Why couldn’t Cadillac crack the SL code?

Cadillac has certainly put itself at the top of its game. It is now able to compete with some of the world’s best, yet with a uniquely American swagger to its designs. The same could be argued for the brand’s two attempts (over the past 30 years) to field a premium two-seat convertible, the 1987-1993 Allante and the 2004-2009 XLR. Yet both cars are considered sales failures, while the car they targeted, the Mercedes-Benz SL, lives on as a luxury icon.

Both the Allante and XLR arrived to much anticipation, but neither sold half of what Cadillac had planned. Today, either can make an excellent collectible that turns heads and is comfortable and enjoyable to drive. Both are quite affordable, with Allantes under $10,000 and, for those who enjoy a challenge, project cars for well under $5,000. Versions of the XLR are available in the low-to-mid-$20,000 range in very good condition.

Both cars enjoy a loyal following today; the Allante Club of America held its 13th Allante & XLR National Show / Vacation in Philadelphia at the end of September.

True, Cadillac has shown some intriguing concept vehicles over the past few years, but seems to be out of the two-seater business for good. So, we are left with two interesting, attractive Cadillac convertible models, yet also a question: Why couldn’t Cadillac crack the SL code?

Before trying to answer that, here’s some consolation for Caddy fans: BMW hasn’t cracked the SL code, and neither has Audi. Lexus did fairly well with its own retractable hardtop convertible, the 2001-2009 SC 430, but did not replace it when sales tanked.

Cadillac likely set sales goals or prices – or both – too high for the Allante and XLR. Yet, there’s a history and heritage with Cadillac that makes many want to see the brand offer such a model.

Cadillac, having done pretty well with a Briggs Cunningham team in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans, showed a sleek, two-seat concept car named for the race in 1953. Four prototypes were built, but then Cadillac instead issued the limited-production Eldorado, a full-size convertible with special bodywork and a cut-down windshield. Priced at a staggering-for-the-time $7,750, the Eldo was accepted as a legitimate ultimate luxury car by affluent customers, and the brand was able to cultivate that base for a short while afterward.

That image would fade, though, and by the 1970s, the Mercedes-Benz 450 SL had emerged as a favorite of socialites and Hollywood stars. Not really a sports car like its predecessors, the 450 SL was more of an open luxury GT, capable of sustained high-speed cruising, if not stellar acceleration. GM’s luxury brand was still stuck on 19-foot Eldorado convertibles, a breed that was rapidly losing its luster with the “in crowd.” The Mercedes SL has remained one of the brand’s elite models ever since, through several design generations.

Give Cadillac credit for trying, though. Here’s what happened:

Designed with help from Pininfarina, the 1987 Allante was an attractive, Eldorado-based front-drive challenger to the Mercedes SL. The convertible came with a removable aluminum hardtop, which later became an option to reduce the car’s price.

A convoluted production process spanning two continents caused quality glitches and contributed to the steep $54,700 price (including the aluminum hardtop) in 1987 – more than double that of the Eldorado. The so-called “Allante Airbridge” used 747 cargo jets to transport modified Eldorado structures to Italy, where a Pininfarina factory attached bodies comprising parts sourced from several other countries, including Germany. The planes returned semi-finished cars to Michigan for installation of powertrains and final assembly. The venture produced 21,400 Allantes through 1993, less than half of Cadillac’s projection.

Allante performance was lukewarm in its early years with a 170-hp Cadillac 4.1-liter V-8 and then better with the 1989 200-hp 4.5-liter version. Allante offered features that were advanced for the time, including electronically controlled suspension damping.

Allante’s best year was also its last. The 1993 model debuted the 295-hp Northstar DOHC aluminum V-8, a new rear suspension system and a slew of luxury and technology upgrades. In a three-way comparison test, Car and Driver chose the revitalized Allante, by then a seven-year-old design, over the even older Jaguar XJS and younger Mercedes-Benz SL.

Because the 1993 Allante’s model year stretched 18 months, the higher sales figure of nearly 4,700 did not reflect a higher sales rate. In the great GM tradition, the car was cancelled just when it reached its peak.

With that history, Cadillac decided to give a two-seater another go with the 2004 XLR. This time, Cadillac started with a performance car base, the C6 Corvette. The XLR got its own body with Cadillac’s “Art + Science” design language and a retractable hardtop, and a much more elegant and luxurious cockpit than the Vette. It was also nearly 600 pounds heavier than the Chevy, though.

What it didn’t get was Corvette power. Perhaps Cadillac felt a flagship model should not have a Chevrolet engine, but the Northstar was a decade old by then and even in XLR trim managed just 320 hp against the Vette’s 400. The XLR-V’s supercharged Northstar gave a rousing 443 hp. In Car and Driver’s hands, the XLR-V did 0-60 in 4.4 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13 seconds at 110 mph.

The XLR-V’s most shocking number, though, was its $110,000 price in 2006. For its last year, 2009, the XLR was offered only in top-line Platinum and high-performance “V” models. Cadillac built just under 15,500 XLRs. Perhaps, more than price, value was the issue.


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