A brave new Cadillac with a strong German accent. by Tony Swan
We regularly make contrasts between American and German luxury cars, and the contrasts aren't always favorable to the home team. Thanks to the autobahn, Germany's unique high-speed development crucible, automobiles produced north of the River Rhine tend to have a strong edge in dynamic deportment, particularly as the speedometer ticks north of 70 mph or so.
But here's a new Cadillac that erases those nationalistic distinctions. Not only does the new Catera have the feel and response of a Germany luxury sedan, it is a Germany luxury sedan.
Recognizing the need for a new car that would attract a new set of buyers to Cadillac showrooms -- buyers who might otherwise wind up in cars from Lexus, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz and BMW -- General Motors reached out to Opel, its German subsidiary, for the raw material. The starting point was the Opel Omega, an award-winning rear-drive mid-size luxury sedan that competes in Europe with cars like the BMW 5-Series and the Mercedes E-Class.
And the production point will be the Opel factory in Russelsheim, Germany. A German Cadillac.
Will this experiment inject new life into the Cadillac franchise and bring new buyers to Cadillac showrooms? To find out, we visited the Russelsheim works and spent two days driving the Catera -- as well as the Omega -- on German roads.
Although the Catera is about the same size as the 5-Series and E-Class, its expected price -- from roughly $33,000 -- will put it on a competitive footing with the Lexus ES300, Mercedes C-Class, and BMW 3-Series, all smaller cars, which should give Cadillac an edge in the value department.
What Cadillac will be offering is far more than a rebadged Opel. While the Omega is still readily visible in the profile view, the new front end, with its black chrome eggcarte grille, is unmistakably Cadillac, and the rear updates the theme established by the Seville and Eldorado.
Changes inside the car are even more sweeping -- we'll get to those in a minute -- and Cadillac also made revisions in places you can't see. The chassis, already an Omega strong point, was further reinforced, transmission gearing was altered for better low and mid-range acceleration and the Catera engineering team took a number of measures aimed at improved noise isolation. Effective measures, we might add.
All of these changes added weight to the car. Ready to roll, the Catera scales in at 3770 pounds, which is only 122 pounds lighter than the much larger Seville. However, the engine, suspension and brakes make the additional mass all but unnoticeable on the road.
While the car will be new to the U.S., the engine won't. Developed in Germany and manufactured in England, it's the same 54-degree 3.0-liter V-6 used by Saab, with dual overhead cams, 24 valves and 200 horsepower at 6000 rpm. That's not a lot of horsepower in a car with the Catera's curb weight, but a sophisticated induction system gives the V-6 surprisingly good pulling power in the lower rpm ranges.
Only one transmission is offered, a four-speed automatic, with three operating modes -- normal, sport (for more aggressive shifting) and winter, which starts the car off in third gear, to reduce the possibility of wheelspin on slick surfaces. Traction control is standard equipment, as is anti-lock braking. The brake system features huge rotors at all four wheels, and based on our driving we expect the performance of this system to be the best in GM's entire North American inventory.
The Inside Story
The design team did a good job of giving the Catera a Cadillac family look, but their best work shows up inside. Compared with the stark interior treatment of the Omega, with its coal bin color scheme, the Catera is handsomely turned out in warm, muted colors and rich fabrics.
The nicely padded steering wheel features auxiliary sound system controls mounted at the edge of its hub, and the instrument panel has an unusually comprehensive array of well-marked analog gauges, including indicators for oil pressure and voltage.
Climate and audio control switches are large, easily deciphered and easy to use while the car is moving, even at autobahn speeds, and the obligatory cupholders, which pop out of the center console, are big enough to hold just about anything. The optional Bose sound system in our test car, with a remote CD changer, was well-nigh orchestral, but the standard AM/FM/cassette system is very good, too.
The seats strike a nice balance between sporty and sumptuous. There's not as much side bolstering as you'd find in a BMW, but the padding has that all-day Euro comfort feel and the range of power adjustability virtually guarantees a good fit for almost any driver.
Interior space is an important comfort component, and the Catera has plenty of it, fore and aft. For example, there's almost as much rear seat legroom here than in an Olds Aurora, even though the Aurora is a larger car. And there's far more rear seat room than you'll find in a Lexus ES300, BMW 328i or a Mercedes C-Class, some of the Catera's key competitors.
Another nice Catera touch is a rear-seat pass-through feature, to expand the volume of the trunk, which is sizeable to begin with. However, Cadillac knows that the buyers it hopes to attract with this new car are given to hauling longish cargo like skis and snowboards. Hence the pass-through, a first for this brand.
The Catera's menu of standard equipment should be as good as anything in its price class and better than most. Aside from a power moonroof, eight-speaker Bose CD sound system and leather, there just isn't much to add. There's nothing basic about the basic Catera.
Safety features are up to the minute -- dual airbags, side impact protection, standard ABS, standard traction control, daytime running lights -- and Cadillac plans to add side airbags to the Catera's passive safety inventory in mid-1997.
Ride & Drive
Although Cadillac revised the Omega's suspension tuning for use in the Catera, the development team chose to retain a strongly Germanic feel, which provides an excellent sense of control. As a result, the Catera's ride is firmer than most of its competitive targets.
We appreciated the Catera's quick responses, and its limited body roll in hard cornering. We also liked the BMW-esque ride quality. However, our impressions were collected on Germany's beautifully maintained road system. How the Catera's firm ride will stack up on U.S. highways is something that remains to be seen.
Although the Catera's hefty curb weight limits straight-ahead performance, we think most prospects will find it to be at least satisfactory. A number of competing cars are quicker off the line, but the V-6 -- another first for Cadillac -- delivers good passing power and thrives on high-speed cruising. It's quiet at almost all operating speeds, and fuel economy is better than you might expect for a car in this weight class.
The transmission is typical of GM -- almost seamless, unless you select the sport mode, whereupon the shifts ram home with more authority. We didn't encounter any conditions that caused the traction control system to kick in, but we view this feature as an important plus in a rear-drive car.
While the Catera's deportment is sure to please drivers who enjoy quick response, the braking system is the strongest part of this car's performance story. Repeated hard stops from speeds in excess of 100 mph didn't produce even a hint of fade, and the stopping distances were short. Extraordinary.
This is a brave experiment for Cadillac. With its V-6 engine and Germanic underpinnings, the Catera is a radical departure for a company once known for its overstuffed, overweight plushmobiles. Although the Seville and Eldorado represented a positive turn away from those outdated traditions, the Catera takes a new direction altogether, and Cadillac doesn't expect it to win the hearts of many of its traditional buyers.
But those aren't the hearts the marketeers are shooting for. The Catera is aimed at affluent younger professionals who are ready to step up from their Toyota Camrys and/or Honda Accords.
If you fit that description, you owe it to yourself to take a look at this car. With its combination of European road manners, roominess, quiet operation, beautifully appointed interior and high feature content, the Catera figures to be one of the best values in its class.
Watch for Cateras to begin appearing in selected Cadillac showrooms in September.
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