Northstar verve in a velvet glove.by Bob Markovich
Think of the words "luxury car," and what comes to mind? A strong-yet-silent V-8? Undoubtedly. Glove-soft leather and exotic wood? Yup. How about lavish space and a boulevard ride? If you're a traditionalist, those last two perks probably top your list.
While even Cadillac has made most of its models smaller and sportier, both the DeVille and its uplevel Concours twin are aimed squarely at folks like you. Both are big, roomy, soft-riding, leather-laden paeans to what luxocars -- American luxocars -- have always been. Yet the front-drive Northstar-powered DeVille and DeVille Concours are also a techno-leap beyond the soon-to-be-gone Fleetwood -- the rear-drive car both will replace as Cadillac's most conservative model.
Except for the Cadillac script on its trunk and the crest in its grille, a $41,135 DeVille Concours looks just like a $36,635 DeVille. Both share the hidden rear wheels and tail fins that have been Cadillac trademarks since 1949, although the tailfins are a mere suggestion of those bygone days.
Both editions of the DeVille also share a rich palette of toney hues that include Cotillion White, Polo Green and the Dark Cherry that adorned our Concours test car.
While both cars get Cadillac's 32-valve Northstar V-8 for 1996, the Concours gets an extra 25 hp. H-rated tires also give it a heady 130-mph top speed versus 112 mph for the DeVille. We'll take the manufacturer's word on both of these upper limits.
Concours literally means "competition." As such, it has more head, hip and leg room and a larger trunk than its Lincoln Continental rival. It even beats the larger Town Car in some key dimensions, including rear head and hip room and overall space. It also wins the horsepower competition hands-down, with 40 more than the Continental and a 90-hp advantage over the Town Car. Although sheer acceleration isn't a key buying point for cars in this class, power is part of the prestige formula, and it always comes in handy when you're passing on a two-lane highway.
Concours triumphs in the price wars as well. Its base sticker comes in at some $1000 less than the Continental's. Though the Concours also costs four grand more than the Town Car, the plain DeVille costs $1000 less and offers most of the Concours' advantages.
The Inside Story
Concours' ecclectic blend of yesterday and tomorrow continues inside. About a cord's worth of deep-toned Zebrano wood wraps around the dash and continues straight back to the rear seat. The Concours also comes with the leather seating that's optional on regular DeVilles. Though it hails from Michigan rather than Corinth, it's soft yet supportive, if a bit slippery. As you'd expect, the seat's roomy, and there isn't much in the way of lateral support. Cadillac doesn't expect that customers in this segment will be hurling their cars around mountain switchbacks for the sheer joy of driving, a view we endorse.
On the techno side are the sheer number of tasks the Concours does for you. While the DeVille comes with one remote keyless entry fob, Concours owners get two that allow two drivers to program the automatic door locks four different ways. Each fob is also "recognized" by the seat-control computer, which automatically adjusts the eight-way driver seat to one of two pre-programmed settings when you slide your gold-plated key into the ignition.
Personalization is the latest game in the luxury car market, and the Concours is keeping pace with its competition in this derby.
Seat adjustments are where the past and future sometimes collide. The Concours has one of the only height-adjustable lumbar supports. Yet the tab that controls it is mounted low on the side, where it's hard to differentiate from the tabs that recline the seatback and heat its bottom (a $225 option).
Other seat controls for height, tilt and distance are clustered on the door, along with the buttons for the seat's dual memory settings and the ones for the windows. A more modern, multi-function control like the one on Lexuses and Lincolns would be easier to use.
Concours' digital instrument panel is yet another area where tradition and the computer age clash. The stark black screen makes a jarring contrast with the warm wood and graceful sweep of the dash. It's also flanked by dated-looking chrome buttons for the trip computer and temperature-set climate controls. While pushing them prompts such informative displays as average fuel mileage and speed -- and such critical ones as coolant temperature and voltage -- analog dials like those on Cadillac's Eldorado and Seville tell you far more at a glance.
This year's revised sound-system controls are more user-friendly. New jumbo-sized tabs allow you to tune, seek and scan stations without looking. You can also adjust tuning, volume and even the climate with auxiliary tabs on the steering wheel.
Our Concours test car had the $790 topmost audio system, which includes a cassette deck, 11 speakers and a 12-disc remote CD. It also includes digitally processed sound -- another new addition that times sound signals to mimic a room setting or auditorium, and concentrates them around the driver.
Oddly enough, the performance often begins with a less-than-luxurious moment of static until the automatic antenna can catch up with the radio. After that, though, the sound quality is as good as the best.
In back, the Concours soundly trounces Lincoln's Continental and comes within an inch or so of the Town Car in hip and shoulder width. But those who buy by the inch may long for Cadillac's nearly departed Fleetwood, which is some three inches wider in both dimensions.
Ride & Drive
Tradition and technology coexist comfortably on the road most of the time. On the coexistence side is Cadillac's Northstar V-8 -- a quad-camshaft marvel that vaults this two-ton car instantly off the line, cruises silently and revs very, very quickly to well over 6000 rpm when you nudge the accelerator.
The Northstar system, including its excellent computer-controlled four-speed automatic transmission, has been an industry pacesetter since it first appeared in the Cadillac Allante, and it just keeps getting better.
Along with added power, the Concours has lower gearing than DeVille's. Result: sizzling 0-to-60 jaunts in under seven seconds. The smooth four-speed automatic transmission shifts imperceptibly when you're loafing along, and briskly when you're in a hurry.
Both models come with speed-sensitive steering and a suspension that automatically adjusts ride quality and ride height based on load and road conditions. The Concours refines both systems with a blend of hydraulics and electromagnetics designed to allow even easier steering and gentler damping at lower speeds, and firmer doses of both at faster, curvier clips.
The Concours succeeds admirably on the softer side of that scale. Follow the V-8's siren song on fast, twisty roads, however, and the steering feels too light and too vague. The Concours also wallows a bit over bumps and still feels floaty over dips. But then, it's not a sport sedan.
You'll also feel some steering-wheel pull during hard accleration, especially from a standing start, despite Cadillac's best efforts to eliminate it. Known as torque steer, it won't surprise anyone accustomed to front-drive. But it's as alien to rear-drive converts as corporate downsizing would have been back in 1949.
In the course of our evaluation, we gave our test car's standard anti-lock brakes and traction control a thorough workout. Both function as they're supposed to, and braking performance was impressive for a car of this size. Though the torque-limiting traction control made progress up slippery hills slower than we liked, pushing a button shuts it off. The bad news: the switch is nestled inconveniently in the glovebox.
Another system that worked almost too well was Concours' new RainSense wipers, which vary speed depending on how fast you're driving. We found them too fast for light-mist conditions. The good news: you can override the system.
Cadillac's DeVille Concours won't win over many import-intenders. That task will fall to the European-based, entry-level Cadillac Catera that's due to arrive later this year.
Like the DeVille, the Concours is a contemporary update on the traditional full-size American luxury car tradition, for buyers who like their space. Who choose refinement and move-around roominess over sportiness. And prefer the open road over side roads.
Those are whom these traditional luxury cars are aimed at. While the Concours competes strongly in that arena, the DeVille may be the ultimate bargain. It's almost as cushy, nearly as powerful -- and costs $4500 less.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.