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'
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on
driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.