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1997 Cadillac Catera

The Cadillac Catera. "The Caddy that zigs." Ahem.

My job is to tell you about the car. I'll leave the marketing

critique to someone else.

As every car enthusiast knows by now, Catera is Cadillac's

latest attempt to establish a presence in the lower end of the

luxury car market.

As every car enthusiast knows by now, Catera is essentially a

reworked Opel Omega MV6, the top model from General Motors'

European subsidiary.

What every car enthusiast wants to know is: Is Catera any

good? That is, is it still an Opel? And what every Cadillac

enthusiast wants to know is: Is it a Cadillac?

If you've only got a few seconds, I'll cut to the chase: Yes,

yes, and sort of, respectively.

Good? Catera was chosen best new luxury car in this year's

Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Car of the Year

competition.

An Opel? Most definitely. Cadillac was in on the start of the

MV6 design process in the late '80s. They pulled out when they

had a chance to develop their own small car (Cadillac 2000).

When GM's top management canned that project, Cadillac bought

back into Omega.

By then, the Germans had gone their own way; Omega debuted in

late 1993. The upside is that the teething troubles associated

with any new car have pretty much been worked out by now. The

downside is that Catera has missed out on four years of

automotive progress.

To me, Catera doesn't make as big a styling statement here as

the Opel does in Europe. It's handsome, but not eye-catching.

External differences are mainly a new front end with Caddy-style

eggcrate grille, and a full-width taillamp, added after the

Opel taillights cliniced badly when a Catera prototype labelled

the LSE was shown at the 1994 Detroit auto show.

I'm not sure the new back end is an improvement; it reminds me

of a Plymouth Acclaim. (You can't remember Plymouth Acclaim?

Some guys have all the luck.)

Body rigidity is usually a German car strength, but Cadillac

actually had to stiffen Omega's body further to pass U.S. crash

tests.

The 3.0 litre, four-cam, 24-valve, 200-horsepower V6 was

electronically limited to 200 km/h, allowing Cadillac to fit

lower speed-rated (hence softer, more compliant) tires, and

retuned to give Catera better off-the-line urgency. To the same

end, the shift strategy of the electronic four-speed automatic

overdrive transmission was modified and the final drive ratio

lowered (the latter move, interestingly, now adopted by Opel

too).

And of course, the usual mod cons expected in our market

remote keyless entry, power seats (with optional three-setting

memory for the driver's), automatic dual-zone air — are all

standard on Catera.

The alleged space utilization benefits of front-wheel drive

are completely blown away by this mid-size four-door sedan. It's

the smallest and sole remaining reardrive Cadillac, yet its

rear seat is enormous, and its trunk bigger than some Japanese

hotel rooms I've stayed in. Credit a very compact independent

rear suspension.

The interior is a generally well integrated mix of Opel and

Cadillac. Lighter-colored fabrics than the sombre German car

uses are accented by wood trim, limited to bits on the doors and

a well below the parking brake, which will (did!) accumulate

junk and, probably, scratches.

Caddy, praise be, dumped Omega's electronic digital

instrumentation in favor of analogue gauges.

The centre stack, with mostly push button radio and

ventilation controls, appears to have been lifted straight from

Seville. The ergonomic weakness of push buttons was highlighted

every time I started the car during my cold-weather test period.

The windshield would immediately fog up, and I had to manually

page through the "mode" push button to find the defrost setting,

then tap up the fan speed button and the electronic icons are

hard to read. The fog cleared quickly, then I had to tap

everything back.

I guess I could have just hit the front defrost button,

assuming I could distinguish it from the adjacent and identical

rear defrost button. But then I'd get hurricane-force fan speed

– overkill. This is progress? With round knobs, it would have

taken two no-look flicks of the wrist.

The trunk and fuel filler door releases are a matched pair of

buttons on either side of the centre stack; ditto the four-way

flasher and traction control buttons. Symmetry rather than logic

dictates here.

The cruise control on the end of the turn signal stalk forced

me to find a new place to practice my drumming — I kept

switching on the cruise.

The seats are firm yet comfortable, and visibility is

generally good, apart from the rear seat head restraints, which

obscure the rearward view.

While I'm being picky, the headlight switch illumination

reflects badly in the left sideview mirror; the electrochromic

rearview mirror can't be adjusted or, better still, switched

off, so the nighttime rear view is too dim; the horn is

activated only by two small buttons, not by the full surface of

the steering wheel hub pad; the seat heaters only have one

setting and it's way too hot; I broke the cup holder, even using

the very same coffee mug pictured in Cadillac's brochure (it was

also the fourth such breakage in GM Canada's press fleet so far;

a redesigned cup holder is being fitted now).

Some of these details are examples of the missed progress I

noted earlier.

Now, do all these minor beefs mean I don't like the car? Not

at all. If a sports sedan's performance and handling are good

enough, a lot more than this can be forgiven.

Catera proves that autobahn breeding counts. Like all fine

German road cars, it has a natural frequency: it just wants to

go 130 km/h, all the time. Maybe more — how would I know?

It feels like there's two engines under the hood. A nice,

quiet, relaxed one gives decent if not ear-bleeding acceleration

off the line. But keep your foot in it above 4200 r.p.m. and the

three-stage intake manifold system opens up a new airflow path

to the engine, a bunch more horses are untethered, and the

engine takes on a new urgency, not only in forward thrust but

also in intake and exhaust notes.

Cadillac says the all-speed, engine-power-reduction traction

control can be turned off "for those rare situations where some

wheelspin is desirable". " Rare " situations? Their

Cadillac-style white shoes and belt are showing here. This is a sports

sedan, guys.

I switched this useless technological trinket off every time I

got in (right after the clear-the-fog procedure; another fuse

I'd pull). The excellent Goodyear RSA tires provide all the

forward grip you need in snow. In a realworld test in a

neighbor's barely plowed driveway, I couldn't make it with

traction control on; no problem without it.

The transmission shifts well, but again, Opel hasn't been able

to resist the lure of unwarranted technology. A "sport" mode,

offering crisper, delayed upshifts, is obtained by pushing a

button in the shift knob. Well, okay. But if the tranny's

already in fourth gear, this automatically gives you third;

slide the lever to "3", then back to D, and it goes back to

fourth. Weird.

Likewise the button-selected "winter" program, which gives

third-gear starts: reduced torque, theoretically less wheelspin.

I drove in some of the worst winter conditions we've had for

years. Never needed it.

Catera has outstanding dynamics: a firm but supple ride;

precise, fluid recirculating ball steering with road-speed

variable power assist; excellent brakes. My test car was well

built, with just one small rattle, oddly enough, in the rear

view mirror.

If an enervating, numbing Japanese pretender is your idea of

"sports sedan", go ahead, buy one. But if you're shopping

German sports sedans for the right reasons — capability and

driving pleasure, rather than image ruboff — Catera is easily

the match of any of them. Well equipped at a starting price of

$42,200 it's a BMW 5-series competitor at a 3-series price.

I might even say it zigs.

And finally: Is Catera a Cadillac?

It'd better be. The demographics of Cadillac's traditional

buyers suggest they won't be buying too many more cars in their

lifetimes. If Cadillac can't entice them and others into

showrooms to look at a car like Catera, they're in deep, deep

trouble.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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