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A Young At Heart Caddy


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A YOUNG-AT-HEART CADDY

CADILLAC SEVILLE STS

DESIGNER: GENERAL MOTORS

In a luxury-car universe populated by Infinitis, Lexuses, and BMWs, Cadillac faced a daunting problem. Upscale young buyers favored these imported sedans, which offered great quality and lavish appointments as well as motoring fun. Meanwhile, traditional Caddy buyers were aging quickly. How could the carmaker come up with a model that wouldn't scare off the faithful old guard while reaching out to a younger--and larger--generation of drivers?

That kind of design assignment might have produced a two-headed beast--a performance sedan masquerading as a land yacht. Instead, General Motors Corp. designers Richard Ruzzin and John R. Schinella opted for restraint. Rather than make a radical statement, they fashioned a distinctive new Seville with crisp, clean, elegant lines that packed a multigenerational appeal. "The Seville has a refined kind of design and good ergonomics," says Fritz Mayhew, chief design executive for Ford Motor Co.'s North American operations and one of the IDEA contest judges. "It successfully begins the image change of the whole Cadillac division."

Cadillac took big risks with the Seville. For starters, designers ditched the acres of chrome that have typified American luxury cars for decades. On the sporty STS model, even the grille is painted to match the body. The designers also bucked the rounded, "aero" trend that the competition favors. The Seville has some pleasant curves, to be sure. But they're set off by sharply sculpted lines, such as the creased edge of the trunk lid, that bring to mind the crisp look of a freshly pressed shirt.

WIDE WHEELS. Part of the car's visual appeal is its authoritative stance. The new Seville is wider and longer than the model it replaced, and Ruzzin and Schinella heightened the effect by setting the outer edges of the wheels flush with the sides of the car. That imparts a feeling of stability and power inside and out.

The Seville's basic design jelled in just a week. Ruzzin, Schinella, and the other Caddy designers had been struggling for months with the design of a sister car, the two-door Eldorado. They had tried and rejected three different approaches when Charles Jordan, the vice-president in charge of GM's design staff, told them to get cracking on the Seville. When Jordan returned from a business trip, he went in on a Sunday to Cadillac's deserted design studio and found a full-size clay model covered with the tape and cardboard designers use to try out new lines. Jordan squinted to see the overall shape and thought: "That's it!"

Cadillac also worked hard to improve the interior details. Plastic and metal were supplanted by soft leather and tasteful accents of richly grained African zebrano wood--instead of Detroit's usual fake wood. And the seats received special attention: Instead of the shiny, almost vinyl-looking leather used by Cadillac in the past, one with a matte finish and a slightly musky aroma was selected from among 20 varieties. The design panel also put a lot of time into the doors--how they looked and how they sounded when slammed.

Climate controls were simplified and situated close at hand, next to easy-to-read dashboard gauges. And backseat passengers even got their own air vents and blower controls. Unfortunately, the clunky old turn-signal stalk remains, with its confusing clutter of switches for windshield wipers and cruise control.

NIMBLE FEEL. To pry yuppies out of their imports, the Seville's performance had to match its looks. Cadillac engineers firmed up the suspension, creating a surprisingly nimble feel for a car this big. They didn't sacrifice a smooth ride, either. The engine has plenty of oomph and emits a pulse-quickening, throaty growl when unleashed. Fine-tuning the engine roar had been an important ingredient in the Mazda Miata's success. GM is hoping for a repeat with the Seville.

The car does have a serious mark against it that GM is trying to fix fast. The Detroit factory that builds the Seville still isn't delivering the flawless fit and finish in body construction that consumers have come to expect in Japanese and European luxury cars. Some Sevilles are coming off the line with uneven gaps between sheet-metal panels or with doors that aren't quite square. That may not sound like a design issue, but it is. Manufacturing and design engineers are supposed to work out such bugs jointly before production begins. Robert C. Luscomb, the Seville's program manager, says the car's exterior fit is the best Cadillac has ever produced, but still, he admits that "we didn't meet people's expectations."

Of course, customers are the final arbiters of any design's success. By that measure, the Seville is a hit. In April, sales raced 132% ahead of last year. And the car is attracting those much-needed younger customers. Since the new Seville arrived in showrooms in September, the average age of STS buyers has dropped a dramatic 11 years, to 50. Perhaps most gratifying, older, traditional Caddy buyers say they feel a bit more youthful each time they slip behind the wheel.David Woodruff in Detroit


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