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There is a common perception that European manufacturers, particularly those in Germany, have a special understanding of the needs and desires of car buyers who are looking for exceptional comfort and high performance in a single package. Naturally, the companies involved have done nothing to discourage this belief; Mercedes-Benz and BMW have been particularly active in touting their cars as autobahn thoroughbreds capable of delivering the ultimate driver satisfaction and engineering excellence.
At one time, such assertions were probably valid. But today, a host of luxury sedans, some Japanese, some European, can lay claim to spaces in the luxury/ performance car market. Infiniti and Lexus are, of course, players; so are Mercedes, BMW and Audi. In the entry end of the luxury segment lower-priced and smaller-sized end of this market segment, the C-Class Mercedes, 3-Series BMW, Audi A6, Lexus ES300 and GS300, and Infiniti I- and J-30 are all contenders.
But U.S. carmakers have been conspicuously absent from this territory. At least until now. With the Catera, Cadillac is hoping to wean customers away from import competitors. Rather than developing an all-new entry, however, Cadillac has called on Opel, General Motors' German subsidiary, to provide its luxurious import-fighter.
It's too early to know how the market will respond to the Catera. Even so, as a first attempt by a U.S. company to go head-to-head in an important and highly visible prestige class, Catera is well worth checking out.
First impressions of the Catera may be a little underwhelming. When compared to the crisply-drawn shapes of its German rivals from BMW or Mercedes-Benz, or even the Italianate curves of the Lexus GS 300, the Catera's soft and understated exterior lacks the kind of appeal that sets checkbooks to rustling. It is, in most respects, a readily recognizable product of GM Design Staff, even though the basic shape is derived from the core car, Opel's successful Omega MV6.
But good detail elements relieve this rather subdued exterior treatment. The nose in particular effectively blends traditional Cadillac cues--a large black-chrome grille with the company's wreath-and-crest emblem, for example--with aerodynamic requirements. And the rear deck, high and softly shaped, conceals a generous cargo space.
Catera is offered in one model, well-equipped with standard aluminum alloy wheels, tinted windows and folding outside mirrors and an impressive catalogue of standard interior features covered below. Two alternate styles of road wheels are offered--one chromed, the other left in natural finish--as is a power-operated sunroof.
Although the Catera's exterior isn't likely to seduce potential buyers on its own, we think folks who take the time to climb inside may change their minds. Cadillac did a complete makeover of the Omega's coalbin interior, and created an excellent driving environment in the process. It's the strongest part of the Catera's appeal, preserving European sport sedan flavor while adding warm earth tones and high-quality materials that should appeal to American tastes.
Thanks to its generous mid-size proportions, the Catera is roomy enough for five adults, all of whom will find enough head, hip and legroom in which to get comfortable. The front seats are especially good, offering standard power adjustment (eight-way on the driver's side, two-way for the passenger, as well as carefully designed cushion shapes and sumptuous padding. Heated seats front and rear are optional, as is leather upholstery to replace the excellent standard cloth trim.
The instrument panel is attractive and unusually comprehensive, if somewhat anonymous in shape. It holds large, readable analog gauges for speed, engine rpm, volts, coolant temperature, fuel level and oil pressure, plus the usual array of warning lights. Headlights are controlled by a large round pull-out knob to the driver's left, while switches for most other functions--including the heat/vent/air conditioning and audio controls--are located on the center console. Control positioning is very good, and the airbag-equipped steering wheel (the front passenger gets a dash-mounted airbag) has a leather-wrapped rim and carries auxiliary controls for ventilation and audio systems on its hub. Side airbags will join the list of safety features this spring.
A long list of standard fitments dress up the Catera cabin. In addition to the items mentioned earlier, all Cateras have a tilt steering wheel, power windows/mirrors/door locks, automatic climate control, and a good sound system that can be enhanced with a trunk-mounted CD changer or replaced with one of two optional Bose eight-speaker systems. Material and fit-and-finish quality are both well above average, rivaling the best from competing makes.
Catera's biggest asset in its quest to charm Eurocentric drivers doesn't become apparent right away. It takes some miles to realize that the Catera is alone among current U.S. market GM sedans in having rear-wheel drive. As such, it offers a driving experience more akin to that of its major German rivals than to Lexus and Infiniti front-drivers. Traction is good over all but very slick surfaces--a standard Traction Control system helps--and the Catera is more fun to hustle down a winding road than any other Cadillac. Which, of course, is the basic idea--luring younger buyers who would otherwise be shopping at an import store.
Good steering and firm damping are fun for the driver, but are in this case complemented by enough suspension compliance to ensure a smooth ride. Subjectively, the Catera's ride-handling balance is excellent, regardless of pavement condition. And its autobahn breeding shows up in excellent stability at high speed. Some body roll is evident during fast cornering, but that's not the kind of use most Cateras will get.
Far more important to this class is long-distance comfort; Catera scores high marks in this department. And does so regardless of how many people and how much luggage it carries, due in part to standard automatic load-level control that keeps it on an even keel at all times. Catera's four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS are simply outstanding, delivering short, undramatic stops in all driving situations.
For a car that will tip the scales at two tons with driver and passenger aboard, a 200-hp dohc 24-valve V6 can only be considered adequate. Smooth and quiet--but with an assertive rasp when revved up--the Catera engine is happiest when it is used in the European manner to deliver effortless cruising. Its companion four-speed automatic transmission--the only transmission offered--shifts easily and unobtrusively, like all GM automatics.
In town or on the open highway, Catera is in its element. The only notable sounds generated by our test car during normal driving came from the tire treads; wind and engine noises were well-muted.
Catera is undeniably a quality product, one that offers the amenities and road manners of its best rivals at a reasonable price. Where it comes up a trifle short are in the purely subjective areas--exterior style and engine response, both qualities where the 3-Series BMW in particular handily outscores the small Cadillac--best left up to the individual customer.
On the other hand, this is the roomiest car in its class, attractively appointed, nicely finished and exceptionally well equipped.
The only way to know for certain what your reactions will be, of course, is to go for a test drive. But if you're in the market for a modestly-priced luxury/sport sedan, we think the Catera offers exceptional value.
And if your image of Cadillac is based on the wallowing land yachts of yesteryear, we think you'll find the Catera is a pleasant surprise.