Final Inspection

From Worst to Best: Cadillac Cimarron Vs. ATS


The ATS is looking like a big success in part because the development team focused on creating a true sports sedan, lighter than all the key competitors in the segment, including the 3-Series. It is not just a downsized luxury car.

Judging by the widespread raves it’s winning from even the toughest critics, Cadillac’s new ’13 ATS sport sedan is a worthy competitor to the iconic BMW 3-Series.

Car and Drivermakes that case in a recent cover story, as does The Wall Street Journal, with auto critic Dan Neil doling out lavish praise for the small Caddy.

And it only took 31 years.

Astoundingly, Ed Kennard, then Cadillac general manager and General Motors vice president, made that same boast in 1981, when Cadillac’s last small-car entry, the Cimarron, was introduced.

Cimarron is the name of a river that flows from the northeastern tip of New Mexico into Kansas and then Oklahoma, where it joins the Arkansas River. But in automotive circles, the majestic river has been tainted forever by the sub-par Cadillac that took its name.

Kennard was the ultimate sales guy, an ever-smiling Texan who regaled those of us attending the press preview at GM’s Mesa, AZ, Proving Ground that Cimarron would be “a BMW killer” and also take on the Audi 4000, Datsun Maxima and Toyota Cressida.

But the only car that got killed was the Cimarron, a thinly disguised cousin of the Chevrolet Cavalier and other members of GM’s front-drive J-car stable of “world cars” that included Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile nameplates.

At first, automotive reporters weren’t all that critical of the car, but most of us wondered how a seemingly tiny Caddy with an 88-hp 4-banger under the hood – Cadillac’s first 4-cyl. engine since 1914 – would be able to take on the big boys in the small luxury segment. Moreover, Cimarron’s only truly distinctive Cadillac elements were its grille, famed crest and gussied up interior.

That didn’t bother the effusive Kennard. “We’re shooting for younger, more affluent buyers, and our traditional image has no appeal to them whatsoever,” he said.

Pushed to market in just14 months almost as an afterthought of the massive J-car program, Cimarron was lacking in numerous areas compared with its potential competitors. It had no electronic fuel injection, automatic climate control, signal-seeking radio or other niceties found in luxury imports.

Even power windows were optional. Jerry Flint, the late WardsAuto columnist who at the time was a New York Times reporter, noted the test Cimarron had hand-crank windows.

“Geez, Ed, who’ll buy a luxury car with windows you have to roll up and down by hand?”

“Don’t worry, Jerry, we have automatic windows,” Kennard assured him with a grin. Yes, for extra cost, but this was supposed to be a Cadillac, “The Standard of the World.” Nor was Cadillac overly proud of its little car, initially calling it “Cimarron by Cadillac” rather than a full-fledged member of the family.

Reporters asked one GM engineer what was different about the Cimarron compared with its Chevrolet Cavalier cousin. “Oh, about $6,000,” he glibly replied. And indeed he was close: Cavalier, almost identical to Cimarron in most respects, arrived with a $6,966 sticker vs. Cimarron’s $12,131.

The two oil crises of the 1970s created huge demand for fuel-efficient small cars that carried over into the early 1980s. Kennard said he was motivated by unhappy Cadillac dealers who had only big gas-guzzlers in their showrooms. Fitting neatly with his salesman’s optimistic outlook, he targeted 30,000 deliveries the first year and actually hit 26,000. It soon became clear, however, that Cimarron was destined to join Ford’s Edsel as one of the biggest busts in automotive history.

It took six years for GM to offer a standard V-6 in the car. Even then, sales sank to a lowly 6,454 units during its last 12 months on the market. The final Cimarron rolled unceremoniously off the line on June 3, 1988. During its seven years in production, 132,499 were sold.

The rear-drive ATS, by comparison, is by all accounts a technological marvel priced in various configurations from $33,000 to $55,000. A short list of options includes three engine choices, all-wheel drive, 6-speed manual gearbox, adaptive cruise control and much more.

The ATS is looking like a big success in part because the development team focused on creating a true sports sedan, lighter than all the key competitors in the segment, including the 3-Series. It is not just a downsized luxury car.

Critics such as the WSJ’s Neil even take a few swipes at the newest 3-Series by observing it has grown “larger and heavier” and maybe a bit too refined for those who covet dynamic handling. And that, most critics agree, is exactly what the ATS delivers.

It took a while, but Cadillac finally has gotten it right. 

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Oct 26, 2012

The Cimarron was coolly received by Cadillac buyers. First-year sales were only 25,968, about a third what Cadillac anticipated.[4] 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.

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What's Final Inspection?

WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.


David E. Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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