Ever since I saw a prototype of the 1992 Cadillac Seville at the Los Angeles Auto Show last January, I've been itching to drive that car. Even then, from its svelte good looks and toned-down interior, it seemed that an American company had finally come up with the right formula to compete with the Japanese. That's especially important for Cadillacs, as Lexus and Infiniti have used sophisticated styling and down-to-earth practicality to steal away sales.

I'm happy to report that the production version comes tantalizingly close to expectations. The styling is subtle, with softer angles that look like no Cadillac you've ever seen. And Cadillac has stripped off the glitz for the upscale STS -- or Seville Touring Sedan -- as well. The grille is the same color as the car's body instead of being chrome, the window moldings are black, and the stand-up Cadillac hood ornament has been rendered in pewter and moved down to a more inconspicuous station on the grille.

Cadillac has downplayed the technogadgets that plague most American cars. Instead, the curvaceous dash encloses traditional analog dials for speed, RPM, and fuel. What few digital displays remain -- the outside temperature, for one -- can be extinguished at the touch of a button. Best of all, a mechanical click has replaced the annoying turn-signal chime. POISED. Sure, all the high-tech features you'd expect in a $38,000 luxury car are there. Leather seats are wide and perforated, with good lateral support and an inflatable lumbar support that can be moved up and down to fit the height of the driver.

Where the STS comes up a tad short is in driveability. In years past, Cadillac outfitted the basic Seville with the pillow-soft ride its traditional customers demanded and gave the sportier STS a stiff, taut suspension. Now, Cadillac engineers are trying to strike a compromise for the STS with a computer-controlled ride that tries to match driving conditions.

The suspension shifts to its firm setting at freeway speeds, as well as during aggressive cornering and braking, where it does an admirable job of taming body roll. But for around-town cruising, when it locks into the comfort mode, handling feels squishy.

So far, Cadillac is limiting production to ensure quality. Once at dealerships, the Sevilles are going fast. And they're doing the job that Cadillac intended -- luring a younger, import-conscious buyer back into the U. S. luxury fold.

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