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BEHIND THE WHEEL

1991 CADILLAC SEDAN DeVILLE : Class With a Bit of Sass

October 19, 1990|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In all the twittering over Lexus and Infiniti, accompanied by some defensive snorting from Mercedes and BMW, one vital fact seems to have been ignored: Cadillac is still America's best-selling luxury car.

Cadillac's hold on that title has remained unbroken since Gandhi was assassinated, cancer struck out Babe Ruth, a Jewish state was born, Truman became President, LPs spun for the first time and a doctor named Ferdinand built something he called the Porsche 356--all of which was 42 years ago.

In the just-concluded model year of 1990, Americans bought 258,000 rolling sofas by Cadillac--a sales total larger than the combined sales of Lexus, Infiniti, Mercedes and BMW.

Last week, the U.S. Commerce Department's Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, corporate America's desired recognition for excellence of production and product, went to Federal Express, IBM, Wallace Co. (a small petrochemical firm in Houston) and General Motor's Cadillac Division.

And the 1991 Sedan DeVille--almost two tons of cushioned comfort, close to 17-feet of gadgets that do much of a driver's thinking--is total justification for the Baldrige.

Here is a car--whether you disembarked at Ellis Island or were born in Des Moines--that continues to look and feel like old money and remains the model for having Made It In America.

Every American President since 19 naught whatever has ridden in a Cadillac. It has been the vehicle of choice for ticker-tape parades, Wall Street before the Depression, most of early Hollywood, William Randolph Hearst, Burt Reynolds, Al Capone and Saddam Hussein.

"We do sell image more than a product," said Cadillac spokesman Chuck Harrington. "And we sell lifestyle."

Cadillac's current lead in the luxury car and lifestyle league, he continued, is retained by the division's reputation for quality, reliability and prestige, "whereas Lexus and Infiniti have still to create image and a history."

Harrington also believes there is "a fairly strong undercurrent" building for Buy American.

The new DeVille's three cigarette lighters, carpeted litter bin, automatic parking brake release, front cornering lights and turnpike change container leave no doubt of its country of origin. Nor of its special transportation service provided quintessential customers: Older Americans with several bank accounts and no need to do their own tuneups.

Driving the car is an exercise in transmogrification. After 10 miles, there develops an urge to buy a condo in Palm Beach. After a day, one is ready to discuss big band music with Don Ameche.

At the same time, however, motoring in a DeVille brings a unique silence for private thoughts. Also a softness for any part of a body that must contact interior portions of the car.

The leather upholstered seats are front-parlor. Save for the ponderous turn-signal lever, control functions are mostly fingertip and feather touch. Indeed, the hard work of driving seems left for those unfortunates buzzing around in Mazdas and Ford Probes.

On the safety side of things, a driver's side air bag is standard on all 1991 Cadillacs. So are anti-lock brakes. But the best horn in all of motoring--something that sounds rather like a bull moose swallowing a freight train--remains part of an option package.

As for size and interior room, the Cadillac style is not to slip people into a capsule resembling a form-fitted bathtub. Rather, it supplies the entire swimming pool and allows you to find the most comfortable lounging position.

Headroom is for tall diplomats in stovepipe hats. There is less leg and elbow room in a small gymnasium. Some cars are designed to nip and skip around similarly moving objects. The Cadillac is built to stay put and bounce offenders to Bakersfield.

In absolute contrast to this sturdiness and bulk--and with total credit to its chassis designers--the DeVille does not maneuver like a huge car. Nor does it give that wallowing and pitching in traffic that came with Cadillac's earlier aircraft carriers.

Oh, the suspension is soft and the steering somewhat anesthetized. That, of course, is the American Luxury Car Lollop.

But now there's a computer monitoring Cadillac's suspension and ordering up comfort-normal-firm damper settings, depending on speed, ride and road conditions. The power-assist on the steering has been dialed back, and there is a tighter turn-in with less of that old sense that the rack-and-pinion system was attached to four jellyfish.

Yet do not believe for one moment that the handling and performance of the DeVille is on a par with Lexus and Infiniti. Nor does this particular model feature the old-world dedications to durability of fittings, burled walnut and polished titanium of Mercedes and BMW.

But those imports are tuned to a younger, faster clientele that prefers to bond with its cars. Lexus, Infiniti, et al, also cost many thousands of dollars more.

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