Tested: 1989 Cadillac Allanté vs. Mercedes-Benz 560SL
From the Archive: Cadillac's upstart Allanté challenges the old guard of heavyweight convertibles, the Mercedes SL.
Car and Driver
BY: PATRICK BEDARD
From February 1989
This is a title match, heavyweight two-*seater division. The undisputed champion Mercedes-Benz SL is stepping into the ring yet again, one more time in its amazing eighteen-year-long career. This time the challenger is the brash young Cadillac Allanté. "Palooka," says the scuttlebutt. "The Allanté is all hype and no punch. Look at its record in the showrooms. This is gonna be another Mercedes KO."
For sure, the champ has built a career on knockouts. The contenders look good on paper, but they always come up short. What most ringsiders don't know, however, is how hard this challenger has been training for 1989. We previewed the toughened Allanté at a recent work*out, and it showed us some impressive new moves.
Still, the SL's record is formidable—the envy of all the prestige-car makers. Sales results for 1988 are not complete as this is being written, but Mercedes sold 11,964 SLs stateside in 1987 and 12,530 in 1986. For a car that's always been priced in the stratosphere, that kind of showroom success is astounding.
That kind of success, it must be said, is also exactly what brings out the challengers. The 1989-model 560SL lists for $64,230. If past sales continue, that amounts to a nice little three-quarter-*billion-dollar-a-year business. Would other carmakers like a bite of that? Do sharks like steak tartare?
We'll tell you how much one particular German maker wants a piece of the SL's action. Have you seen the recent print ad for the Porsche 928S4, the one with the headline that reads "Think of it as a Mercedes with Tabasco sauce"? Huh? Is there any way you can squint your mind's eye so that the fastback-sleek and enormously powerful 928 comes across as some kind of spicy Mercedes? We can't either. But if the champ were beating you up in the market—really hammering you despite your best offensive efforts—perhaps you'd blurt out whatever desperate thing came to mind, too.
How bad is the champ killing them in sales? Worse than you'd think. In 1987, Porsche sold 1967 928s, and 1988 is off about 30 percent from that. In a good Porsche year, Mercedes moves about six times as many SLs.
And if the customers regard the SL as the standard, then so must the challengers (and so must we). The Allanté was created with the SL in mind. Cadillac never said that exactly, but it did point to the customers it wanted—and they were all heading for their local M-B stores. How could they be intercepted? Showing them a better SL was the obvious strategy. Cadillac held nothing back with the Allanté. It even confronted its own Not Invented Here Syndrome, admitted that outside help was necessary, and hired Pininfarina to design and manufacture the bodies and help with general development. Cadillac, you must understand, didn't just roll another model out the door: the Allanté is a premeditated and carefully executed move to sock it to the champion SL.
How's it going so far? Not badly, we'd say—despite what you may have heard about weak punches in the showroom. In model-year 1987, the introductory year, Cadillac reported 1651 Allanté sales, followed by 3502 sales of the 1988s. Admittedly, this is not heavy traffic and it didn't cause much sweat at Daimler-Benz.
Nonetheless, we think the Allanté made a respectable showing. We say that for two reasons: (1) its over-$50,000 introductory price was twenty grand more than anything else wearing the Cadillac label, which means there were no customers predisposed to over-$50,000 Cadillacs, and (2) the Cadillac label gets no respect in the ultrahigh end of the business. Moving the iron against that sort of head wind is necessarily slow going.
But so what? Champs aren't made in a year or two. Look at the SL. It has secured its lock on the market over eighteen years. There's only one question: Is the Allanté a better car? If it is, the sales will come in due time.
ls the Allanté a better car? That is the question, isn't it? And that's the reason for this title match. Why wait years for the vote to come in when a few days of driving and a few trips to the test track can serve up the answer immediately?
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