More to DeVille than meets eye
State-of-the-art powerplant, lots of goodies

Saturday, July 17, 1999

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cadillac DeVille
If you can get past the styling, which suggests the name should start with USS, the Cadillac DeVille is an impressive automobile. (As a matter of fact, the typical buyer group seems to prefer the DeVille's traditional look to the Jaguaresque lines of Chief Competitor Lincoln Town Car.)

It can be forgiven its massive haunches and front and rear overhangs, I think, because though it is a huge carriage, it uses its size to good advantage, providing an unusually spacious environment for five full-sized adults, or, in a stretch, six of not-so-generous dimensions, plus a whopping 20 cubic feet of baggage.

The DeVille extends a garage-hogging 17 12 feet (a midsize like the Camry is a couple of feet shorter), but it's one of the few cars in which I felt it necessary to move the driver's seat forward a few inches from its rear stop. At that point, even a 6-footer immediately behind the driver would feel as if he'd been bumped up to first class.

I was surprised when the DeVille was delivered that I had to duck under the roofline with some circumspection to avoid further brain damage. The car is a reasonable 56 inches tall (about the same as a Camry, a few inches more than a Jag, better than a foot less than a small sport-ute).

I found that the previous driver, a short sort, had hiked the power seat waay up, there being a considerable range of adjustment on that 8-way-adjustable perch. Lowering the seat a few inches solved the entry/egress problem without making the location of the front bumper any more of a mystery than it already was, although on long rides, I preferred a higher driving position, never mind the peril of the door housing. And long rides are what DeVille is all about.

DeVille is 2 tons of freeway cruiser, not the weapon of choice for the shopping center wars. With the reasonably supportive and extravagantly adjustable seats, including power lumbar support, DeVille would be just the ticket for those who don't view 500-mile stages as the province of airplanes. The test machine lacked this year's innovation - a Magic Fingers-style massager enhancement to the lumbar system - or I might still be in it, albeit parked in my garage.

I did say freeway cruiser. This would not be the mount for scenic-route diversions. Its mission in life is to lull passengers, not challenge and reward the driver. The DeVille needs all the considerable engineering trickery with which it is endowed to reconcile a cushy ride with the realities of sometimes imperfectly engineered or maintained roads.

The tester was a Concours, the "sportiest" of the three DeVille variations. The standard mount is complemented by a d'Elegance (one cringes) treatment, which involves chromed wheels, real wood trim and what GM is pleased to call "subtle" gold lettering.

The Concours has a floor-mounted shifter for its automatic transmission and bucket seats up front instead of a bench, thereby making it a 5-occupant machine. More importantly, it has performance enhancements beyond the already impressive array with which the Caddy flagship is endowed.

Like the others, Concours has GM's NorthStar powerplant, a lovely all-aluminum 4.6-liter V-8 with 32 valves and a thirst for premium. But in the Concours edition, it is bumped from the normal 275 hp to 300, with 295 foot-pounds of torque. It also gets a stouter final drive ratio for better responsiveness at the cost of a little extra fuel consumption.

EPA ratings on the DeVille Concours are 17 mpg city, 26 highway. I found my 23.3 score surprisingly good.

I was ready to trade in my chronometer when I clocked the DeVille in the mid-7-second range for the dash from stopped to 60 mph on a dry, high-traction surface. That's sporty-car territory, not quite what one expects in the Bayliner class. That kind of propulsive fun is achieved by holding the throttle wide open and forcing the tachometer to climb toward the 6,000-rpm power peak. With more ecological handling, the free-revving NorthStar still seems well-motivated when the revs are above 2,000.

The DeVille is a front-drive machine, but dumping the power to the wheels doesn't produce any rude squirming or squealing. On less-than-perfect surfaces, the full-range standard surface-sensing traction control kept my enthusiasm from overwhelming the coefficient of friction. The four-speed automatic overdrive transmission took everything I dished out with grace, and even seemed fairly smart about gear selection in around-town work.

Glad as I was to have a gear-selection indicator amid the instruments, I found the yellow highlighting - usually reserved for cautionary readouts - rather annoying, especially at night. Blue or green would be better. (Another silly ergonomic gaffe is putting the seat heater control on the side of the bucket, where it can't be seen. Not at all funny in 90-degree weather.)

The DeVille has another driver aid that's becoming common in the luxury ranks as computers become ever more a part of the fabric. GM calls its implementation StabiliTrak.

Yaw sensors detect any disparity between where the vehicle is headed and where it's pointed and take action by reducing power and/or applying braking force to the errant wheel. This would likely be of value on wet surfaces - you wouldn't be likely to invoke it on dry roads.

Even in not-too-terribly-athletic cornering, the all-season Goodyear RSAs kept brio well in check, singing out plaintively long before they lost their grip. I think the DeVille, especially the Concours edition, would benefit from something larger than the 225/60/16s with which it is shipped. The "H" rating correctly signals a bias toward ride over handling, too.

And ride quality is everything generations of us have been schooled to expect from big Caddies - plush and isolating, up to a point. If driven unreasonably hard over bad surfaces, the DeVille started to wallow in a distinctly nautical way, despite its having continuously-self-adjusting shocks. It nonetheless felt tightly screwed together and had no squeaks or rattles even under stressful conditions.

Overall build quality was quite good, apart from a retracting antenna that squealed and wouldn't fully retract. DeVilles are assembled at the Hamtramck plant in Detroit.

The DeVille has generous discs front and rear, backed by a purring antilock system. Despite a somewhat mushy pedal feel, stopping distances were impressively short, considering, and fade negligible.

The DeVille has dual front and side air bags, the latter built into the doors. The car does somewhat better than average in government crash tests and gets just average reliability ratings from owners responding to Consumers Union surveys.

The AM-FM-cassette-CD entertainment center was excellent in sensitivity, clarity and ambience, the latter perhaps because of the added digital signal processor. There's even a Weather Band.

Replete with luxury-class amenities, including the highly prized power trunk lid closer, the DeVille Concours is a good buy at its $43,230 base price. The tester had a $100 audio upgrade, plus a $595 trunk-mounted CD jukebox and chromed wheels ($795). With freight, it came to $45,390.

One thing to bear in mind - DeVille is scheduled for a reworking for next year, which should make end-of-year sale prices even more attractive. Of course you'll be forfeiting what could be substantial improvements.

ASK AL: Turbo probably ready to go

Alan Vonderhaar welcomes email at and snail mail c/o The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202. Because of the volume of mail received, personal replies are not always possible, although your chances are better with e-mail.