by Ray Thursby
American luxury with a German accent.
Base Price $34,820
As Tested $36,788
Cadillac is out to conquer the world. Four years short of its centennial, General Motors' wreath-and-crest division says it is looking to become "the world's premier luxury car manufacturer."
That's a tall order. To achieve so lofty a goal, Cadillac faces head-to-head competition with Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti and a host of others, all with solid credentials. It is not enough to offer quality; Cadillac was already competitive on that level. Being worldwide No. 1 also requires being visible around the world, a challenge Cadillac is meeting with the establishment of more than 700 dealerships outside the United States.
Top quality and a plethora of dealers aren't enough. Another key element is variety. Customers expect to find luxury appointments in full- and midsize sedans, sport-utility vehicles and performance cars. That's where the Catera comes in. It gives Cadillac a presence in the import-oriented entry-luxury segment, just as the new Escalade puts Cadillac into the SUV field.
Adapted from the popular European Opel Omega MV6 and built alongside it in Russelsheim, Germany, the Catera has the attributes expected by a demanding group of customers, as do its primary opponents, the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Infiniti I30 and Lexus ES 300.
A large traditional grille with a prominently displayed wreath-and-crest emblem is Catera's primary visual link to the rest of the Cadillac line. Sevilles, DeVilles and Eldorados are, in general, long and subtly rounded with crisply defined edges, while the Catera displays a more rounded, European appearance with short front and rear overhangs. There's lots of glass for excellent driver visibility. It looks classy and stylish, while satisfying aerodynamic requirements. Details are executed well, and panel fit and paint quality are of the highest order. Overall, the Cadillac Catera appears sleek and contemporary.
Catera is offered in one well-equipped model. It comes with alloy wheels, tinted windows and folding outside mirrors. Two styles of road wheel are offered, one chromed, the other left in a natural brushed-aluminum finish. Options are few, but include a power sunroof that opens with a single touch of its switch and GM's OnStar System, which combines an in-car telephone and onboard electronic sensors with a dedicated phone number. Emergency roadside assistance, route instructions, stolen vehicle tracking, and other services are included in the OnStar package.
Catera's front suspension features a MacPherson strut design with advanced hydraulic control arm bushings. The rear suspension is of independent multi-link design.
The Inside Story
Catera's interior is a model of good design and would not be out of place in a luxury sedan costing considerably more. The cabin is appealing from the moment one of the Catera's doors is opened. It looks sumptuous and inviting, whether upholstered in standard cloth or optional leather. The four large doors permit easy entry and the interior is roomy enough for five.
The front seats are especially good, offering eight-way power adjustments on the driver's side, carefully designed cushion shapes and well-placed padding. Instruments and controls are attractive and easy to operate. Analog gauges for speed, engine rpm, volts, coolant temperature, fuel level and oil pressure are large enough to be read quickly at autobahn speeds, and are backed up by the usual array of warning lights. Headlights are controlled by a rotary knob to the driver's left, while large switches for heating, ventilation and air conditioning, along with the audio controls are located on the center console.
A long list of standard fitments dress up the Catera cabin. All Cateras have power windows, mirrors and door locks, a tilt steering wheel, automatic climate control, and a nice-sounding stereo system that can be replaced with an excellent Bose eight-speaker system incorporating a CD player. Quality of materials and fit and finish are well above average, rivaling the best from competing makes.
The leather interior, a no-cost option, brings with it more than supple hide covering the seats. An eight-way adjuster for the front passenger's seat is added, as are a memory function for the driver's seat and rearview mirror positions and a built-in garage door opener. We wished the tilt steering column allowed finer adjustments so that all of the gauges could be seen at once.
Ride & Drive
Its rear-wheel drive layout and European roots endow the Catera with road behavior more like that of a BMW or Mercedes-Benz and less like a front-drive Audi, Volvo or Infiniti. It is a pleasure to drive fast, easy to drive at more moderate speeds, equally at home on the Autobahn or in city traffic. It is Cadillac's premier fun car for enthusiastic drivers, high praise indeed considering the high state of chassis development of all current Cadillacs.
Well-conceived spring and shock absorber rates add to this favorable impression. The suspension was engineered for precise handling, especially on roads with uneven traction. Under hard braking, the Catera is stable, even in tricky braking-and-turning combinations.
The Catera offers good traction over all surfaces. A revised Bosch traction control system comes standard. To reduce wheelspin, the system reduces power and applies braking force to either of the rear wheels. If one wheel starts to slip, the system gently applies the brake to that wheel, transferring drive torque to the wheel that has more traction. By adjusting drive torque accordingly, each rear tire can use the maximum available traction. The engine output control continues to adjust engine power to allow the system to function at all road speeds.
The suspension is responsive and easy to control, which makes the Catera fun to drive. Yet there's also good suspension compliance to ensure a smooth ride. Catera's balance between ride and handling is superb, regardless of pavement condition. This car excels at long-distance comfort, regardless of how many people and how much luggage is carried. Part of this excellent balance comes from the Catera's automatic leveling control system, which keeps the car on an even keel at all times.
Catera's four-wheel antilock disc brakes work well, delivering short, undramatic stops in all normal driving situations. Cadillac points out that the Catera's disc brakes were originally engineered for daily use on the German Autobahn where speeds regularly exceed 140 mph. The antilock brakes (ABS) help the driver retain steering control during braking.
Performance is another strength. Smooth and quiet, but with a nice assertive rasp when revved up, the Catera's 200-horsepower engine delivers more urge than the car's horsepower-to-weight ratio would suggest. Fuel economy is reasonable as well, so long as the driver doesn't succumb to the urge to press the engine hard too often.
A number of engine refinements were made for 1999 designed to reduce emissions, including a new engine management computer, electronic throttle control, a new fuel tank and evaporative emissions system. As a result, the Catera is the first Cadillac to meet the government's stringent LEV (Low Emission Vehicle) standards.
Catera's 4-speed automatic transmission shifts easily and unobtrusively. The driver can select three modes of operation: a normal mode for everyday driving; a sport mode that selects more aggressive shift points and provides increased engine braking; and a winter mode that provides third-gear starts for slippery conditions.
In town or on the open highway, the Catera feels secure and quiet. Wind and engine noise are virtually inaudible. The only sound generated by any of the Cateras we've driven during the past three years came from tire treads, and those were muted.
It's easy to like the Catera. It sports good looks and exceptional quality. And its European-style handling and behavior make it very satisfying to drive.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.