A Cadillac With Smarts

How small can a pothole be? An inch deep, let us say, and a foot in diameter. Now imagine a tire hitting the lip of that hole at 60 miles an hour. The tire is on a 1993 Cadillac Allante, which, since the base price is just under $60,000, chances are you'll never own - but if you did, here's what would happen. Instantaneously, the Road Sensing Suspension would detect a drop in the road surface and communicate it to the Electronic Control Module, which in turn would signal a small electric motor to firm the shock absorber for that particular wheel, and that wheel only-a process that can be completed in as little as 10 milliseconds, which means that by the time the tire hit the opposite lip of the hole, the car would have been braced and ready for it. And the lucky personal-injury lawyer or commodities trader at the wheel would never feel a thing.

The new Allante, which went on sale last week even as it was winning admiring glances from teenage future orthodontists at the New York Auto Show, is probably the most advanced production car built in the United States. This is a boast that until a few years ago would have sounded a trifle hollow, like "the best-designed car in the Soviet bloc'--but no longer, or so General Motors devoutly hopes. In fact, GM's claims for the car are largely borne out by a test drive. The Allante held its course over the roughest patches, then instantly returned to a luxurious ride that can best be described as "gliding." "We consider it worthy of consideration," says Mercedes-Benz spokesman A. B. Shuman loftily, "an interesting vehicle made even more interesting." GM's goal is to sell 3,000 Allantes next year in competition with the Mercedes 300 and 500 SL lines ($83,500 and $97,500, respectively) and the Jaguar XJS convertible ($67,500), making it just the thing for the budget-minded corporate raider or major-league outfielder who needs to drive 150 miles an hour. True, the Allante gets only 21 miles to the gallon on the open road and 14 in traffic, but you can afford not to care.

The Allante was introduced in 1987 as a two-seat sports coupe, compact by Cadillac standards: at 178.7 inches (almost 15 feet), the new model is exactly as long as the Chevrolet Corvette and nearly 4 feet shorter than the mastodonic Cadillac Brougham. In terms of styling, it is classic or, depending on how you view these things, a little stodgy; the only visible innovation for 1993 is the front-end spoiler below the grille.

What's new is an array of electronic technology, all of it invisible to the driver, of almost biological complexity. Here are some of the things the Allante can do: it can sense the onset of traction loss and apply pulsed braking even while the driver keeps a foot on the accelerator. It can electronically cut out up to five of the eight cylinders to provide additional slowing power, and bring them back on line when traction has been restored. It shifts its four-speed transmission electronically, guided by a computer that actually anticipates each shift based on the driver's demands. Whether you're a stockbroker, savings-and-loan executive or real-estate syndicator, you will want to drive differently trying to impress Monique van Vooren on a date than you will on your way to your sentencing hearing with your mother. In the first case, you go whipping through the esses in the Hollywood hills, and, sensing your devil-maycare mood, the Powertrain Control Module holds the car in each gear a little longer for better acceleration. But when you want to drive sedately, the computer recognizes that, too, and shifts earlier, saving gas and engine wear, which will be a great comfort to your family while you're away. Should there be an electrical failure or fault with the shift actuators, the computer will give a "limp home" order, making the car shift down to a gear appropriate to the speed at which you're driving. Eventually, whether you like it or not, the car will move down to second gear. The Allante, in an emergency, can drive for miles with an empty radiator, cutting cylinders out in rotation just before they overheat and then switching them back in as they cool. You wouldn't want to make a practice of this, of course - but you know how absent-minded the truly wealthy can be.

But what the Allante mostly is, is really, really fast, the fastest front-wheel-drive car in the world. The 32-valve, 4.6-liter V8 engine, which Cadillac calls Northstar, is just a detuned racing engine, with aluminum pistons (to save weight) and a fuel-injection system built of nylon, magnesium and spaceage plastics intended to insulate the incoming fuel from the heat of the cylinder head. "The beauty of this system," in the estimation of J. David Powell, an engineering professor at Stanford, " is that the fuel is much cooler, allowing a more dense air/fuel charge into the combustion chamber for additional horsepower." In practical terms this means that the 1993 Allante will go from 0 to 60 in 6.9 seconds, compared to 8 seconds for the previous year's model. That is pretty fast, although not as fast as a specially modified Jaguar XJR-15, which will do it in 4.5 seconds. But that costs $1 million, which is a lot even for most cosmetic surgeons, game-show hosts ... and lottery winners.

Driving at the Competition 1993 Cadillac Allante

The 4.6-liter, 32-valve V-8 is essentially a detuned racing engine that produces a hefty 290 horsepower.

Computer driven, it kicks in when the car senses a loss of traction-even if the driver still has a foot on the gas.

Vital Stats: Time to go from 0-60 mph 6.9 seconds Top speed Over 150 mph Miles per gallon (combined city/highway) 17 mpg Price (no extras) $59,975