From the September 1984 issue of Car and Driver.
When extravagant luxury and ostentatious opulence are your stock in trade, downsizing presents a difficult problem. The only reason to downsize is to improve efficiency, a goal diametrically opposed to the more profligate appetites. The luxury-versus-efficiency crunch has come to a head at Cadillac with the unveiling of its 1985 de Ville and Fleetwood models, its version of General Motors’ new front-drive C-body cruisers. GM probably could have delayed the front-drive treatment for its big sedan for another year or two—the market has temporarily relaxed its hue and cry for higher fuel efficiency—but the government’s CAFE requirements have made further procrastination too costly.
Not only is a more modern sedan necessary, but it presents Cadillac with the opportunity to broaden its market beyond its traditional clientele, which is both increasing in age and decreasing in number. A more functionally efficient car, Cadillac hopes, will attract some of the luxury buyers who currently turn to overseas manufacturers for their transportation. Of course, the challenge is to attract these new buyers without turning off the old ones.
Striking such a balance is never an easy task, but General Motors has given Cadillac an excellent foundation on which to build. The new C-car, a design shared with the Buick Electra and the Oldsmobile Ninety Eight, is a thoroughly modern, space-efficient large sedan, equipped with front-wheel drive, a unitized body-and-frame construction, and a fully independent suspension. Cadillac’s Fleetwood is two and a half feet shorter, four inches narrower, and about 600 pounds lighter than its rear-drive predecessor, yet it has virtually identical interior space. Fuel economy jumps from 16 to 19 mpg city, and acceleration is also improved. By any objective measure, the new car is a sensible and contemporary luxury package.
Therein lies the problem. General Motors’ premier division doesn’t deal in sensible, practical luxury. A Cadillac exemplifies excess, coddling, substance, and strength. Concerns of ride and space are addressed with inertia and sheer size. A smaller, more efficient car is at odds with this carefully maintained image.
To minimize the shock of downsizing, the Cadillac stylists have folded the Fleetwood’s exterior sheetmetal into familiar patterns. The wedge shape that is part of the generic C-car design has been camouflaged with lines that are crisp and upright. Sharp vertical edges mark all four corners, and long horizontal lines at each end visually enhance the new car’s width. A formally upright rear window and a traditional look for the grille and the taillights complete the family resemblance. These styling cues do add bulk to the 195-inch-long, 3500-pound Fleetwood, but the new car is much less visually imposing than the 226-inch, two-ton-plus luxo-cruiser it replaces. We think its styling is successful enough to attract Cadillac’s traditional buyer, though we doubt that it will do much to broaden the market.
The interior posed less of a problem to the Cadillac designers bent on preserving the traditional image because the downsized cabin is every bit as spacious as the one it replaces. The dash is a split-level affair adorned with chrome beading, panels of simulated leather, a minimal allotment of instruments, and extensive labeling. The door panels are fitted with casket-handle door pulls framed by panels of velour, fake wood, and more chrome beading. Lifelong Cadillac owners will feel perfectly at home, though potential converts may walk away shaking their heads.
From a purely functional standpoint, the two groups are treated equally. There’s as much interior space as anyone could want, with nearly limitless headroom and legroom front and rear; both benches will comfortably seat three. Unfortunately, the seats are as flat as a park bench, and several testers complained that they provided insufficient upper-back support.
The Fleetwood’s powertrain, however, was liked by all. Although Oldsmobile and Buick have a port-injected, 90-degree V-6 as the top engine choice for their C-cars, Cadillac offers the world’s only transverse-mounted front-drive V-8, with an aluminum block to boot. Another Cadillac exclusive is a viscous torque-converter clutch, which locks up earlier, yet more smoothly, than a conventional design does.
These measures endow the front-drive Fleetwood with as much powertrain refinement as any of its predecessors. The 4.1-liter, fuel-injected V-8 idles quietly and smoothly, low-speed acceleration is strong, and throttle response is quick and progressive. The four-speed transaxle deserves much of the credit for this poise as it deftly shuffles through its duties in response to the driver’s demands. The sheer silence of the powertrain is impressive under most circumstances, broken only by a surprisingly strong mechanical hum from the engine when it’s giving its all. Factoring in the 22-mpg C/D observed fuel economy, we find no fault with this powertrain from any potential buyer’s point of view.
Aaron Kiley|Car and Driver
Despite the up-to-date levels of motivation, driving the new Fleetwood is not what we would call a satisfying experience. Cadillac’s handling engineers, like the stylists, apparently felt the need to make the smaller car remind its driver of its larger antecedents. Consequently, the more sophisticated chassis drives much like the land yachts of yesteryear. Every move is soft, languorous, and extended.
Turning the steering wheel produces no immediate response; turn it some more, and eventually the multifarious bushings compress, the soft tires develop some cornering force, the body heels over, and the car actually begins to change direction. In addition, the Fleetwood seems to have little resistance to sharp rocking motions in the pitch plane; a hard press of the throttle sends the nose skyward, and anything but the mildest brake applications drops the front bumper smartly toward the ground.
We can assure you that these exaggerated motions are not caused by the Fleetwood’s strong grip on the road. Its stopping distance from 70 mph is a lengthy 232 feet, and it manages only 0.64 g on the skidpad—the lowest figure we’ve ever recorded for a modern car. This represents a significant loss of adhesion; the last rear-drive Sedan de Ville we tested achieved 0.67 g on the skidpad. To make matters worse, the new Fleetwood so overworked its left-front tire during our roadholding test that the rubber peeled right off the rim, a failure we’d never before experienced during testing on any car. (According to Cadillac’s engineering department, if the tire is inflated to at least 10 psi, such a failure can only occur as a result of a component defect. Our Fleetwood’s tires were set to the recommended 30 psi immediately before the test.) Some of the blame for the low adhesion doubtless belongs to the Uniroyal Tiger Paw Plus all-season tires mounted on our test Fleetwood, but it’s clear that Cadillac’s suspension engineers have heavily biased the chassis calibration toward ride comfort and noise isolation.
One reason for such a one-sided approach may be the new car’s unitized body-and-frame construction, the first in a “large” Cadillac. Although the front suspension, the engine, and the transaxle ride on a rubber-isolated powertrain cradle, the new Fleetwood must do without the rubber-isolated perimeter frame that previously formed the first line of defense against bumps and small road irregularities. To compensate for this lack of isolation, the Cadillac engineers softened every aspect of the suspension, and the result is a very cushy car. Large bumps are enveloped and smothered, small ones are filtered out at ground level, and the car is extremely quiet. Still, the new Fleetwood doesn’t have the nearly total isolation of its predecessor, and it seems significantly less precise in response to control inputs.
Could it be that Cadillac is trying too hard to turn its efficient new sedan into an old-school luxocruiser? To make the Fleetwood fit this role, Cadillac has pushed its styling and handling to extremes inappropriate to the size and design of the new C-bodies. The result is a package with even less balance than the old car enjoyed. Traditional customers may well take a liking to the new model, though we suspect that, given a ch0ice, many would prefer a brand-new old-style Cadillac. The real problem is with the new guard, who we doubt will show much interest in this downsized protector of classic American automotive luxury. The Fleetwood may offer what they want in size and fuel appetite, but it still exudes ostentatious extravagance rather than quiet competence. The mantle has been passed; the ultimate nondriver’s car is still a Cadillac.
We can understand Cadillac’s desire to protect its customer base, but we wish the division had found a way to do so without excluding the younger, more enthusiastic types. A sporty, European-style option package like Buick’s T Type could do wonders for this Cadillac’s appeal. Better yet, GM’s prestige division could take advantage of its well-established de Ville and Fleetwood nameplates and orient one of them toward the traditional market, while letting the other forage for new customers. (Since there is a $4000 difference between the Cadillac C-cars and their lesser brethren, there should be ample room for at least some experimentation of this type.) As things stand now, the new Cadillac does little more than help the General’s CAFE average, while maintaining the division’s lucrative take in a steadily diminishing market.
Cadillac’s new front-drive Fleetwood is not the stuff of car enthusiasts’ dreams. Fears and doubts, not dreams, were the motivating forces behind the development of the Cadillac division’s new cruiser. It has been cunningly and lovingly crafted to appeal to people who already own Cadillacs—people who have expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of smaller, more efficient Cadillacs, people who’ve always liked excessive, inefficient Cadillacs just fine. It is a better and more contemporary Cadillac in every way, but it is all softness and indecision, in sharp contrast to the firm, decisive German cars that have done so much to undermine Cadillac’s traditional status as America’s Number One status car. It is a Cadillac beater, not a Mercedes beater. I found the seat so soft, so wanting in support, that I could not honestly report whether it handled well or not. I found the brake and accelerator pedals hung so high that my foot repeatedly slipped off at crucial moments, to the discomfort of my passengers. Make no mistake, this is a pretty good car, but it is aimed at America’s affluent senior citizens, not you and me. —David E. Davis, Jr.
I shake my head at Cadillac’s self-satisfied refusal to embrace the progressiveness of today’s Detroit. At a time when Lincoln’s Continental Mark VII LSC and Buick’s Electra T Type show that American comfort need not exclude fine road manners and good performance, the new Fleetwood is a reminder of a past when underachievers were the norm. The Electra T Type, which springs from the same C-car shell, is vital and precise, turning in much better performance and behavior and infinitely better feel than the Cadillac. As a result, the Electra is a far better car for good drivers and a much safer car for all drivers. Why, even the old Fleetwood drove better than the new one. Cadillac, spare us the output of your fuddy-duddies and give us the promise of your best boffins. Until then, if you will excuse me, I feel a little ill. —Larry Griffin
Let’s not confuse the issue here. The Cadillac division was not trying to outdo Mercedes with this new front-drive model, nor was it attempting to woo die-hard Audi nuts or corral all the under-35 overachievers. That’s fine by me. There’s nothing wrong with Cadillac’s traditional formula for coddling passengers. So the notion of making it more efficient was okay in this quarter.
The basic styling package is brilliant, one of the neatest shrink jobs in Detroit’s history. The new Fleetwood manages to look like a “real” Caddy but is tightened up enough to appear more “with it” and socially acceptable.
It’s also quiet and rides like whipped cream, so I predict a big hit. Caddy loyalists won’t care much that the handling’s klutzy or that the tires try to peel off the rims at a walk or that the front seat is all wrong or that the drivability is below par. They probably won’t even notice that the new car is almost as thirsty as the old or that it doesn’t drive nearly as well.
But I do. And that makes the new Fleetwood the year’s biggest disappointment. —Rich Ceppos
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1984 Cadillac Fleetwood
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 6-passenger, 4-door sedan
Base/As Tested: $20,402/$22,948
Options: Delco-Bose sound system, $895; leather interior trim, $550; six-way power passenger’s seat, $225; cruise control, $185; tilt-telescope steering wheel, $184; rear-window defogger and heated mirror, $165; power trunk pull-down, $80; twilight sentinel, $79; intermittent wipers, $60; other options, $123.
pushrod V-8, aluminum block and heads
Displacement: 249 in3, 4087 cm3
Power: 125 hp @ 4200 rpm
Torque: 190 lb-ft @ 2200 rpm
Suspension, F/R: struts/struts
Brakes, F/R: 10.3-in vented disc/8.9-in drum
Tires: Uniroyal Tiger Paw Plus M+S
Wheelbase: 110.8 in
Length: 195.0 in
Width: 71.7 in
Height: 55.0 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 57/53 ft3
Trunk Volume: 15 ft3
Curb Weight: 3477 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 11.7 sec
1/4-Mile: 18.2 sec @ 74 mph
100 mph: 51.2 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 5.6 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 8.1 sec
Top Speed: 105 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 232 ft
Roadholding, 282-ft Skidpad: 0.64 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 22 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/City/Highway: 23/19/31 mpg
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED
Csaba Csere joined Car and Driver in 1980 and never really left. After serving as Technical Editor and Director, he was Editor-in-Chief from 1993 until his retirement from active duty in 2008. He continues to dabble in automotive journalism and LeMons racing, as well as ministering to his 1965 Jaguar E-type, 2017 Porsche 911, and trio of motorcycles—when not skiing or hiking near his home in Colorado.