European road manners, Cadillac style.
by Bob Plunkett
Base Price (MSRP) $31,305
As Tested (MSRP) $36,423
To the members of a certain generation, who grew up when all the competent road cars were imported, a pukka sports sedan from Cadillac is just about unthinkable. Well, my brothers and sisters, think harder. If the Berlin Wall can crumble, and the Soviet Union behind it; and if you can hold more computing power in the palm of your hand than went to the moon with Neil Armstrong, then maybe Cadillac might offer an authentic road car.
The Catera deserves a chance.
This new-generation Cadillac certainly packs the right credentials. Designed and developed in Europe (the Holy Land of Sports Sedans) Catera has a powerful six-cylinder motor, rear-wheel drive, and a taut independent suspension, just like a BMW 3 Series or a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The Catera is balanced and predictable when navigating a snaky set of curves, but energetic at high speed for long stretches on a freeway.
Catera also has the plush interior features of an American luxury car along with a lot of sophisticated safety hardware. In many ways, it can be considered a unique car.
Just one model is available. For $31,305 the Catera comes with a 3.0-liter V6 and all the standard equipment expected of a luxury sedan.
A $995 Luxury Package adds a power passenger seat, upgraded alarm system and a garage-door opener. A $2510 Sport Package includes all that plus heated seats, a matte silver grille, high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, rear spoiler, and a heavy-duty suspension riding on ultra-aggressive 235/45HR17 all-season tires and aluminum wheels.
If your mind's eye still recalls the bland and homogenized Catera that debuted in late 1996, then we need to remind you that the littlest Cadillac was completely restyled last year, and now shows a much harder edge to the world. The revamped Catera looks stronger. It's a concise package of muscular flanks and crisp tailored curves uniting taut surfaces. The taillights and center brake light are composed of light-emitting diodes (LED) that flash brighter than incandescent bulbs, and light up twice as quickly. Flush headlamps have been revised again for 2001.
Catera hunkers in a low posture underscored by the aerodynamic fascia and shapely moldings set below the door panels. The Sport package attaches a spoiler to the rear decklid. The neat new form moves Catera more closely in style to other German touring sedans.
Core ingredients of Catera come from Opel, a European brand of General Motors that produces the world-respected Omega MV6 sedan. Catera uses a reinforced version of the Omega's chassis, which is assembled at a GM plant in Germany; and it contains a twin-cam V6 engine built by GM in England and a four-speed electronic automatic transmission out of another GM plant in France. To this international slate of components, Cadillac contributed unique styling and noise-reduction measures, some Cadillac-designed safety equipment, and a more luxurious interior.
Catera Sport models have brushed silver accents around the instruments, shifter and doors. White-on-black analog instruments include a speedometer and tachometer in the center surrounded by gauges for coolant temperature, oil pressure, voltage and fuel. Available options include a Bose sound system, and a power sunroof.
The trim panel on the driver's door integrates the door handle with repositioned power window toggles and two low-mounted latch-lid storage bins. Window switches provide one-touch express up and down movement for all four side windows, with pinch-guard protection that senses any resistance to closure (like small fingers), then reverses the path traveled by the glass.
Leather-covered seats with eight-way power are now installed in all Cateras, the unique Sport Package seats having been discontinued in mid-2000. (The Sport Package does still add heaters to the standard seats.) The rear bench seat splits and folds in sections. Trunk access for longer items is available through a panel behind the center armrest.
Safety equipment includes seat-mounted side-impact airbags along with the required front airbags; and three-point safety belts for all five seating positions, with pretensioners for the front seats and height adjustments on the four outboard seats. Catera's head restraints adjust taller than most.
Overall, Catera feels luxurious and comfortable, and it has power controls for everything, plus a high content of premium appointments.
With its European pedigree and multi-national production chain, Catera was bred for Autobahn speeds and Alpine-pass handling. Its stiff unit-body and rear-wheel-drive balance combine with sophisticated chassis hardware to encourage lively pavement maneuvers.
To test the Catera Sport on its home turf, we drove out from Paris into the chateau-studded countryside of the Loire Valley. Our route included high-speed toll roads to skirt Chartres and other urban centers, followed by narrow asphalt strips through rolling hills of a rich farmland dotted with quaint villages. Some of these we took at a leisurely pace, but our Catera obviously preferred to romp, to run hard on the freeways and chart a smart line through back-road curves.
Although it's a relatively hefty package (3815 pounds), Catera puts a decisive snap in the throttle. The iron-block engine, fitted with a multi-ram induction system, acquired a new camshaft profile and new electronic throttle controls for 2000, and the result was more torque available across a wider band of rpm.
Top speed is electronically limited to 125 mph. Even approaching this limit, the Catera feels entirely stable, with the suspension settling nicely in corners and over bumps. Our Catera was also surprisingly quiet, reflecting Cadillac's measures to deaden engine noise and streamline the package for better wind management.
Shifts were quiet and unobtrusive. The four-speed automatic transmission has electronic controls with adaptive logic to tailor shift patterns to an individual's driving style. Buttons on the console let you choose from three shift programs: normal, sport (which kicks down more aggressively and moves the shift point to a higher engine speed), and winter (which starts in third gear to minimize wheel slippage).
The suspension, independent at all corners, adapts continuously to the nuances of the pavement, and rebounds quickly without harsh action. Components range from MacPherson struts in front with hydraulic control-arm bushings, to a rear multi-link trailing arm design with automatic load leveling to permits full suspension travel no matter how much weight you're carrying.
For steering, Cadillac chose a speed-sensitive power recirculating-ball unit that transmits less road shock than a rack-and-pinion, and thus contributes to a more luxurious feel. Catera's power assist is calibrated for comfortable low-speed maneuvering and for cruising at speed with an excellent on-center feel.
Catera already came with a disc brake at each wheel, but for 2001 the rear discs are vented. Dual brake circuits are connected to Bosch ABS/ASR 5.3 anti-lock and traction control systems. With anti-lock and traction control, the Catera's tires rarely slip, even during dicey maneuvers (like the tight corner we entered with too much speed, requiring simultaneous braking and steering to save us from ourselves).
Catera's faster-to-deploy LED brake lights contribute an additional safety factor because they give a trailing driver more warning time. When applying the binders at 60 mph, for example, the quicker flash point works out to more than 17 additional feet of warning distance for the driver behind.
We thoroughly enjoyed playing with the Cadillac Catera Sport and were surprised at its genuinely gutsy behavior. Pre-2000 models were simply not this good. Has Cadillac really delivered an authentic sports sedan? That may still be a matter of personal expectation, but one could argue that it has delivered the goods. The Catera is now better equipped than it ever has been to meet the competition head-on.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.