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