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1996 Cadillac Catera

  • Driver

CARMEL, Calif. Let's get one thing straight. "Catera" is not

the German word for "Cimarron".

Cimarron was Cadillac's last attempt at a small car. A Chevy

Cavalier with too much lipstick and too much rouge was hardly

going to cut it against the then-dominant German luxury sport

sedans.

Cadillac now figures the best way to compete with German

luxury sport sedans is with a German luxury sport sedan. Whence

Catera, arriving in Cadillac showrooms next fall.

Catera is not merely based on (and built alongside) the Opel

Omega MV6, which has received rave reviews from critics and

customers since its European debut about 18 months ago. Catera

is an Opel Omega MV6. Fewer changes than expected or feared

have accompanied the transformation.

Why "feared"? Because those of us who have driven the Omega

were afraid Cadillac would screw it up. To its credit, it has

not.

If the two cars are not identical, they are at least fraternal

twins. All sheetmetal is shared, a handsome and curvaceous yet

not too radical shape that should age well. It has a nice

presence on the road, looking particularly striking when viewed

in the rearview mirror of another car.

Catera's differences from Omega start at the front, with a

Cadillac-typical egg-crate grille made of "black chrome", topped

with a bright chrome eyebrow, and starring the Cadillac

wreath-and-crest emblem.

The oval taillamps of Omega, and of Catera's precursor LSE

show car of 1994, didn't "clinic" well with American prospective

customers, so a full-width taillamp was added. This looks like

the last-generation Chrysler K-car-based New Yorker, and to me

is the weakest part of the design.

A striking difference between Catera and its immediate

competitors is that it's not front-wheel drive.

Ironic, isn't it, that front-wheel drive is touted as a

space-efficient configuration, yet Catera is the smallest Cadillac

and, with the imminent demise of the Fleetwood, the sole

remaining reardrive Cadillac?

It's also the roomiest car in a largely front-drive class,

with particularly outstanding rearseat room and trunk space.

"Packaging" is the word, and engineers have really done a job

here.

Cadillac engineers needed additional structure odd,

considering German cars are usually top-rate in this regard. But

Caddy had to deal with 8 km/h bumper regulations for Canada, and

U.S. crash test laws that demand, among other things, that air

bags alone protect front-seat riders in 48 km/h crashes.

American-style luxury has brightened up the Black Wall of Doom

interior decor favored by the Germans, with lighter-colored and

softer-to-the-touch fabrics, vinyls and leathers. The seats are

Omega in design, but power adjustment is standard: six-way for

the driver, two-way for front passenger. Three-position memory

and seat heaters front and rear are optional.

The nice round knobs of Omega's heater, air conditioning and

ventilation system and its hopelessly confusing radio are both

dumped — you win some, you lose some — in favor of the

Lexus-like, mostly-push button centre stack lifted essentially

intact from the 1996 Eldorado and Seville.

Omega's awful-looking digital trip computer has been replaced

in Catera by analogue gauges for oil pressure and battery volts.

The Europeans are really into this digital stuff these days.

They'll learn. We did.

Catera adds a dual-cup holder, which springs from the centre

console storage box. And to keep those Cokes ready for

consumption, the glovebox is air conditioned. Cool, literally

and figuratively.

Catera's engine is Omega's 3.0 litre double overhead camshaft

32-valve V6, assembled in England. A revised Bosch engine

management system allows the motor to pass American tier one

emissions standards, to qualify for On-Board Diagnostics, Second

Generation (OBD II) status, and to run on 87-octane (regular

unleaded) fuel. But full power — 200 horses at 6000 r.p.m. — is

only achieved on 91-octane premium.

A three-way variable air intake system boosts torque at

low- and mid-range revs. The peak of 192 poundfeet is reached at

a respectably low 3600 r.p.m.

The engine management system incorporates a standard traction

control function, which cuts spark and fuel to individual

cylinders if wheelspin is detected. This can be shut off by the

driver as required or desired.

Massive air intake tubes, leading to and from the

fender-mounted air filter, make this look like a turbocharged

engine. It's not, but the German aftermarket will surely take

care of that. The compact V6 block, set well back in the engine

bay, makes one wonder whether Cadillac's Northstar V8 would

fit. Cadillac engineers say "no", but with a wistful look in

their eyes.

No one could claim that Catera's transmission, built by a

General Motors plant in Strasbourg, France, doesn't meet German

luxury car standards — BMW uses the same adaptive four-speed

electronic automatic, with driver-switchable sport, economy and

winter programs, on several of its North Americaspec models.

Cadillac chose shorter, i.e., lower numerically, first and

second gears for Catera's version of the transmission, as well

as a shorter rear axle ratio, to improve off-the-line

performance.

Interestingly, Opel engineers finally realized that even

German drivers accelerate away from stoplights more often than

they hit the rev limiter in top gear on the autobahn. The 1996

Omega gets Catera's final drive ratio, and will adopt the lower

transmission gearing in 1997. It seems both sides can learn from

each other. (Note: Audi, please copy.)

Several Catera competitors have abandoned MacPherson struts in

favor of double wishbone front suspension, claiming superior

handling and road noise isolation. Catera retains the simple,

space-efficient MacStruts, and adds specially designed lower

control arm bushings (the back one fluid-filled) to reduce road

shock and noise, and also provide stabilizing toe-in under heavy

braking.

The subframe-mounted rear suspension is effectively a

semi-trailing arm design, familiar to BMW owners. Extra

toe-control links between hubs and subframe qualify it for the

multilink designation, so coveted by luxury car marketers the

world over. The rear shock absorbers feature automatic

levelling, to maintain ride height regardless of load.

Even Mercedes has switched to rack and pinion steering with

its new E-class. But Catera stays with recirculating ball,

claiming excellent road feel with reduced kickback on bumps.

Roadspeed sensitive variable power assist allows easy parking

and better highway road feel. Automatic wear compensation in the

box maintains constant steering feel for the life of the car.

Cadillac engineers say they were surprised at how strong

Omega's brakes were. They shouldn't have been; any car with 225

km/h autobahn capability better have good brakes, or the

customers won't live long enough to buy another. Catera inherits

Omega's massive 296 mm ventilated front and 286 mm solid rear

rotors, with three-channel anti-lock control.

The only significant change to Omega's running gear for Catera

is the replacing of the Michelin MXV tires with Goodyear Eagle

RSA all-seasons. Despite a lower profile (225/55R16 versus

205/65R15) Catera's Goodyears exhibit markedly less harshness and

road noise, as well as superior bad weather traction. The

tradeoff is high-speed capability — Catera's engine is

electronically limited to 200 km/h — and a very slight reduction

in steering crispness. For the vast majority of North American

driving, this seems a worthwhile compromise.

I approached Catera's press introduction in this gorgeous

mid-California town with some trepidation, having being

thoroughly impressed, if not necesarily blown away, by the Opel

Omega MV6's overall competence during a long trip through

Europe in September. I need not have worried.

Given that there's no beyond-the-state-of-the-art hardware

here, it shouldn't be a surprise that Catera doesn't represent a

breakthrough on a world scale.

But neither can it be denied that Catera holds its head up

with pride when arrayed against the finest cars the world can

offer in this class.

Catera is roomy and comfortable, and sports all the modern

conveniences North American customers expect. It accelerates

briskly, handles confidently, rides extremely well, and is

pleasingly quiet. There's some engine noise on hard

acceleration, but that's acceptable in a car with sporting

intentions.

I would have put the occasional thump from the transmission

during shifting down to the they're-only-early-prototypes

excuse. But I noted the same thing on the Omega in Germany, and

have not noticed it in BMWs with the same transmission. Perhaps

some engine-transmission communication needs refining in the GM

cars, although everyone uses Bosch electronics. Weird.

Cadillac had such faith in Catera that they offered us several

competitors BMW 325 sedan, Mercedes-Benz C280, Infiniti I30,

Acura 2.5 TL, Lexus ES300 — as benchmarks. They weren't tired

old rental cars either, but well maintained cars of comparable

condition and equipment. Several German-spec Omega MV6s were

also on hand.

The initial and most obvious tallying point for Catera was

packaging. Sure, it's the longest car in this field,

considerably moreso than the BMW 3-series, closer in fact to the

5-series. Catera has a longer wheelbase than all but the Acura

TL, but outshines them all in interior space.

Drivers who place maximum emphasis on sportiness will likely

still prefer the 325. But again, it's a smaller car; little

wonder it's more nimble. The Benz C-class is a tremendously

capable road car, even if it tends to mask its handling prowess

behind a soft suspension and numb steering.

Catera falls somewhere in the middle, with a bit more road

feel than the Benz, a bit less than the Bimmer. In the same ball

park, or, more appropriately, soccer stadium? Absolutely.

The Japanese entries fall well behind in this area. The Lexus,

in particular, felt sloppy and uncommunicative on California

One, the famed twisty coastal highway. Its engine is strong and

its finish inside and out exemplary, but its road manners leave

a lot to be desired in this company.

There's no doubt in my mind that Cadillac and Opel have done

the engineering job with Catera. What remains is the marketing

job.

First, shame about the name. Cimarron obviously wasn't going

to fly, but it's too bad Cadillac couldn't have come up with

something more imaginative than yet another meaningless

computer-generated combination of vaguely Latin-sounding

syllables. La Salle, the name of the last successful small

Cadillac, seemed the obvious choice; it had a good run in the

early planning stages, but the old bugaboo of "market research"

killed it off — not enough people under the age of 45 had heard

of it, I guess.

Whatever the name, Cadillac's marketing department, now headed

by Canadian Martin Walsh, faces the challenge of getting

entry-level luxury car buyers to even consider a Cadillac, a

nameplate they think of as their dad's dream, not their own.

Cadillac is experimenting with a brand-management strategy,

adapted from Procter and Gamble's successful method of selling

soap. Dave Nottoli is the lead guy, and will help dealerships

focus on customer satisfaction issues that are of prime concern

to this group of customers. The brand management team includes

representatives from Cadillac's advertising agency and dealer

body.

The team is taking heart in the fact that these buyers

– typically, financially successful mid-40s boomers who were

weaned on Civics and Corollas and who've graduated to Acura and

Lexus with occasional forays into BMW and Mercedes — tend not to

be particularly brand-loyal.

They seem prepared to give anybody a chance — witness the

rapid growth of Lexus and Acura provided they can make a case

for what Nottoli calls "rational indulgence". These buyers are

prepared to pay extra for a luxury car, but not a great deal

extra. In other words, value must be a big part of the equation.

Prices are a long way from being determined. And no one at

Cadillac will make the following comparison, at least for the

record. But it looks like Cadillac will be able to offer a BMW

5-series competitor for a 3-series price.

A fully equipped 200 horsepower mid-size German luxury sports

sedan for $45,000? How can they miss?

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