Note: Today’s guest post was written by a mystery contributor! Enjoy. -TK
We all know the story of the Cadillac Cimarron, a badge engineered J-body created to be an entry level offering from Cadillac in the early 1980’s. Many “enthusiasts” (who lease homely imports like CR-Vs with absolutely no sense of irony) like to beat up on the Cimarron and make an example of it for their own amusement and inflate their tiny egos. They wax poetically about how crappy they were, how they were the turning point in history and the reason why Cadillac fell from grace, and how it was the beginning of the end for General Motors, who they feel deserved to die. Heck, some self-proclaimed journalists even call it a Sin of some sort (as he or she may or may not drive to Dollar Tree for ramen noodles).
What these same “enthusiasts” (did you catch the quotation marks?) like to gloss over is that Cadillac was hardly the first or last company to tart up an economy car to call their own. Not even a year after the Cimarron was discontinued Toyota’s newly created Lexus luxury division was guilty of tarting up a badge engineered Camry and charging a $5,000 premium (about $11,000 in today’s money) for what is ultimately a less capable version of the same car.
For your money you got two less driving wheels (The contemporary Camry was available with AWD), some leather, a few strips of wood, and maybe some slightly higher quality plastics (not according to Jack Baruth’s review https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/06/capsule-review-1990-lexus-es250/). All in a thinly disguised attempt at keeping the dealership network happy by giving them two products instead of just one.
What some fail to realize is that foreign automakers have a leg up on the big 3 when it comes to their tricks at badge engineering. I know there are people screaming at the computer right now saying “BUT BUT BUT CAPTIVE IMPORTS!!!” You have a point, but not for this discussion. Since most foreign automakers have products that they don’t sell in the United States they have more options to pick from when playing the badge engineering game.
Sure, they have to make it EPA and safety compliant, but they have the luxury of being able to introduce something that doesn’t have a counterpart already on sale in the market, unlike the Cimarron which had similar offering in each division of General Motors at the time save GMC. There was even a Holden version in Australia.
What some also don’t realize is that it seems like none of the foreign or other domestic automakers learned a thing from the Cimarron predicament. Toyota had the ES250 and the entire Scion brand (arguably an epic failure to everyone except one aging hippy who bought one and painted the wheels red). Nissan had the Infiniti G20 and M30, Honda had the TSX (an Accord in other markets).
The Germans have been slightly more intelligent about it, Mercedes and BMW didn’t bring over anything like the A-class but did bring the strange and unsuccessful C-Coupe while BMW offered a strange and unsuccessful 318 ti. The British, under Ford ownership at the time, tried to pass off the Jag X-Type as not being a Ford with lipstick, something Ford should have known better than to do after their unsuccessful Merkur experiment. Chrysler Corporation should be an article all their own since they probably had the most badge engineered inventory from the US and overseas of any company, ever. Will anyone forget, or should I say does anyone remember, the Sterling, the only company that managed to ruin a Honda product.
That was then, and this is now. Small economy cars loaded up with features and passed off as premium is a regular thing now. Lexus sells small CUV’s that would have been laughed at in 1989. Audi sells a “premium” sedan based on a VW Golf for upwards of $40 large and no one blinks an eye. Mercedes and BMW are selling FWD cars with vinyl seats and only the enthusiasts are complaining.
The mid 50’s divorced Real Estate agents are happy to lease them to get something different from the lease special 3 series they are turning in. Instead of poo pooing the Cimarron from the armchair (show me on this doll where the car that’s been out of production for 33 years hurt you), let’s look back and see that it defined a segment that didn’t catch on for almost 40 years. Could Cadillac have done better or different? Sure. Would it have mattered at the time? Probably not.