1988 Cadillac Cimarron: Tweaking the Usual Suspects Since 1982!

Thomas Klockau

This is a car I’ve long wanted to write up. I can’t begin to emphasize how much vitriol this car has generated over the past forty-odd years. Even today, thirty-six years after the last one was built and sold, the Cimarron still generates such, ahem, polarizing discussion. Frequently omitted from discussion is the fact that every GM division had a variant of this car.

Thomas Klockau

In addition to the Cavalier and the Cimarron, there were also Pontiac (Sunbird), Oldsmobile (Firenza), and Buick (Skyhawk) versions. While the Sunbird and Cav lasted all the way to the final year of this body style in 1994, the Cimarron exited stage left, along with the Firenza, in 1988. The Skyhawk followed suit after the 1989 model year.

Thomas Klockau

Probably the biggest issue was pricing: the inaugural ’82 model cost $12,181. To compare, a Cavalier CL four-door sedan, the top trim level, started at $8137. To put that in perspective, an ’82 Caprice Classic sedan was $8437, and a Corvette $18,290. A base 1982 Sedan de Ville started at $15,699.

Thomas Klockau

But keep in mind the Cimarron was put into production to appease Cadillac dealers who were growing more and more concerned about the higher-end imports, like the Volvo GL, BMW 320i, and others. At any rate, 1982 Cimarron production totaled 25,968 units.

Thomas Klockau

Some folks feel the Cimarron was slow, especially in its early form, but they rarely discuss the similar power—or lack thereof—of its European competition. As my friend Ralph related some time ago during a discussion of higher-end early ’80s sedans:

“Since we’re wildly and dramatically talking about how slow the Cimarron was—allegedly there is still someone trying to get to 60 mph in 1982 and he still hasn’t gotten there …

“Let’s post some real numbers …

82 Cimmy
0–60 mph: 13.7
1/4 19.5 @ 70 mph
Flat-out: 91 mph

Volvo 240GL
0–60 mph: 10.9 seconds
1/4 mile: 17.8 seconds @ 75 mph
Flat-out: 99 mph

Accord SE
0–60 mph: 13.7 seconds
1/4 mile: 19.1 seconds @ 69 mph
Flat-out: 92 mph

Audi 4000
0–60 mph: 13.3 seconds
1/4 mile: 18.7 @ 71 mph
Flat-out: 93 mph

BMW 320i
0–60 mph: 10.4 seconds
1/4 mile: 17.5 seconds @ 76 mph
Flat-out: 101 mph

“The 320i was clearly the 426 Hemi of this three-legged dog race. I’m wondering how any of these cars got off the car carrier.”

Thomas Klockau

And like so many GM vehicles over the years, the Cimarron was steadily improved. What most people seem to remember is how much it looked like the Cavalier, but I believe they were thinking of the ’84 facelift, which admittedly looked a lot like the ’82 Cimarron from the front. Thing is, one year later the Cimarron got a grille similar to the de Ville/Fleetwood, and the original ’82 Cavalier fascia, with its twin headlamps, was a much different look. When the ’82 was brand new, that comparison wouldn’t have been made, though of course the overall body shape was identical. But that was the case for the Sunbird, Firenza, and Skyhawk as well.

Thomas Klockau

My favorite is the 1987–88 model, with the aero fascia with flush headlamps and grille similar to the noses of the ’87 Coupe de Ville, Sedan de Ville, and Fleetwood d’Elegance. I love them, and have for a long time.


This is almost certainly due to my very first Chicago Auto Show attendance in February 1988. I was just a car-crazed third grader going nuts seeing cars of every shape and size, and as I was wandering about with my parents I remember seeing a burgundy Cimarron with a burgundy leather interior.

Thomas Klockau

I wanted to sit in it and check out the interior, but it was locked and there was a discreet card under the wiper stating ‘Car sold.’ But of course I got a brochure and thought it was really cool the Cimarron in the brochure was the same color combo as the one at the show!

Thomas Klockau

By 1987 all Cimarrons came standard with the 2.8-liter V-6, which developed 125 hp @ 4500 rpm and 160 lb-ft of torque at 3600 rpm. The aforementioned composite headlamps were now standard on all models (in ’86 only the d’Oro version and late-production regular models got them). Base price by this time was $15,032 and 14,561 were built. The second least expensive 1987 Cadillac was the Coupe de Ville, at $21,316.

Photo of new Cimarrons taken by my friend Ray.Ray Flynn

’88 was the last year and there were few changes. The most noticeable was that all cars now had standard, color-keyed lower side cladding, though a contrasting color could still be specified. Base price was now $16,071 and only 6454 were produced. (Other 1988 retail prices: Chrysler LeBaron GTS $12,971; Lincoln Continental Signature Series $27,944; Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z $13,490, Buick Electra T-Type $20,229 and Oldsmobile Toronado $20,598). And with that, the Cimarron disappeared for good, though the name would carry on in the thoughts and minds of many, to the present day.

Thomas Klockau

Our featured car (I am not 100 percent sure if it was an ’87 or an ’88, Silver Frost was an available color both years) was spotted by your author, right here in town, back in autumn 2015. It wasn’t perfect, but was in exceptionally nice condition, still with the McLaughlin Cadillac dealer sticker on the trunk lid. They’re still in business, by the way. And they still sell Cadillacs!

Thomas Klockau


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    I friend of mine had one of these in the mid 80’s. Purchased used, I think his father helped him buy it. He was not impressed and it was not a good car and exuded cheapness and poor quality everywhere. At the time it was an open secret that this car was a joke and no one took it seriously. He got married and the Cimarron was the getaway car. Streamers and cans and all that stuff were taped onto the trunk lid and rear bumper. The next day, everywhere the tape was peeled off the paint came with it – because GM could not be bothered to paint their cars properly. I’m sure they knew how, they just didn’t care.

    The 5 vehicles listed in the “performance comparison” are interesting. I’m not sure how nice early 80s Accords were interior and handling wise, but Hondas of all sorts lasted forever in my rust-belt area (still running fine long after body was gone) and the reputation was cemented.

    Volvos were better built than just about anything in this era, certainly for mass market.

    Audi has a rep where I live of being a difficult long-term relationship, but if we are talking first 5 years of ownership…

    Now, J-platform GM cars have a rep. I’m related to people that made them last and last. I also know lots of people that say they were junk. I also know many of these cars were treated badly (it’s hard to be a survivor when you are from the bottom 20% price range of the market). They were everywhere, then they were everywhere as bad-looking beaters and then poof there was none left.

    Cimarron is conceptually a good idea. They should have spent the money to rebody it though. Front clip, doors, trunk should all have been unique, preferably roofline as well. Yes this costs way more (less so if you cheat and do a widebody version of the panels), but it’s Cadillac. Posh interior does a lot, but suspension dynamics and performance needed to be addressed if you were placing it against BMW…

    It was not a bad car just a model poorly executed.

    It needed to be RWD, it needed new styling to hide the Chevy in it. The price could have been justified if they had got the two major issues right.m

    These things would run forever and were cheap and easy to fix.

    The real trouble was it just was never a real convincing Cadillac.

    As I have said of Lincoln having too much Ford in their models, GM put too much Chevy in this one.

    People love to grouse about FWD, but the reality of that era (and yes, I lived and drove and enthused thru it) was that almost everything but trucks and sport cars were going FWD. The average driver (read: non-sporting) liked FWD, as the winter traction was so much better. I recall many folks bragging about how their new FWD car could go thru the snow. And, the space utilization was so much better: unlike now, FWD cars then often had very flat floors.

    Paul Niedermeyer, in his epic GM Deadly Sin series that ran on his original The Truth About Cars blog (the series can now be found on Paul’s Curbside Classic blog site), said of the Cimarron, #10 on his deadly sin list: “…as if there was ever any doubt, GM truly jumped the shark with the Cimarron, and it led the way for what was GM’s most disastrous decade ever, the eighties. Only GM could have such utterly outsized hubris to think it could get away with dressing up a Cavalier and pawning it off as a BMW-fighter, without even touching the engine, among other sins. Never mind that the 318i had all of 98 hp itself. But at least it didn’t sound like a kitchen mixer trying to make muesli out of nuts and bolts.”

    We all know what gutter The General wound up in by 2009. It was one stupendously bad effort after another, like the Cimmy, that got it there.

    I think they should have shut down Lordstown after the Saturn SL1, that was the compact car they should have been selling. Of course the precedent of a union in the south can’t stand.

    Never mind that all Saturn models combined annually couldn’t outsell just the Chevrolet Cavalier….

    Saturn should have never existed, at least not as a brand or division, GM should have put the money into a good replacement for the J-cars.

    Just another example of late 20th century badge engineering. To bad by the final year, Cadillac personnel had done their best to separate the car from its Cavalier roots, a little to late.

    I inherited a 1982 J2000 Wagon 1.8L 4 speed manual and drove it through college. I majored in Auto Technology in Mgmt at Western Michigan and had it in the shop there several times, tweaking the carb and timing trying to get a little more power out of it. It ran pretty well, though it was slow. It went through snow great and it suited me well since it got great mileage and would haul tons of stuff, and would take a beating on Michigans dirt roads. The trans finally exploded while my girlfriend (wife now) and I were doing 85 MPH downhill on I-75 at around 170K miles. The trans locked right up and sent us skidding down the road. Luckily it was 3 in the morning. 1st gear still worked so we drove home in 1st. I rebuilt the engine and installed it in a newer automatic hatchback that I bought. Boring it .060 helped in the power department, but by then I was working at EDS’ Chevrolet Customer Assistance Center and bought a newer Type 10 Cavalier 2.0L Auto. It was much better. After that I bought a ’96 Cavalier 2.0L 5 speed new. I liked it, but I really liked my brother’s ’95 Z24 with Quad 4 and 5 speed. Once we worked a few little bugs out of the engine it was a great car. It was fast enough, quiet, road nice and got decent mileage. Would I buy one now? Heck no. Would I buy a stock ’82 320i? Heck No. You might talk me into a BMW 2002, but it wouldn’t remain stock for long.

    Well, we bought an 80 320i new, and it was not just an all-around great daily-driver and road warrior (even in snow), it was a great handler and the ride was still good. Another league entirely from this abomination, though you could never call it fast. Great around Mid-Ohio, though.

    Apart from the obvious badge engineering, the terrible build quality is what destroyed the car’s (and Cadillac’s) reputation. It was a long way down from “The Standard of the World” to “lowest common denominator” but Cadillac achieved it with this model.

    these were probably the most mechanically durable new Cadillac you could buy when it was new at least until ’87 when you could get a 307 in the Fleetwood Brougham and the 4.5 that the Deville got in ’88 to replace the 4.1; Cavaliers and their brethren were cars built to price but they held up pretty well and they were cheap enough to fix when they didn’t

    A cimarron was the other side of my first accident. A dump truck driver nicely motioned me to turn left in front of him. My 21 year old fresh faced self gladly obliged in my shiny, nearly new MR2 turbo. What I didn’t know was there was another lane of traffic behind that truck. WHAM! A newly minted attorney (of course!) in a Cimarron, I believe in the same color as the article’s, bashed into my front end, sending me over a sidewalk. Many lessons learned that day..

    My father-in-law had an early model, white with the burgundy leather interior. Every acceleration of any nature whatsoever required a foot to the floor–and even then what little came was after a slow, delayed, winding up of the engine before motion happened. I’m surprised to see that many other competitors’ cars were similar zero to sixty. I had Dodge FWDs to drive (Omni, 024 (anyone remember those?), Aries) and they were significantly faster and peppier.

    The Caddy rebadge of the not loved Crapalier. I know of no one who liked these things. They rusted quite easily in Chicagoland.

    These cars are like zombies. Just when we think think they are all dead & buried, someone finds one and believes that they are somehow interesting, due to their rarity. They are not interesting. They were horrible when living and pure evil when returning from the grave. Let them RIP and become an odd footnote in the history of poor domestic manufacturing strategy. Future generations will thank you.

    Had two, brand new (yes spent our own $), both factory ordered. I believe all Cimarrons were built at the Janesville, WI plant, just an hour from where we live. 1985 V6 automatic (drove a 4 and immediately knew we had to order the 6), really nicely built. Then a 1988, drove much better (quicker, smoother, quieter, etc.) but not nearly as well built. (Reminds me of prior 1971/1974 Volvo 164/164E purchases.) We had been driving an Audi 4000 5+5 and 5000T, also purchased new, which were fantastic when then ran properly but were expensive to keep that way. The Cimarron wasn’t a bad idea, they just should have channeled the earlier Nova into Seville method, or utilized an Opel as a base (RWD, etc.).

    Had this delusion a few years ago that I’d like to have a Cimmaron convertible. Start with a Cavalier convertible, bolt on Cimmaron front fenders, grille, and rear fascia, maybe the Cimmaron seats if they are nicer than the Cavalier seats (they couldn’t be worse, could they?) . . . came to my senses thankfully, but it was an interesting idea. Hey if GM can do badge engineering, so can I.

    Well maybe we should do this . . . Crusty $500 Cimmaron as the donor car for the body parts and interior (seats, etc.), snag an equally crusty Cavalier and try it out – all nuts and bolts. Wonder how close it would come? If it works well, find a decent Cavalier convertible and a not quite as crusty Cimmaron – probably wind up with a unique and interesting car for well south of $5K. Mark One lipstick on a pig-mobile BUT is is a convertible and that makes up for a lot. (Does the high-po Cobalt engine fit?) I really should switch to decaf . . .

    I do have the space to do it – concrete floor, lights, music, fridge (but you have to bring your own dancing girls/boys, as you prefer.)

    When they were new my wife and I show up at the local Cadillac emporium, each driving a BMW 2002, just to “try out” a Cimarron. Salesman thought he’d died and gone to heaven–a double conquest sale. We hopped in the front, he in the back; off to the nearby Interstate. Turned onto the ramp, gave it gas…more gas…finally floorboard it. Finally entered the Interstate…at 40 mph. Wife looked at me…”Is that all its got?” I could see the salesman’s face in the rear view mirror…no sale today. We couldn’t find the next exit fast enough to get back in our 02s…we still have both of them.

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