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CADILLAC SEVILLE BACK ON RIGHT TRACK

I was thumbing my way through the cable channels the other night (my wife doesn't believe I can keep track of three basketball games, four old movies and the latest PBS fund drive all at the same time) when I stumbled upon Robin Williams doing his schtick as the penultimate, motor-mouth car salesman in "Cadillac Man."

I prefer Williams in his more thoughtful guises, such as the English teacher ("Oh Captain, my captain") in "Dead Poets Society," so I normally would have paused only a moment before zapping my remote on yet another trip through the land of 36 channels.But this time was different. This time I had a 1992 Cadillac Seville STS (for Seville Touring Sedan; there is also a base Seville) resting in my garage, a fact that gave the movie personal significance.

I caught only the last half-hour or so of "Cadillac Man," but it was enough. As the credits rolled and Williams drove away from the dealership in his convertible Allante with the "Cad-Man" plates, it occurred to me that this movie epitomized the "old" Cadillac division of General Motors.

The car sitting in my garage represented the new Cadillac.

For someone who came of age in the '50s, Cadillac was the ultimate consumer product. BMW and Mercedes-Benz were names seen only in magazines. As for Lexus, Infiniti and Acura . . . well, Japan was still the place where they made chop sticks, rice-paper umbrellas and not much else.

Somewhere along the line, with a little help from mistakes such as the "downsized" Cadillac Cimarron and self-destructing engines, Cadillac lost its way. From the ultimate status symbol, the finned and hump-backed behemoths became the symbol of everything that was wrong with the way Detroit built and marketed cars.

Today, with the new Seville STS leading the charge, Cadillac has found its way back into the light. True, the luxury car market has changed irrevocably, while GM's luxury division has fought to re-invent itself. Caddie can never hope to regain the exclusivity that it once held. There are just too many good players in the luxo ranks.

But at least Cadillac may now count itself a serious contender among them. Numerous awards by the auto magazines, reports of buyer waiting lists at dealers, a 64 percent jump in Seville sales in a single month. . . . With this car (and the new Eldorado), Cadillac has shucked off its overstuffed image in favor of a new one that seems to capture the "road car" performance aura of the German marques while retaining the softer, more elegant feel of traditional American luxury cars.

For openers, the new Seville looks great. Long, low and sleek, the STS might best be described by what has been left off rather than what has been added: no fins, no whitewalls, no pretend wire wheels, no bizarre bustle-back trunk, no vinyl top, no "opera" windows, no stand-up hood ornament, no gold chrome accents (in fact, no chrome at all), no "continental kit." The traditional American "luxury" cues, long scorned by the Euro buffs, are nowhere to be found on the STS.

Don't misunderstand, the Seville is not another attempt at "downsizing." It's more than a foot longer than last year's model, including an extra 3 inches to the wheelbase. It's also a few inches wider and an inch taller. But it wears its extra size well. No one will joke about this Cadillac resembling a parade float.

Inside, the simplicity theme continues. While all the expected luxo goodies are there - including very tasteful "zebrano" wood trim - they blend unobtrusively. The cassette/CD combination player has a reasonable number of large, easy-to-touch buttons; the automatic climate control can be operated without reading the owner's manual; and the combination digital/analog gauges tell you what you need to know clearly and precisely.

The computer information system, now standard on upscale cars, is equally intelligible and can be turned off if you don't want to know the outside temperature or how many more miles you can drive at present fuel consumption .

Perhaps Automobile magazine put it best when, in December, it named the new Seville STS its "Automobile of the Year," (the first time a domestic has been so honored): "STS proves that taste, imagination . . . and love for the automobile are not dead in Detroit," said Automobile.

OK, so it looks good inside and out. But it also performs - better than any Cadillac I've driven in the past. Power comes from a 4.9 liter (300 cubic inches) V-8 with an aluminum block and cast-iron heads. Its 200 horsepower propels the car from 0-60 mph in the 8-9 second range, very respectable for a sedan of this class.

Gas mileage is rated at 16 city, 25 highway, but I don't think I did that well - the gas gauge seemed to drop every time I turned the ignition key. The factory says the car has a range of 470 miles with its 18.8-gallon tank, but I would have to see it to believe it. The gas gauge in my car was flirting with the E mark after only 200 miles, but I admit to not having a feathery touch with accelerator pedals.

Ride and handling are Germanesque, firmer than any Cadillac that has gone before, and that's good. The designers clearly want to recapture younger luxury car buyers who would otherwise purchase a luxury import. They have already succeeded.

Now comes the sticker shock. The car I tested, a "Dark Plum" (looked like purple to me) model with "neutral" leather (looked light gray to me) had a base price of $37,975. With the upgraded CD stereo ($972), heated windshield system ($309), heated front seats ($120) and automatic day/night rear view mirror ($110), along with California emissions and destination charges, the bottom line was $40,186.

A ton of money for a car? No question. On the other hand, the average price of a Mercedes is now $60,000 and 40K is still below the top Lexus and Infiniti models. Throw in a dose of Buy American fever, and the Seville STS seems priced about right.