David Wilkins remembers the first time Cadillac tried a European-based small car

General Motors' grandest US division, Cadillac, recently unveiled pictures of its new BLS, a "compact sedan" set to go on sale in 2006. Apart from the fact that it sounds a bit like something you might ask for at your local sandwich shop, the BLS is clearly a serious effort; the handsome, sharp-edged bodywork mirrors that of Caddy's bigger cars such as the STS and CTS, which have left the marque's previous stylistic excesses far behind.

General Motors' grandest US division, Cadillac, recently unveiled pictures of its new BLS, a "compact sedan" set to go on sale in 2006. Apart from the fact that it sounds a bit like something you might ask for at your local sandwich shop, the BLS is clearly a serious effort; the handsome, sharp-edged bodywork mirrors that of Caddy's bigger cars such as the STS and CTS, which have left the marque's previous stylistic excesses far behind.

But if the new model looks every inch the modern Cadillac, it isn't quite as American as it seems. Under its smart skin, the BLS borrows heavily from the mid-sized Saab 9-3, which, like its sister model, the Vauxhall/Opel Vectra, is based on GM's "Epsilon" platform. The BLS will even be built in Europe, and could be vital to the future of General Motors' factories at Rüsselsheim (Opel) and Trollhattan (Saab), which presently have too much capacity dedicated to the production of the Epsilon models. Early reports also suggest that it may only be sold in Europe, too, to raise Cadillac's profile.

Now there is nothing much wrong with the 9-3/Vectra platform but its use in a Cadillac brings to mind a not-entirely-happy precedent. Back in 1981, Vauxhall introduced the second-generation Vauxhall Cavalier, a direct ancestor of today's Epsilon-based Vectra. At that time, Britain's GM subsidiary was enjoying a period of strong growth, fuelled by the adoption of Opel designs in place of its previous home-developed efforts. In fact, the new Cavalier was the British version of GM's "J-car", probably the most ambitious attempt by a major manufacturer to develop a so-called "world car" that could be built and sold around the globe in the hope of reaping massive economies of scale.

The core model was the German Opel Ascona, of which Vauxhall's Cavalier was a near-copy, but J-cars were introduced around the world, notably in Australia and the USA. In fact, the American end of GM went for the J-car in a big way, with all of the company's US brands offering their own variants. Just like Vauxhall, Chevrolet called its version the Cavalier. Oldsmobile offered the Firenza (another Vauxhall name) while Buick's variant was called the Skylark. Probably the best-looking American J-cars were sold by Pontiac, which gave the J2000 and Sunbird models a sporty sloping nose like that of its larger Firebird coupe.

Right at the top of the scale, however, was the Cadillac Cimarron. It had a Cadillac-style premium price, but looked remarkably like a tarted up Chevrolet Cavalier, which is hardly surprising as that is more or less what it was; it had, at best, a lukewarm reception. But even if the Cimarron had been great car, it would probably still have struggled. The notion of a small Cadillac was then a totally foreign one to most American buyers, despite the introduction of the Seville a few years before which had already signalled a retreat from super-sizing at GM. In 2000, a full twelve years after Cimarron production ended, listeners to the US National Public Radio motoring show Cartalk still disliked it enough to vote it one of the ten worst cars of the millennium, alongside such stinkers as the Yugo, the Ford Pinto and the AMC Gremlin.

The contrast with the respect enjoyed by the European J-cars could not have been greater. Nobody really goes misty-eyed at the memory of the 1981 Ascona/Cavalier these days but, when it was launched, it was widely praised for its design, its lively "family two" overhead-cam engines and the crisp handling delivered by its new front-wheel-drive layout.

The differing fortunes of J-car variants on different continents highlighted the limitations of the world-car concept. Local variations in safety and pollution regulations, not to mention widely differing tastes, made it almost impossible to build and sell the same car successfully everywhere, so, despite their superficial similarity, American and European J-cars had significant differences under the skin. A year or two previously, Chrysler and Ford had learnt much the same lesson with the US and European versions of the Horizon and Escort respectively.

The BLS looks a lot more promising than its Cimarron J-car predecessor. Big manufacturers have got better at making cars that share lots of parts feel and look different from one another. The term "small Cadillac" is no longer an oxymoron; perhaps the company has the Cimarron to thank for that, if for nothing else. And the rest of Cadillac's cars are sharper and more "European" than they were, meaning that the BLS will fit in to the range more easily.

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