The cars we loved.
They said it couldn’t be done. High performance and front wheel just did not go together in the minds of enthusiast? For much of the 80’s and 90’s American automakers touted European inspired performance in what passed for sports sedans in cars like the Chevy Lumina. The problem may have been that they were inspired by the wrong things. As more cars claimed Euro inspiration, their front wheel drive motivation was in stark contrast to the rear wheel drive Jaguar, Mercedes or BMW’s they allegedly benchmarked. Even most of the emerging Japanese luxury brands were embracing rear wheel drive. Arguably, the
era of the modern American sports sedan started with the front wheel drive Ford Taurus SHO. It had a distinct international flavor, but owed more to European Fords than anything else. Over at GM, the move to front wheel drive in large sedans made it a stand out in the American automotive industry. Ford clung to rear wheel drive in its big sedans like the Crown Vic, while Chrysler had made the move to front motivation with its LH cars.
A New Kind of American Sports Sedan
The Taurus proved that America could build a true sports-sedan. It was a little crusty around the edges, but got the job done. Cadillac set out to prove that it could build a sport sedan with a truly American character, adding credence to fading taglines
like “Standard of the World” or “Cadillac Style”. Fresh off the heels of lessons learned from the Allante, Cadillac would break the front wheel drive performance barrier that had held many cars back, including the Taurus SHO. That barrier was usually felt in the form of torque steer , resulting in violent vibrations transmitted to the steering wheel in cars with much more than 200hp. The market was becoming crowded with capable mid-sized sport sedans like the Dodge Spirit R/T and the before mentioned SHO, but these were based on middle-of-the road cars. No one it seemed was attempting a large front wheel drive performance sedan.
So when news came that Cadillac would launch a new flagship performance sedan, some were skeptical. The 1992 Seville STS (Sport Touring Sedan) riding on a revised “K-body” platform would be front wheel drive and be powered by a big 4.9L V8. The look of the new Seville would be sleek and modern, while retaining design cues that identified it as a Cadillac. Out of the gate, the Seville garnered praise for its interior, ride and handling, but was criticized for the use of an old fashioned pushrod engine in the age of the multi-valve dual overhead cam. At 250hp, it adequately moved the big Caddy with some authority. The new car still had some handling quirks typical to front wheel drive. Problems aside, it still garnered praise, becoming Motor Trend magazine’s 1992 Car of the Year.
Getting Its Groove On
OnThe arrival of the Northstar V8 changes the nature of the STS overnight. More than an engine, the Northstar system was a high-tech performance package centered on a 4.6L DOHC engine that produced 295hp. The new 32 valve aluminum engine made a profound impact on the character of the STS, leading many to call it a four door hot rod. Stepping on the gas would yeild the ever faint sound of a Camaro like V8 roar from the quad tipped exaust, tempered of course within the confines of a luxurious Cadillac interior. 0 to 60 times were in the low 7 second range and top speed was closer to 150 mph. By today’s standards, those numbers are less than spectacular, but remember, this was a Cadillac sedan in the early 90’s.
The STS performed better than Inifiniti’s Q45, Lexus LS400 and BMW’s 750i – all rear wheel drive cars. Nothing coming from America could really touch it. The Dodge Spirit R/T came the closest, but being a Dodge and not a Chrysler and having about the same horsepower as the lower level Seville SLS, it was outclassed.Many drivers were surprised to find that the STS had none of the handling quirks of other high-powered front drivers. GM used its most impressive array of technical bits in its flagship brand to overcome any of the tendencies common to many front wheel drive cars of the day. Special attention to power delivery smoothness and handling dynamics paid off. An unequal-length control arm rear suspension aided in comfort and stability while accelerometers at each wheel progressively measured G forces and would adjust the shocks accordingly.
Press Core Darling
The automotive press was all smiles. The STS stayed on many 10 best lists for years. Cadillac had finally arrived with a sports sedan that could rival anything coming from Europe or Japan for the price.The Seville STS put Cadillac on the map where the Allantie was just a high price novelty out of the reach to most buyers. Not that the STS was cheap, at more than $40,000, its base price would rise steadily. Still it was considered a performance bargain over much of its European competition and had far more driving character than any Lexus, Acura or Infiniti. Aside from breaking performance barriers, the STS crossed other thresholds. The Seville might have had the first ergonomically pleasing interior from any GM product. Looking more like it could have come from a Lexus or Mercedes, the fine detailing of the switch gear and the flowing dash looked both elegant and purposeful. Although it used some standard components from other GM cars, the dash and its controls lacked the big Fisher Price look common on nearly every GM car made up to that point.
A Work In Progress
Today, such ergonomics are taken for granted, but it would take years for other GM cars to catch on. Yet all this goodness was not without problems. Occasional quality glitches with paint and interior finishes would show up, but was not enough to blemish what had become America’s most capable sports sedan. Like most other American luxury cars, it had a developed a low longterm resale value and became more a bargain as a used car. Unfortunately, the STS and Seville image may have been eroded by its appeal as a ghetto chariot. Lesser Seville as well as the occasional STS could be found in the ghettos of North America dressed in garish aftermarket chrome add ons, thanks to rap videos. Even gangsta rappers knew a good getaway car when they saw it.
The more substantial legacy of the STS is that it established Cadillac and later much of GM on the right path. Sure the SHOs and R/Ts of the world were impressive cars, but they were not large luxury sedans. They were aimed at less financially endowed enthusiasts. For those who wanted performance oriented “Cadillac style”, the Seville STS was the only game in town. There were few major changes during the 6 year first run of the STS. A restyled Seville in 1998 resulted in a more refined, softer edge car, but the performance of the STS remained intact. The large performance sedan concept was beginning to gain traction, with the Chrysler 300M, Oldsmobile LSS and Aurora following in the footsteps of the STS. Ford, however stuck to its guns and continued with the rear wheel drive Lincoln LS.