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After two at-bats, Cadillac finally scores with a new compact sedan

It might have taken a while, but it seems that Cadillac may finally have a contender in the compact-luxury market with its all-new ATS. A solid, small sedan from an American automaker has long been absent in the luxury market, which is now dominated by German marques like the BMW 3 series. Early reports indicate that Cadillac may have actually one-upped its Bavarian competition, building a car that looks as tight as it handles, with an interior that some are saying is unparalleled.

This isn’t Caddy’s first foray into the segment, however, though the heads at GM probably hope you don’t remember. A long history of underwhelming re-badges precede the ATS, ranging from barely retooled economy cars to German-engineered duds that were popular overseas but hit a flat note among Cadillac enthusiasts stateside.

Probably the most embarrassing attempt came when the brand tried to fool consumers into thinking a thinly-veiled Chevy was a luxury car back in 1981. The Cimarron by Cadillac, as it was originally marketed, sat on the J-Body frame that was used by Pontiac and Chevy for their compact offerings, the Cavalier and Sunbird. Aside from fancier badges, the Cimarron featured less luxury upgrades and options compared to the other models on the platform, yet it somehow sold for roughly double the price. In its first year, Cadillac was only able to find about one-third of the number of buyers it had anticipated would be lining up for its entry into the compact market.

Despite the abysmal sales of the Cimarron, Cadillac was able to keep that model on the market for the better part of the decade before it went out with a whimper in 1988. The Cadillac Catera, however, only sold for about half that time, as it bored drivers nationwide between 1997 and 2001.

The Catera, which was actually a larger sedan than the Cimarron, hit the scene with a hilariously ill-conceived ad campaign featuring supermodel Cindy Crawford and a fun-loving cartoon duck named “Ziggy.” The campaign was memorable not for its effectiveness in making Cadillac a brand for a younger audience so much as how much it probably helped seal the Catera’s fate.

The car was in essence an Opel Omega retooled for American roadways and given some lazy luxury treatments, like a shiny grill, that fooled no one. GM advertised the Catera as “The Cadillac that Zigs,” hence the name of its cartoon sales-duck, given that unlike the elegant boats that the brand was known for, the Catera was, by comparison, a performance car. In reality, the Catera was the only Caddy at the time to not offer a V8, and its pudgy design made the full-size STS sedan look like a Corvette in comparison.

The Catera got decent-enough reviews initially, but Car and Driver backtracked on early praise when it turned out the car was extremely unreliable. Despite an original asking price of $31,000, Kelly’s Blue Book values a mint 2001 Catera at around $3,000 today.

Caddy hasn’t completely turned its back on badge-engineering or platform sharing, as many of the underpinning of its new ATS are shared with other compact cars in the GM stable. Same goes for the new XTS, which is basically a Buick disguised as an over-large CTS. The company has simply gotten better at rebadging, and has stopped underestimating American consumers, who were quick to recognize the laziness that produced many of Cadillac’s biggest flops.

Also, Cadillac has more at stake now than it did in the ’80s and ’90s, as it spent most of the last decade rebuilding its battered image. Cars like the Escalade and the XLR helped the brand appeal to a younger demographic, boosting sales significantly, and the brand is yet again one of the most respected nameplates on the market.

Do you think after striking out twice Cadillac has finally hit a homerun with the ATS? Leave your thoughts below:

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