The Infamous Cadillac Cimarron Was a Bad Caddy but Not As Awful a Car As You Think
This lightly dressed-up Chevrolet Cavalier is the cautionary tale against lazy rebadging, but the rare manual version is surprisingly fun.
The Cadillac Cimarron is widely considered to be one of the worst cars of all time—not because of what it is, but because of what it represents. It was the peak of General Motors' lazy, cynical rebadging to take an inexpensive Chevrolet Cavalier, make minimum modifications to it and try to pass it off as Cadillac's new sport luxury compact car.
The Cimarron's marketing materials are downright comical, touting its front-wheel drive as a positive against objectively better cars like the Volvo GL, Saab 900S and BMW 320i. To its credit, they did list a lot of standard features that were optional on other cars, plus the low cost. However, that cost was low for a reason, and thousands more than its Cavalier base, causing it to be a total sales flop and a laughingstock in the automotive world.
Worse yet, Cadillac wasn't the only GM marque selling a badge-barely-engineered Cavalier. It shared the platform with such luxurious nameplates as the Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza and Pontiac Sunbird—and was still the most expensive of the lot. Even GM got the hint that maybe—maybe!—the Cimarron was the true nadir of their "rebadge everything to sell it under as many brands as possible" schtick. According to Car and Driver, former Cadillac product director John Howell even kept a photo of a Cimarron in his office with the caption, "Lest we forget."
What gets lost in business school intro classes is the car itself. Last year, I went on the World Tour of Texas Lemons Rally in Donnie Petrunak's 1986 Cadillac Cimarron—and a rare Cimarron at that, complete with that rarely purchased five-speed manual transmission.
Donnie had bought it from a 91-year-old lady who purchased it new with her husband to tow behind an RV as they drove around the country. Her husband/travel partner passed away, so it was time for the car to move on to a new owner. As such, this Cimarron came equipped with the ultra-rare factory tow package that was available straight from Cadillac in perfect, complete working condition with additional lighting on the rear, tow-bar hookups installed in the front and the tow bar itself to tug it along.
She and her husband lovingly maintained the little car, which had just over 60,000 miles when Donnie got it, and it came with a fat stack of documentation for everything that had been done over the years. The seller even drove it to meet my friend to hand it off.
The team was Donnie, W. Christian "Mental" Ward and me, which worked out fairly well most of the time given that two tall dudes and all 5'4" of me made it sort of easy to Tetris ourselves into the small car in a way where no one back seat occupant had a front seat all the way up in their crotch for very long. That was a risk! It was cramped inside, and filling it up with three peoples' stuff for a week—a massive pile of which had to be carefully arranged into the empty half of the back seat—definitely compressed the suspension a bit.
If there's any one thing about the car that sort of fit in with boat-era Cadillacs, though, it was the floaty suspension. After we took a lot of the stuff out, you could noticeably see the car transfer its weight to the rear when it set off. It was soft and springy. It lacked the refinement of the self-leveling air suspension in Mom's '89 DeVille, but wasn't too harsh, either.
The interior wasn't fooling any of us, though. The dashboard was a slab of titanium-colored plastic that looked like it belonged in a Blazer. The seats were faux-leather vinyl with cloth inserts. There weren't even cupholders.
The engine in our team's Cimarron wasn't on par with the triple-digit horsepower of its brochure's listed competitors, either. We had a 2.0-liter inline-four that made a whopping 85 horsepower when new. You could get a 2.8-liter V6 capable of producing 130 horsepower, but that would also drive the price up further on your baby-broughamed Cavalier.
Our workaround for this 85-horsepower wonder was to be absolute hooligans to the point where we won the Lemons Rally's true highest prize, "Random Acts of Stupidity." Yet even then, it wasn't bad. It didn't understeer like crazy when we hooned it around. The power steering rack was shorter than most full-sized Caddies of the era and wasn't overboosted to the point of being numb. The shift knob certainly wasn't as satisfying as, say, a modern Honda's, but it wasn't hard to find the gears, either.
If it hadn't been loaded down with three people and enough of our stuff to adhere to the Girl Scouts' motto of "be prepared," that 85 horsepower probably would've even been adequate for this 2,630-pound car. I daresay its RV-touring previous owners probably weren't using it to buy furniture or items in bulk, so it'd do the job.
Maybe you'll write this off as vehicular Stockholm Syndrome from me spending a week making a big, over-2,100-mile lap of most of Texas with two other goofballs, but the Cimarron itself—when considered separately from its context in history—wasn't too bad of a car. It really surprised me that this infamous flop was really just an average little GM sedan as opposed to some Great Car Satan where the small bit of Cadillacifying somehow made it worse. Of course, being an average GM sedan was its cardinal sin.
If you're in the market for an oddball in vehicular history, you can do a lot worse than a Cimarron in terms of drivability. Extremely vague gearboxes, older cars with fixed seats, fire hazards to mind, numerous small-volume marques with impossible parts availability—the list goes on and on.
Meanwhile, the Cimarron is relatively reliable in the way that most older GM cars are: the drivetrain holds up and the heater will roast you in no time—it's just that everything else around that might stop working or come loose.
The only things that gave us trouble on the Lemons Rally were the products of it sitting a while: squishy brakes that could use a bit more bleeding and a loose alternator that popped off its belt during an ice storm in the middle of the rally. Once those were mostly sorted, the owner even took it on track and then drove it back to Florida. (It hit a top speed of 89 mph on Harris Hill Raceway's downhill straight, for what it's worth.)
If something breaks, congratulations! You have four more common GM cars that share most of its important parts.
Would I have bought one in the 1980s? Hell no, the BMW E30 exists. But today? I am attracted to the dingleberries of the automotive world. The truly bizarre cars that maybe should or should not have existed. These total flops, disasters and poorly selling cars grow on you over time. The rarity makes them desirable, like forbidden fruit. Yes, the Cimarron should be remembered first and foremost for its business flop, but it's time to admit that this forbidden fruit didn't smell as much like durian as we thought.
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