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While it may be known as the Caddy that zigs, the Catera is much more than that. Designed as an entry-luxury vehicle, Cadillac based its Catera on the superb Opel Omega MV6. Opel may be best remembered here for its Kadette compact and Manta sport coupe exported to the U.S. in the early 1970s, but Opel is considered one of the top automakers in Germany where it continues to produce world-class luxury sports sedans.
Already established as a solid contender in Germany, Opel's MV6 had all the basics in place before the Cadillac and Opel engineers went to work. The Catera was developed jointly at the Opel Technical Development Center in Russelsheim and at Cadillac headquarters in Warren, Michigan. A global effort, the Catera is built at the Opel plant in Russelsheim, using components from Germany, France, Great Britain and North America. The result is a car that can stand up to close scrutiny.
Luxury sedans from Lexus, Infiniti, Mercedes, BMW and Audi compete in the luxury-performance car market. In the lower-priced, smaller-sized end of this market, the C-Class Mercedes, 3 Series BMW, Audi A4 and A6, Lexus ES300 and GS300, Infiniti I-30 and Volvo S70 offer quality, performance and considerable variety in appearance and driving feel.
Against them, the Catera delivers American style allied with German solidity and road manners. Any signs of a limited development budget would weigh heavily against the smallest Cadillac here. Fortunately, none are evident.
The Catera tackles roads like a European car and is more fun to hustle down a winding road than any other Cadillac. A prime asset, not shared with any other U.S. Cadillac, is rear-wheel drive. As a result, the Catera behaves more like a rear-drive BMW or Mercedes-Benz and less like a front-drive Audi, Volvo or Infiniti.
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. The previous system controlled engine output to keep the engine from overpowering the tires on slippery roads. The enhanced system adds brake control to the two 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.
Our assessment that the Catera is more fun to drive than the big front-drive Cadillacs is high praise given the high state of development of the newest Cadillac chassis.
A responsive chassis that is easy to control is fun for the driver, but in this case it is also combined with enough suspension compliance to ensure a smooth ride. Subjectively, the Catera's ride/handling balance is excellent, regardless of pavement condition. Catera 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 yet another Catera strength. Smooth and quiet, but with a nice assertive rasp when revved up, the Catera engine delivers more urge than the car's horsepower-to-weight ratio would suggest. Catera is powered by a responsive dual-overhead camshaft V6 engine that displaces 3.0 liters and generates 200 horsepower.
Its 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 our test car during our week-long drive in Los Angeles came from tire treads, and those were muted.
We like the Catera. It's a handsome, roomy, superbly equipped and well-built machine that will please newcomers to its class, and may well woo buyers away from established entry-luxury lines.
Every car in the Catera's class rates high marks when judged on safety, performance and quality, and prices fall in a well-defined range. The final choice, then, revolves as much around the cars' personalities as any other factor. If you're looking for a fine blend of luxury and sporting behavior, this German-American hybrid may well speak your language.