Retrospective: '87-'93 Cadillac Allanté

The Cadillac Allanté is considered a poster child of what's wrong with GM. It was originally intended as a Halo car for GM's top brand, meant to push the Cadillac brand upmarket in Mercedes-Benz territory (back when that was desirable.)  While it was an appealing car, it

The Cadillac Allanté is considered a poster child of what's wrong with GM. It was originally intended as a Halo car for GM's top brand, meant to push the Cadillac brand upmarket in Mercedes-Benz territory (back when that was desirable.)  While it was an appealing car, it's convoluted assembly process, absurdly high price, and questionable reliability made it pretty unpopular in the market.  Today, the Allanté is merely a side note in GM's long history, but it's quite an interesting one, for  a few reasons.

The Allanté was codeveloped with Italian styling house Pinin Farina, which was one of the car's main selling points.  One unarguable thing: the Allante was stunning.  It was low, sleek, and cleanly styled - a very un-Cadillac Cadillac.  It's mechanical underpinnings weren't the most interesting, but we'll get to that in a minute.

The most fascinating thing about the Allanté was it's bizarre assembly process.  The basic Allanté chassis was a mixture of parts from the Cadillac Eldorado and Seville, Buick Reatta and Riviera, and Oldsmobile Toronado.  The chassis was shortened to accommodate a 2-seat layout, using independent suspension all around - MacPherson struts in the front, and struts with a transverse composite leaf springs in the rear (think Corvette.)

1989 Cadillac Allante

Assembly required some airplanes.  The bodies for the Allanté were produced by Pininfarina outside of Turin, Italy.  They were then shipped - 56 at a time on specially developed Boeing 747 aircraft - over to GM's Hamtramck, Michigan plant where the bodies were installed onto the chassis.  This bizarre production process earned the Allanté the nickname "Flying Italian Cadillac," which is pretty humorous.

When it was launched, the Allanté was priced far and above any other Cadillac - or GM car for that matter - and pitched at high-end competitors such as the lauded Mercedes-Benz 560SL and the Jaguar XJS-V12 Convertible.  The base price in 1987 was around $55,000 - or, corrected for inflation in today's dollar, is about $99,000.

It had some very nice features for a car from '87, but wasn't exactly the quickest thing on the road.  Pininfarina suggested a front-wheel-drive layout to GM for packaging reasons, which limited the availability of powerful engines GM could install in the car.  Early production Allantés used a tuned version of the Cadillac 4.1L single-cam V8, with long intake runners and higher compression.  This motor made 170bhp and 230 lb-ft of torque, which was a bit underpowered considering the Allanté weighed almost 3600lbs.  The transmission was an upgraded version of GM's HT440 FWD transaxle, beefed up for the more powerful motor.  What was odd about this 4-speed automatic transmission was that it operated the 1-2 shift mechanically, via hydraulic line pressure, but the 2-3 and 3-4 shifts, as well as the lockup on the torque converter was handled electronically.  The Allanté also momentarily retarded spark during shifts to preserve the transmission, which didn't do much for performance.

1989 Cadillac Allante

With this powertrain, Motor Trend tested an early Allanté as reaching 60mph (100km/h) in a rather sedate 10.36 seconds - compared to the 6.81 seconds from Benz's 227bhp 560SL Roadster.  Top speed was somewhere around 125mph.  The fact that the Allanté was heavy, slow, and front wheel drive (which lead to understeer in corners as well as torque-steer characteristics) and not available with a bigger engine pretty much caused the press to dismiss it as a "stuffed shirt" - all show, no go.

Sales of the pricey Allanté were understandably slow; in 1987 and 1988, Cadillac sold 3,363 and 2,569 Allantés, respectively.  This was partially due to the high price and partially due to extremely limited production capacity - and the world's longest assembly line.

The Allanté received some updates for 1989 that brought it more up-to-date with it's competition.  The 4100 HT V8 was updated to the new 4500HT V8, a stroked-out version of Cadillac's all-aluminum V8.  This new motor made a healthier 200bhp@4300rpm, and 270lb-ft of torque@3200rpm.  This extra grunt dropped the Allantés acceleration times considerably; 0-60 was reached in a more reasonable 7.9 seconds, although due to unchanged gearing, top speed remained at 125mph.  The other significant update for 1989 was the inclusion of a speed-sensitive damper control, which GM called SD²C (Speed Dependent Damping Control.)  This system was designed to increase stability at any given speed, and varied damping rates at given speeds.  The dampers started at full stiffness from rest up to 5 miles an hour for smooth takeoff, then slacked back to stock settings up to 25mph, where they bumped up a notch.  Then at 60mph, they bumped back up into the firmest setting to eliminate the Cadillac "float" at highway speeds.  Clever.

Sales were still low, peaking at 3,296 units between 1989-1992.  The model only received minor changes during that time period, like an updated Delco-Bose 200w stereo and minor trim changes.

1991 Cadillac Allante

The 1993 Allanté, introduced in mid 1992, was to be the best, and sadly the last year of the Allanté.  Numerous significant improvements were made, including a switch from the old cam-in-block Cadillac V8 to the brand-new Twin Cam 32v Northstar V8.  Displacing 4.6L, this high-tech quad-cam V8 brought the Allanté's performance up to much more respectable levels.  The Northstar made a healthy 295bhp and 290lb-ft of torque, a bump of 95bhp and 20lb-ft over the 4500HT, respectively.  The bizarre F7 transmission was ditched for GM's now-ubiquitous fully electronic 4T-80E transaxle, which was much more modern and better able to handle the additional power of the Northstar.

With this new, modern powertrain the Allanté could blast to 60mph in only 6.4 seconds, on it's way to a terminal velocity of 140mph.  The Allanté was the first application of the 32v Northstar motor, before being installed in various Devilles, Sevilles, and Eldorados.  In addition, the leaf-spring independent rear suspension was changed to an unequal-length semi-trailing arm rear, which had much less dynamic camber change under load and vastly improved cornering abilities.

Also for the 1993 model, the SD²C system was upgraded from being speed-dependent to being fully active, offering much more progressive damping and a better ride as well as more stable handling.  The Allanté also received variable-assist power steering and all-speed Traction Control in 1993, which integrated ABS modulation as well as spark retardation to cut power out at any speed, as opposed to the old system which was only active up to 30mph, and only used the brakes.  Minor aerodynamic changes, such as revised headlights and one-piece windows, cleaned up the appearance of the Allanté to bring it up to date.

Like most GM ideas, the big brass killed it off right as it finally got good.  This has happened many times before; Pontiac had finally gotten the mid-engined Fiero rightly settled, with great suspension, a punchy V6, a 5-speed and pretty bodywork - then killed it right before it was set to receive a world-beating 3.4L twin-cam 24v V6 in 1988.  The Buick Grand National evolved into the Porsche-stomping GNX, which held the title of world's quickest production sedan for quite a while, in 1987.  There was no Grand National at all in 1988.  The front-wheel-drive Buick Reatta 2-seat roadster, which actually shared many parts with the Allanté, was set to get GM's hot new Supercharged 3800 Series II (231ci) V6... but got canned.  Alas, the same with the Allanté; despite bringing it up to date in 1993 - which, at 4,670 units sold, was the Allantés best sales year - the model went out of production at the end of the year.

1992 Cadillac Allante

Over it's six-year production span, only 21,430 Allantés were produced, due to low demand, expensive and convoluted production, and an economic downturn in the early 90's that made cars like the Allanté unfasionable.  By 1993, the price had risen to $64,843 - or over $100,000 in today's money.  Still, in a 1992 comparison test between the $71,888 Jaguar XJS-V12 and the $90,355 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, Car & Driverpicked the Allanté over both of them - proof that GM will kill off anything interesting it makes, even if it's good.

Today, you can pick up an Allanté for pennies on the dollar.  Early models with high mileage (close to 100k) range from $3k-$5k depending on condition, while later Northstar models fetch more of a premium - up to $16,000 for a low-mileage, good condition Allanté.  That's still a lot of depreciation, but not as much as you'd expect for an early 90's Cadillac.

Sadly, like anything partially assembled in Italy, the Allanté has a few electrical problems.  Build quality was a bit iffy, and the content never really justified the price.  Still, it's fascinating to look back at was once the cream of the crop for GM - see how far we've come?

1993 Cadillac Allante

The successor the Allante was the Cadillac XLR in the early 2000's, which - surprise!- was another flop for GM.  Considering GM lost money on every Allante it sold, you'd think they'd have learned their lesson.  Some things never change.  Still, what a pretty car...

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