1996 Cadillac Catera
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?