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1998 Cadillac Seville

ARLINGTON, Va. Cadillac's new Seville should be causing some

sleepless nights in Stuttgart, Munich and Tokyo right about now.

But it wasn't always thus.

Rollie McGinnis, a Cadillac dealer from Houston, Texas, is a

member (with Toronto's Roy Foss) of the dealer group which

advises Cadillac designers and engineers on Seville and

Eldorado. When he saw the first proposal for the 1998 Seville,

he exploded, "It's ugly!"

Feedback from dealers like McGinnis and consumer clinics

literally sent chief designer Dennis Little and his team back to

the drawing board.

Over a weekend, they came up with , the car you see here.

McGinnis loves it.

True, at first glance it doesn't look much different from the

previous model, introduced in 1992. Not that this is a huge

problem. Styling was a strong point of the former Seville, and

in clinics where the new car was lined up against pricey German

and Japanese competitors, it rated very highly.

The Seville never followed the worn soapbar look. The crisp

edges of the 1992 model pre-saged the so-called "new edge" theme

now touted as the wave of the future.

The 1998 model stays with it, with more contouring, more

softly flared wheel arches and larger-spoked wheels. Large

tail lights and a subtle rear deck spoiler add an aggressive

touch at the rear.

Under the skin, Seville is all-new.

It shares GM's outstandingly rigid G-body platform with

Oldsmobile Aurora and Buick Park Avenue. Seville's wheelbase is

shorter than either, but longer than last year's Seville. Track

is increased as well. The larger footprint results in

significantly more interior room.

Overall length is down slightly for North American models,

even more so for export versions because they don't get our

stronger but bulkier bumpers.

The interior has been completely reworked too.

It's refreshing to hear Cadillac's interior designer Liz

Wetzel talking about "eyes on the road" and "hands on the wheel"

for a Cadillac driver, when it's usually been more like "mind on

the R.R.S.P., hands on the cell phone."

Large, clear analogue gauges snuggle under a

smoothly-contoured dash top with Cadillac's world-first seamless

passenger air bag. The ignition switch and four-way flasher are

mounted on the dash, the wiper switch on a rightside steering

column stalk (in a Cadillac! Let me hear you say "Praise the

Lord!"). A Mercedes-style gated shift quadrant and large

push-buttons and knobs for audio and climate controls earn top

marks.

That radio will be a new 425-watt Bose 4.0 system if you order

an STS — it's optional on SLS. As with all Bose

original-equipment systems, this one is acoustically tailored to

Seville's interior. Cadillac claims that this is the finest

mobile sound system available.

I'll wait until I do an ear-to-ear test against a Lincoln Town

Car JBL Premium Sound system, but it does sound pretty

spectacular.

Several car radios today automatically adjust volume to

compensate for the noise level inside the vehicle. The Bose 4.0

system takes this one step further the radio adjusts not only

volume but sound equalization as well. Zowie. It works, too.

Wetzel adds that Seville has gone "from almost no (interior)

storage capacity to more than any competitor offers."

No fewer than 19 cubby bins, pockets and trays hold more CDs,

cassettes, sunglasses than anything in the field. There's even a

tissue dispenser and cheque-book holder in the glove box door, an

umbrella tray under the passenger seat, a pair of cup holders

and a two-level bin in the centre console to hold an optional

cellular phone or a six-disc CD changer.

Front seat belts are attached to the seat frame, rather than

to the floor and central roof pillar, to ensure proper belt fit

regardless of how the seat is adjusted. Putting these belts on

takes a bit of practice, as you have to reach closer to your

body to grasp them.

STS models offer an adaptive seat, fitted with 10 air bladders

in the cushion, bolsters and lumbar region of the backrest.

Sensors in the seat measure the amount of pressure your body is

exerting on each bladder and compares the readings to an optimal

pressure pattern stored in the controlling module's memory.

An air compressor automatically pumps the bladders to the

perfect level, re-analysing the pressure pattern every four

minutes. As you squirm in the seat on a long drive, the seat

adapts to you. A manual override allows you to disagree with the

computer's analysis.

The rear-seat cushion is raised slightly (GM calls it "theatre

seating") to give backseat drivers a better view of the road.

Each of the three gets a threepoint belt.

Leather upholstery is standard on North American cars, with

the STS using a luxurious perforated hide on door trims and

seating surfaces. The lucky Japanese get to choose cloth

upholstery. Geez, what do we have to do to get that here?

In addition to the expected dual front air bags, Seville adds

side air bags for front-seat riders, mounted in the seat bolster

rather than in the doors again to ensure proper positioning

regardless of where the occupant is sitting.

Rather than offering supplementary head protection, along the

lines of BMW's inflatable tube or Mercedes Benz's safety

curtain, Cadillac has put its safety dollars into StabiliTrak, a

system which measures steering wheel angle and, through a yaw

sensor, how much the car is actually turning in response to that

steering input.

If the car's path strays from what the driver has commanded

through the steering wheel, the front brakes are momentarily

applied to nudge the car back on course. A new semi-trailing arm

independent rear suspension that allows more wheel travel

addresses one of the most serious flaws in the old Seville: poor

ride over large displacement bumps.

Computer-controlled dampers adjust control instantly in

response to road irregularities, providing firm handling with a

comfortable ride.

The Northstar powertrain continues, pumping 300 horsepower

(275 on the SLS) to the front wheels through a

computer-controlled four-speed automatic transaxle.

Fans of BMW, MercedesBenz, Lexus and Infiniti never believe

that this is the best powertrain in the world until they try

it for themselves.

The 32-valve 4.6-litre double-overhead-cam V8 has grunt

everywhere you want it, seamless shifts, even a neat exhaust

note when you tromp on it (although it is, sadly, more subdued

than before).

One impressive new feature on STS models is something called

"performance algorithm shifting." Once engineers installed

the StabiliTrak yaw sensor, it was no big whoop to have the

transaxle's electronic module interrogate it when shifting

gears.

If the gearbox controller senses that the Seville is in a hard

corner, when a sudden upshift might upset the car's balance, the

shift is delayed until the car straightens out. Again, this

clever system is not unique, being similar in function to

Porsche's Tiptronic.

The narrow twisting roads in the horse county west of

Arlington are so well suited to testing performance sedans that

Jaguar nearly used the same roads to show off its new XJ8 sedan.

There wasn't a Jag in Seville's comparison fleet, but Cadillac

did bring along a BMW 540i, a Mercedes Benz E-Class, a Lexus

LS400, an Infiniti Q45 and a Lincoln Continental, for

side-by-side evaluation.

This can be risky. If the competitors come off better than

your car, you haven't done your homework. Some of the more

cynical scribes (hey, my blood type is B-negative, I can't help

it) may suspect the competitive cars have been sabotaged in some

way. It happens.

But I actually like the concept. Nothing replaces back-to-back

testing, same day, same weather, same driver, same roads. The

results are often surprising.

Take the old Seville, the control vehicle in this experiment,

which reminded one and all that it was a fine vehicle to begin

with.

The first thing one notices about the new one is the brighter,

more ergonomic interior, the massively larger (thank you)

sideview mirrors. The Apillar is much fatter too, which can be

disconcerting on tight left-hand bends.

Hit the first bump and the '98 Seville's rock-solid structure

is immediately evident. There's no shake, no boom, no rattle.

The suspension soaks it up and away you fly.

The car is a delight to drive, and feels smaller than it is.

The third-generation Magnasteer steering has a fixed ratio,

but it's quick, light and direct. The continuously variable

shock valving keeps the car flat and stable in corners.

The driver's seatback seemed slightly skewed rearwards to me,

and didn't offer lateral support commensurate with the car's

handling prowess. BMW and Mercedes seats hug better, but the

Caddy's interior is wider.

Dynamically, the BMW was better on bumps than I remember

quite soft on impact, but with firmer vertical control.

Passengers did notice a fair degree of what suspension engineers

call "head toss" side-to-side motion on ripply pavement. BMW's

recirculating ball steering is also not as precise as the

rack-and-pinion system used in their own six-cylinder 528, or in

the Cadillac.

The Benz was the softest of this three-car comparo, and

handling feel suffered accordingly. But it is a deliberate

Mercedes strategy to discourage their customers from driving too

close to the edge.

I know from previous experience that the E-Class responds very

predictably and capably in extremely hard driving, even if its

steering is number still than the BMW's.

An even more cynical journalist than I suggests that Seville's

new internationalism is just window dressing. He thinks the

world premiere at the Frankfurt auto show, a big splash at next

month's Tokyo show, right-hand drive models for Japan and

Britain, predictions of a quadrupling of foreign sales from less

than five per cent to 20 per cent of total sales within five

years, is designed to impress American consumers who won't

accept a luxury sports sedan unless it has earned respect in

foreign markets.

But whether it's London, Ontario or London, England, Tokyo or

Toronto,the 1998 Cadillac Seville deserves consideration by the

most demanding of car shoppers, especially when its price

(expected to be only marginally higher than before, and

probably less on an equipment-adjusted basis) is factored in.

Whether or not Seville is causing auto execs in Stuttgart,

Munich and Tokyo to lose sleep, I can assure you that Rollie

McGinnis, down in Houston, is sleeping like a baby.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers

invited to Virginia, prepared this report based on sessions

arranged and paid for by General Motors. You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at 4 p.m.

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