by Howard Walker
Forget the duck. Forget Cindy too. And forget anything you've heard about this being the Caddy that Zigs. For the year 2000, Cadillac's Catera has grown up, matured even. No more cutesy catch lines, no more thinking that its target buyers are MTV Gen-Xers. After all, when was the last time you saw a Catera with a surfboard on its roof or a pair of Rollerblades on the back seat? Or someone stepping out and saying, "Hey, Dewd!" to the valet parker?
You haven't. People who buy so-called near-luxury sedans - these are the ones in the $30-grand price range - don't buy fashion statements. If they want the world to think they're Everest climbers, they buy a sport-ute. They want quality, prestige, class, lively performance and crisp handling, plus all the comforts of home.
So, for 2000, Cadillac is relaunching the Catera. The cartoon duck has been ditched. Cindy Crawford in her micro-mini and leather boots has gone back to the cover of Cosmo. And those ads talking about the Caddy that Zigs have been zagged.
More important, the Catera itself has been given a welcome makeover. It now comes with a sexy, new look, a classier interior, and more of the features people want.
Cadillac is also going to be making much more of the Sport model, which quietly slipped into the Catera lineup last May without too many people knowing about it.
A modest evolution
OK, so the changes are more of the evolution rather than revolution variety. Revolution comes in a couple of years' time when the Catera gets a dramatic - and we mean dramatic - new look and a new, more potent propulsion. It'll also be built in the United States, instead of at GM's Opel plant in Germany, and designed by U.S. designers.
But that's way in the future. What will be available in November is a fresh-faced Catera that's worth close investigation.
Take the exterior. There's a new nose featuring a smaller, less-prominent grille, sleeker headlights with those ice-blue Xenon bulbs, and a shapelier hood. Step around to the rear and you'll instantly notice that the ugly, red-plastic, fake light bar across the trunk lid has been ditched.
Now, there are taillights on either side, which give the car a cleaner, less cluttered look. And, of course, no face-lift would be complete without a new set of alloy wheels, and the Catera gets a fresh set of 16-inchers.
For a more dramatic-looking Catera, simply tick the Sport box on the order form. You'll get the more aggressive-looking rocker moldings and the decklid spoiler from the last-generation Catera Sport. But up front, the grille comes with a sexier matte-silver chrome grille, while the four corners are supported by macho-looking 17-inch alloy rims shod with chunky 235/45-section Goodyear rubber.
Resculpted and resuscitated
Climb aboard Catera 2000, and you'll notice a change or two here as well. The whole fascia has had a redo, with the stereo and climate controls better positioned and the center armrest redesigned with two integrated cup holders. There are new-look door panels too, with standard, integrated side airbags.
As before, the Sport gets a pair of body-hugging leather bucket seats up front, but there's new brushed-silver trim around the instrument panel and shifter to give the interior a more high-tech look.
But one of the best new features of the 2000 Catera is one that's fairly easy to miss. Located just in front of the rearview mirror are three tiny buttons, which control the now-standard OnStar system. In case you've been living on Mars for the past couple of years, OnStar is GM's 24-hour mobile communications system that is making life so much easier for drivers. Locked your keys inside? Call OnStar. Need a reservation at TGIFridays? Call OnStar.
But the getting from point A to point B is still down to the Catera's smooth-spinning 200-horsepower, double-overhead-cam 3.0-liter V-6, which goes unchanged for 2000. Yep, it still feels a little sluggish away from the stoplight - standstill to 60 mph takes 8.5 seconds. But it spins enthusiastically enough, and once the revs rise, it feels lively and energetic. And as a highway cruiser, it's superb. It's quiet, sewing-machine smooth, and highly refined, even with triple digits on the clock. Remember, the car was developed on Germany's autobahns, so cruising I-75 is hardly a challenge.
To make the Catera more fun through the twisties, Cadillac - or rather, Opel - engineers have tweaked the suspension to give a more level ride and improved the steering to give better on-center feel. A recalibrated brake booster also improves pedal feel.
You might have heard that Cadillac has been working with the German tuning company Steinmetz to boost the power of the 3.0-liter V-6 from 200 ponies to 280, through supercharging. We drove a concept version of it recently, and it's a riot thanks to its scorching power. While Caddy is likely to build a hot Catera - the Australians already have an Omega with a Corvette LS1 V-8 under the hood - don't expect it to appear before the all-new Catera debuts.
For the time being, Cadillac is keeping mum on Catera pricing. Don't expect any changes; competition in this sector of the market is more cutthroat than Pepsi vs. Coke. With the arrival of the new Lincoln LS, Catera prices could even dip. That would mean $34,000 or so for the Catera and $37,000 for the Sport.
Certainly, the arrival of the 2000 Catera, and the departure of Cindy and the duck, can only improve the fortunes of Cadillac's entry-level sedan.
© 1999, The Car Connection