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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.
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 manuvering 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.