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Second-hand: Cadillac Catera

Assembled in Russelsheim, Germany, the Catera was powered by a DOHC 3.0-litre V6 that had already crossed the Atlantic under the hood of the Saab 9000.

In the mid-’90s, Cadillac was once again puzzling over how to reach younger buyers.

While its, um, seasoned customers had deep pockets, many only had time to buy one or two Caddies before departing for the great celestial showroom.

A less expensive entry-level model had been marketed previously (the Cavalier-based Cimarron) to disastrous effect. This time, GM tapped its German subsidiary, Adam Opel AG, to supply a sports sedan to draw younger drivers into the fold.

Opel’s top-of-the-line Omega, which had debuted in Europe in 1994, was already a decent BMW baiter and seemed ideal to occupy Cadillac’s bottom rung – but not before submitting to a makeover.

Mercifully, the cosmetic changes were few: an egg-crate grille and new front and rear fascias. The rigid unibody benefited from further reinforcement, while engineers specified lots of cavity-filling sound insulation.

Launched for 1997, “the Cadillac that zigs” arrived as a rear-drive, four-door sedan.

CONFIGURATION

Assembled in Russelsheim, Germany, the Catera was powered by a DOHC 3.0-litre V6 that had already crossed the Atlantic under the hood of the Saab 9000.

With its unusual 54-degree cylinder-bank angle, rather than 60 degrees, the engine fit comfortably. Recalibrated for North American emissions, however, meant a slight output reduction to 200 hp and 192 lb.-ft. of torque.

The V6 was mated to an electronic four-speed transmission that also found its way in a number of BMWs. The automatic was programmed to provide economy, performance and winter shift modes, selectable by the driver.

Inside, the Catera was the paragon of style and comfort.

Front-seat occupants faced an attractive dash and sat on supportive chairs in the Teutonic tradition.

There was lots of space for three across on the back seat, which folded (a first in a Cadillac) to expand the cargo capacity of the already generous trunk.

The Omega’s four-wheel independent suspension remained intact, complete with rubber-isolated subframes (self-levelling at the rear). Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control were standard.

The Catera remained largely unchanged throughout its five-year run, save for a minor facelift in 2000. A Sport model also appeared that year, a mainly cosmetic exercise that featured 17-inch wheels in place of the 16-inch alloys.

The Catera was deep-sixed at the end of the 2001 model year, replaced by the homegrown Cadillac CTS sedan.

ON THE ROAD

The Opel Omega handily outsold the 5 Series BMW in Europe, boasting the requisite stout structure and performance hardware expected of a German sports sedan.

“It drives very well as a long-distance cruiser; it is quite nimble through twisty sections, as well,” reports reader Dave Galos, who pilots a 1998 Catera.

But he’d like more grunt under the hood: the 200 hp engine has to propel a car that weighs close to two American tons.

However, Opel engineers had sorted out the chassis nicely, providing better handling than the 0.76 g skidpad number suggests, thanks to its well-weighted steering.

Standard traction control takes some of the worry out of negotiating wet switchbacks.

The Catera hauls down from 112 km/h to a standstill in an exemplary 54 metres.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

At first glance, a used Catera represents a bargain for those who know the car’s pedigree.

It can make light work of cruising on the 401 all day.

“Decent mix of sport and comfort,” observed one driver.

“This car handles like it’s on rails,” suggested another.

It’s all good, until the Catera takes ill, which happens with alarming frequency, say owners.

“My 1997 Catera has incurred close to $10,000 worth of repairs since I bought it with less than 22,000 km,” one owner complained on the Internet.

A common problem is a broken or loose timing belt that works its way off the camshaft pulley, resulting in catastrophic valve annihilation (the engine uses an interference design).

Lots of rebuilt engines were noted, along with faulty head gaskets, oil coolers, water pumps, motor mounts, heater valves, a/c and transmissions.

The parts, sourced in Germany, are generally costly.

Wonky electrics such as bad ignition switches, sunroof motors and oxygen sensors can be another flaw.

“The file of repair invoices on that car is thicker than for all the cars that I have owned since 1978 put together,” reader Henry Graupner writes, who used to drive a ’97.

Avoid the troublesome early Cateras; one owner dubbed his “Dogtera.” Look for a 2000 or 2001 model with all its service records. By then, some of the bugs had been worked out.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models: Nissan Xterra, Chrysler Sebring and Mitsubishi Lancer.

Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, P.O. Box 51541, RPO Beaches, Toronto, ON M4E 3V7. Email: toljagic @ ca.inter.net

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