder. Lexus didn’t alienate its buyers with the drop of a hat. Nor did they teach their entire market segment a six-year-long lesson on “what not to do”.
Back in the early 1980s, compact luxury cars were becoming popular. The whole idea of paying a relatively reasonable amount of money for a car bearing a revered badge, with a reputation for performance and quality, was a home run. The Mercedes-Benz 190, BMW 3-Series, and Audi 90 were all popular for those reasons. Cadillac, which had some issues at that time, but was still known as a respected marque, saw the new segment as a necessity to stay relevant and to generate much-needed revenue. However, their method is known now as quite a bad one.
The Chevrolet Cavalier was new to the market at the time. Not a lot was great about it, but crucially (in GM’s myopic eyes at the time), there wasn’t anything wrong with it. It was a simple, honest compact car which went forward, backwards, and (passably) around corners. It was the right size, the right weight, and the car’s development had been paid for already. General Motors, at this point, made their fatal error. Instead of looking hard at the BMW E30 3-Series, Volvo 240, Saab 900, and the new Mercedes 190, which had been developed as all-new designs, General Motors did the opposite, and used an existing car for their entry-level Cadillac sedan.
In the end, Cadillac certainly learned its lesson, but gave itself a wound which, although is healing, still hasn’t fully closed up. The Cimarron was a Cavalier with some extra chrome, leather, and a set of alloy wheels. While it was marketed against the 3-Series, it was a laughably bad competitor, with wheezy engines, pathetic build quality, and an embarrassingly high price for a car that was largely a Chevrolet. Even though it brought new buyers to the brand, Cadillac did not retain these new buyers. Import buyers looked to it as a joke, and domestic luxury buyers saw it as an affront to the traditional V8-engined American institution. The Cimarron, along with the diesel debacle, V8-6-4, and the decrease in general quality of product, was the straw that broke the camel’s back of Cadillac’s hard-earned reputation.
While much is known about the general terribleness of the Cimarron, the effect it had was immense. Cadillac lost its first opportunity to capitalize on the compact luxury market, and has not successfully made a compact luxury car until now (the ATS is a great car and does what the Cimarron failed to do). They then lost the battle in the upper end of the market, as their penny-pinching doorstop of a car made people run towards Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar in the Eighties. Finally, no matter what they tried, they kept losing market share to the German (and later Japanese) luxury names because people remembered what happened from 1982 to 1988.
So, what’s going to make it worse than the SC430? The SC430 got decent reviews when it was new and even though it’s not remembered fondly by enthusiasts, its owners certainly enjoyed them and were probably proud of them. The Cimarron never sold well and even today is still considered to be one of the worst cars ever sold in America. Lexus didn’t ruin themselves with the SC430 because they had no real issue in that segment in the first place, and they weren’t on their back when they launched it. The Cadillac Cimarron, on the other hand, ruined Cadillac’s name, has never been spoken of fondly by enthusiasts, and, crucially, was lambasted by the general public during its period on sale.
-Albert S. Davis
13 thoughts on “Top Gear was wrong. The Lexus SC430 was by far not the worst car ever.”
I wholeheartedly agree with your choice of the Cadillac Cimarron as the worst car ever made and that Top Gear got it wrong in picking the Lexus. However, in their defense, they did flash the Cimarron on the screen as one of the (many) examples of bad American cars. And then they proceded to rule out choosing an American car for the prize because they were going to give it to Richard Hammond who is a fan of American cars and thus might not get the joke. So the show was at least trying to be consistent.
But no doubt, Cadillac made a giant turd of a car that was way worse than any Lexus.
I see your point and yes, they probably pulled that because Hammond is fond of American cars. However, the Lexus is at least passable at being a car. The Cadillac won’t pass that test even if you dumb it down.
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The Cimarron was pretty ugly! Completely forgot about it — and it was quite forgettable — till you made me conjure up that ugly image again! Enjoyed the forgettable memory!
It certainly was forgettable. I’m happy to say I’ve never seen one on the street–I don’t expect to anytime soon.
Top Gear is a comedy show from a country that doesn’t own a car industry,so I don’t think we should take their opinions too seriously.
True. I was just pointing out an error in judgement, and that they whiffed on just how bad old American cars from the Eighties really were.
Your observations about the Chevy-based Cadillac are generally correct, but the car was based on the GM X-body, which in its Chevy guise was the Citation, not the Cavalier. Also a POS, BTW.
Actually, no. It was the J-body platform. There was no X-body Cadillac, the most expensive X-abomination was the Oldsmobile Omega. For how dim-witted GM was in the early Eighties, they somehow managed not to make fools of themselves THAT badly.
“In the end, Cadillac certainly learned its lesson”?? Really? Have you not heard of the Cadillac ELR? The 80 thousand dollar version of the 40 thousand dollar Chevy Volt? Hoonestly, you could take every reference to “Cavalier” I this article and replace it with “volt”, likewise change Cimarron to ELR and the entire article would still ring nearly just as true.
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Hunter, while I agree with you that the ELR is a very good modern day example of the mistake they made in ’82, there’s two things I’d like to point out.
1. This article was written in October–neither Nick (who would probably agree with you) nor myself had driven one yet, although now that both of us have, I’d say that I agree too. Neither of us had any idea of what the ELR was like yet.
2. Cadillac has announced that not only will there not be a 2015 ELR, but the 2016 was “cancelled indefinitely.” So, while they lost the development cost, they aren’t going to dig themselves a bigger hole and keep selling what is lipstick on a pig.
The ELR may be a modern-day Cimarron, but it’s not at all a car I’d call garbage for what it is. At least it has some good points. The Cimarron was a Dumpster fire.
Yes the brits were,.. well, ridiculous when they branded the SC 430 as “the worst”. This car chaps their ass, as Merc., BMW, eurocruser groupies. The SC 430 does everything just as well as their teutonic competitors, with 1/10 of the maintenance costs/time in shop.
Hey Top Gear, get over it OK?
You’re forgetting the two criteria they had for picking the worst car in history:
1. It must be terrible, but also expensive.
2. The car must have come from a company that should have known better. (eg. Ferrari, Bugatti, Volkswagen, Fiat, Toyota, Lexus, etc.) Watching the show, you know that they don’t view American car companies as being in the same tier as those aforementioned brands.
I didnt forget. Cadillac absolutely should have known better than to sell a compact lux car and base it on a common man’s Cavalier. Also it was pretty expensive for a microwaved J car.