The Northstar still shines bright. by Helen Hutchings
The American motoring press rarely speaks with one voice, but the Cadillac Northstar System -- heart of the Seville sedan and Eldorado coupe -- is one area of U.S. automotive technology that's generated uniformly high marks since its introduction in 1992.
It's the critical edge that keeps these cars competitive against their rivals, import and domestic, and it revives Cadillac's old marketing slogan -- "An American Standard For The World," a corporate statement dating to 1908.
Although power is a key ingredient, the Northstar System is more than just the potent 4.6-liter, dual overhead-cam, 32-valve V-8 engine that drives the front wheels of the Seville and Eldorado. Virtually every other vehicle system is integrated as well. Engine and transmission controls are computer coordinated, giving the standard four-speed 4T80-E automatic exceptional shift quality to go with the car's blazing acceleration. Magnasteer translates driver command and returns road feel, enhancing the sense of control. Braking and acceleration are monitored and optimized by the latest GM anti-lock braking system and traction control.
And all these sub-systems are computer-orchestrated by the Northstar Integrated Chassis Control System, which adapts ride and handling to road conditions and vehicle speed.
Systems within systems within a system. Anyone who thinks that technological sophistication is the exclusive province of imported luxury cars probably hasn't had a taste of the Northstar experience.
Our most recent experience with this outstanding techno symphony came in a '96 Seville STS, the top of the Seville-Eldorado line.
It is only from behind the wheel, with the miles flowing quickly by, that the Seville reminds one of a European sedan. The exterior styling is wholly all-American -- powerful, handsome lines that still look distinctive, if not exactly new. One indication of the strength of the design is how compact and cohesive it is. The Seville is a big sedan, but its true size isn't apparent until it's parked next to a smaller car.
Changes for 1996 are minimal. Like so many GM products, the Seville and Eldorado add Daytime Running Lamps to their list of standard safety features. Another upgrade, perhaps more universally welcome, involves the ignition. When the key is in the ignition, it's impossible to lock the driver's door. No more lockouts.
Keeping pace with competitors, the remote entry system also allows pre-programming of seat position and door locks. The Seville politlely acknowledges keyfob commands by blinking its lights, a plus in vast, anonymous parking lots.
The Seville and Eldorado both come in two models, Seville SLS and STS, Eldorado and Eldorado TC. Aside from minor differences in exterior trim, the principal distinction between standard and uplevel editions lies under the hood. In basic versions, the Northstar V-8 produces 275 hp, while the STS and ETC have 300 hp.
Although the Eldorado rides a shorter wheelbase -- 108.0 inches versus 111.0 inches for the Seville -- the chassis and suspension components are otherwise essentially the same.
The Inside Story
Rather than mimic the stark grays and blacks that dominate the interiors of European luxury sedans, Cadillac elected to go its own route with the Seville and Eldorado, using warm, muted color schemes and lots of zebrano wood trim, a striking trademark touch.
Though the front seats don't offer as much side support as competing European makes, they're well shaped and spacious. The leather upholstery that goes with the STS is perforated, allowing it to breathe, and the range of adjustability -- power-operated, of course -- should make any driver comfortable.
Entry and exit are exceptionally easy here -- no more difficult than plunking yourself into your favorite living room. Room behind the front seats is plentiful, and the sound systems -- an AM/FM/cassette Delco unit (standard) or one of three optional Bose systems, two of which include CD players.
Our test car had the top-of-the-line Bose system with a 12-disc trunk-mounted CD player, a $1513 option.
As you'd expect of a car with a price range that starts at almost $42,995, the Seville standard equipment list is long and comprehensive. The STS adds dual front controls for the automatic climate control system, power lumbar support for the front seats, a floor-mounted shifter (vs. a column shifter in the SLS), a fold-down rear center armrest with cupholders, analog instruments, heated outside mirrors and, of course, leather upholstery.
Aside from sound system choices, about the only major addition one might make is the power moonroof, a $1700 option that was also part of our test car's equipment list.
One interesting new touch is Cadillac's new Rainsense Wiper System. Set the system in the automatic delay mode, and it adjusts the wiper speed based on the amount of moisture falling on the windshield.
Comprehensive also applies to the Seville's standard safety features. In addition to daytime running lights, they include ABS, traction control, dual airbags and side impact protection. About the only thing that's beginning to be conspicuous by its absence in this inventory is side airbags, which are beginning to show up in European sedans from Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Although we wish the Seville included door panel map pockets, the interior is otherwise hard to criticize. It's beautifully assembled and elegantly posh.
Ride & Drive
SLS or STS, the Seville's throttle response is exceptional. In fact, for all its other strong points, it's sheer power that sets these cars apart. Although this is a large car, weighing in at almost 3900 pounds in STS trim, it can sprint to 60 mph in less than seven seconds, and its response in tight passing situations is nothing short of spectacular. In this sense, power can be viewed as a safety feature. In another sense, power is the key element that distinguishes memorable luxury cars from the rest of the here.
Either way, the Seville and Eldorado have lots of it, double in spades.
The only soft point in the power picture is torque steer -- the tendency of the powertrain to pull the car to one side or the other at full throttle. These are the most powerful front-drive passenger cars on earth, and managing this kind of power in a front-drive system is tricky. Cadillac has all but cured the problem, but there's still a hint of torque steer when the driver punches the throttle wide open at low speeds.
The balance between ride and handling, augmented by Cadillac's Road Sensing Suspension system, leans toward firm in the STS, softer in the SLS, a distinction that also applies to the basic Eldorado and the Eldo TC. The suspension adapts to various road surfaces as well as more extreme handling maneuvers with infinitely variable damping.
Like the original STS, our test car was surprisngly responsive in abrupt maneuvers, particularly for a large front-drive automobile. However, Cadillac has softened the ride a bit from the original, a change that most drivers will welcome on rough roads.
Another positive change from the original is reduced interior noise, largely the result of exhaust system revisions. Cadillac wants its owners to hear the powerful sound of the Northstar V-8 in action, but early owners have told Cadillac that there was a little too much of this. Now there's less.
Another interesting technical feature is the Northstar's limp-home capacity. For example, even if the engine loses all its coolant, the car can keep going by firing only four of the eight cylinders in an alternating pattern--for up to 50 miles.
Now nearing the end of their initial product cycle, the Seville and Eldorado continue to offer a uniquely American blend of style, luxury and advanced technology, with the bonus of blazing engine performance.
Backed by 24-hour roadside assistance and Cadillac's Gold Key 50,000-mile bumper to bumper warranty, these cars still carry the mantle of luxury leadership for the U.S. -- an American Standard for the World -- and they carry it well.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.