Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
"The Catera is the best GM product I've driven in a very long time." How's that for an opening line? Even more amazing when one considers that it comes directly from our ever-discerning editor-in-chief, Christian Wardlaw, immediately after driving what we had dubbed as one of the "Top Five Foolish Cars" back in April of 1999.
In defense of our previous position, we should state for the record that as of April 1999 the Catera was suffering from multiple production problems (for example, the 1998 cars sat in port for months waiting to have their redesigned side airbags removed due to a faulty design) and mechanical issues. In fact, by doing a quick Internet search we located a site that listed 174 technical service bulletins (TSBs) for the 1997 Catera. 174! For comparison, we looked up a 1997 Audi A4 2.8 and found 83 TSBs while the1997 Infiniti I30t had 97. By 1999 the Catera's number had dropped to 65 TSBs...but the A4 was down to 41.
Needless to say, we entered into this road test with somewhat jaded expectations. In our opinion, the Catera has been a flop ever since that annoying duck tried to sidle up to Cindy Crawford in an ad campaign that GM would like to pretend never happened. As a re-badged Opel built at the Adam Opel assembly plant in Russelsheim, Germany, the rear-wheel-drive sedan was supposed to offer a blend of performance and luxury previously unavailable from Cadillac. If all went well, thought GM, the company would have a near-luxury sport sedan to compete with everything from Infiniti's I30 to Audi's A4 to Acura's 3.2TL.
GM's plan appeared to pay off, with approximately 50,000 Cateras sold by the end of 1998. But continued production problems in 1999 and 2000, along with improved and more powerful competing models from Acura, Audi, BMW, Infiniti, and Chrysler, have drastically cut sales. This, despite upgrades for the 2000 model year that included a front and rear fascia restyling, standard On-Star system, and improved Catera Sport standard equipment.
Our 2000 Catera Sport test car differs from the standard Catera with an eight-way power adjustable passenger seat, heated front seats, 17-inch wheels, driver's seat memory, audible theft-deterrent system, three-channel garage door opener, xenon high-intensity discharge headlights, and a rear spoiler. Cadillac claims the Sport version is designed to "appeal to the sport-oriented set - buyers with a keen interest in expressive styling as well as the desire for a higher level of handling and control."
Our editors agreed that the Catera looks more expressive than ever, but whether it's an improvement over previous years was a matter of personal taste. Some felt the new styling successfully enhanced the Catera's role as a breakout car for Cadillac that's meant to appeal to younger, more "hip" buyers. Others felt the new front grille looked "tacked on" rather than integrated, as on previous Cateras; this same critic thought the full-length rear taillights of 1999 and earlier models appeared more upscale than the blocky units found on this 2000 model.
Styling, as always, is a matter of personal taste, but the "higher level of handling and control" Cadillac touts on this Sport model indeed shines through the first time you encounter a set of curves in the Catera Sport. The steering, though heavy and a tad slow when driving fast in the tight stuff, offers a combination of positive feel and feedback that can produce grins when snaking along mountain roads. This steering works in concert with a four-wheel independent suspension that is clearly tuned for performance over ride quality; a trait many traditional Cadillac buyers will not appreciate, but one we welcome as concrete evidence of the division's desire to expand its market appeal. On rutted city streets the Catera's ride quality can accurately be described as quite "un-Cadillac like" with an occasional jolt or lurch invading the cabin. But the payoff comes in composure during rapid canyon carving, even when encountering mid-corner bumps or performing quick directional changes.
Better still is a composed chassis that remains flex and rattle-free. During our week with the Catera Sport we heard neither a squeak nor a groan, even when testing the vehicle at our closed course location where a 0.83g skidpad reading was recorded. Track testing did show the Catera Sport to be a bit flighty at the limit. While prudent levels of enthusiasm revealed no issues on public roads, our road test editor felt the Catera's behavior at the limit was unpredictable, with the Goodyear Eagle tires letting go abruptly and with little warning. Attaining 59.5 mph in the slalom was, as he described it, "a chore to say the least." With a curb weight approaching two tons, the Catera's heft no doubt contributed to its hairy nature when driven at the limit.
Maximum brake testing further betrayed the Catera's weight with a 60-to-zero distance of 131 feet; 6 feet more than a 1999 BMW 328i and 9 feet more than an Audi A4 2.8 Quattro we tested last year, and 17 feet more than a Lexus IS 300 we tested last month (all of which are over 400 pounds lighter than the Caddy). Pedal feel was addressed in an upgraded brake booster for the 2000 model year. While braking confidence seemed adequate under normal driving conditions, our road test editor once again noted inconsistent feel (along with plenty of grinding noises while the ABS was engaged) under maximum braking. For those willing to wait for a 2001 model Catera, rear vented disc brakes that should further improve maximum stopping ability will be standard on all models.
What won't be addressed for the 2001 model year, and what hasn't changed since the Catera's introduction in 1997, is the unrefined and wheezy nature of the 3.0-liter V6 engine that manages only 200 horsepower and 192 foot-pounds of torque. Although a series of upgrades brought this engine into LEV compliance in 1999, the basic design hasn't been upgraded since the model's introduction, and it isn't aging well. While passable power exists from idle up to 4,000 rpm, things really fall apart above that mark when engine vibration invades the cabin and horsepower simply falls flat. A car with this much mass needs more than 200 horsepower to haul it around with any real authority, as our 8.8-second zero-to-60 mph and 16.7-second quarter-mile figures can attest. When trying to hustle the car through our favorite section of road, we found the engine unable to break the rear tires loose, even with the traction control off. The closest we got to steering the car with the throttle was when the inside rear tire would spin innocuously while doing little to propel the car (a limited-slip rear differential would have done wonders here, but is conspicuously missing from the Catera's standard or optional equipment list).
These engine woes are further exaggerated by an incompetent four-speed automatic transmission. Twice in our one-week loan period the vehicle hesitated when rolling on the throttle as the transmission contemplated exactly what it was supposed to do. Missed downshifts were common, even with the transmission in "Sport" mode, and upshifts could best be described as slushy. There's no manual-shift mode available with the Catera's automatic, and leaving your hand on the shifter while driving is akin to sticking a paper clip in a wall outlet because the buzzy engine sends high-frequency vibrations directly into the center console. We also noticed a tendency for the transmission to get "stuck" in lower gears when cruise control was enabled. When ascending a slight incline, for instance, we could press the "Accel" button on the cruise control stalk to get the transmission to downshift and accelerate the car, but after releasing the button and attaining our desired speed, the transmission would remain in the lower gear, revving the annoyingly buzzy engine at close to 5,000 rpm while the car held a steady speed and we pleaded for an upshift.
As disappointing as the drivetrain proved to be, we still felt the Catera had plenty to offer the near-luxury customer. Sitting in the driver's seat, for example, one is surrounded by a collection of soft-touch and textured materials never before seen in a $30,000 GM sedan. The dash, door panels, and center console are monotone and overly chunky in appearance, but brushed aluminum accents around the gauges and center stack controls (part of the Sport package) add some needed contrast. Every interior button (with the possible exception of the turn signal stalk) has a pleasing tactile feel due to the rubberized surfaces.
Except for a center stack display that completely washed out in direct sunlight, along with a volume button that was a bit loose and rather useless cupholders, there was little to find fault with inside this Cadillac. One of our editors noted that a manually adjustable lumbar does little to inspire feelings of luxury, and the sunroof, which used a handy Volkswagen/Audi-type of control dial, sounded a little overworked when opening and closing. But steering wheel-mounted controls for audio, one-touch down and up windows all around, plus a cassette/CD combo Bose sound system with plenty of thump, kept us singing the Catera's praises...as long as the engine wasn't revving past 4,000 rpm and the transmission wasn't picking the wrong gear.
The benefits of employing a larger, heavier chassis than the competition are evident as soon as you slide into any of the Catera's five seating positions. Interior volume is greater than in a BMW 328i, Audi A4, or Lexus IS 300. This means not only plenty of head-, leg-, and shoulder room for front passengers, but a downright commodious rear seat that features a center shoulder belt, a fold-down armrest with cupholders, and climate control vents in the back of the center console. The four main seating positions benefit from articulating headrests, but the headrests themselves were rather hard with a sharp leading edge that kept us from actually resting our heads against them. A trunk pass-through was appreciated, but not as much as easy-to-use fold-down rear seats would have been. Even without folding the rear seatbacks, the Catera's trunk can carry 14.5 cubic feet of baggage, more than anything in this class except for Chrysler's 300M and Saab's 9-5.
Perhaps our biggest disappointment, other than the drivetrain, came when we pushed the OnStar button to ask for help in finding the nearest Wells Fargo ATM. We did this in a part of town we were familiar with to test the OnStar database and service representative's efficiency. Unfortunately, after several minutes of waiting, first for our connection and then for the representative to locate what she thought was the closest ATM, we were directed right past a nearby Wells Fargo Bank (complete with two exterior ATMs) and down the road another two miles before finding what OnStar thought was the closest Wells Fargo ATM outside a grocery store. This is not the first time we've run into problems with OnStar's ability to locate a business or service accurately, and while the system may come in handy after an accident, we think Batman would be better off calling Alfred for local directions.
So, is the Catera still one of the top five most foolish cars made? No, the car has seen enough improvements while simultaneously benefiting from the creation of even more foolish cars (can you say Pontiac Aztek or Toyota Echo?) that it has fallen out of that lofty position in the automotive pantheon. But it's still not one of the top five entry-luxury sedans, either. Offerings from Acura, Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Infiniti and Lexus offer superior performance and refinement for the same or less money.
Once again, Cadillac shows us a good effort. Too bad the Catera Sport is going up against so many great cars.
System Score: 8.0
Components. This Bose system has a ton of speakers in it. The rear deck houses dual 6-inch subwoofers along with a sizable amplifier. The rear doors contain a pair of 6-inch full-range drivers, which are nicely hidden behind an acoustically transparent panel. The front doors boast a pair of 6-inch mid-bass speakers (hidden behind the same acoustically transparent panel), which are coupled to tweeters in the upper doors. The tweeters are flat against the door panel, not angled at all toward the passengers.
Electronically, the system contains a single-play CD player and a cassette, along with 12 FM and six AM presets, all of which are integrated into an extremely user-friendly faceplate. Sizable buttons and knobs throughout the faceplate complement a nice, large, circular volume knob. There is a great deal of space between the controls, allowing for trouble-free operation. Just a fantastic design. Only one complaint: the radio is positioned a little low in the dash, causing the operator to "reach" uncomfortably. Other than that, it's great.
Performance. Bass response is deep, but not particularly accurate. As my notes say, "A little flabby and loose." Highs are clear and distinguished, although I found them overly bright and just a little too aggressive. As a result, higher frequencies, such as female vocals or brass instruments, tend to "spit" a little. Mids, on the other hand, are open and accurate, producing a lush soundstage. The amplifier works well, getting just slightly grainy at full gain.
Best Feature: Ergonomic faceplate.
Worst Feature: Poorly performing tweeters.
Conclusion. This system is a real thumper. Bass and mids are pretty good, while the higher frequencies suffer. Great controls, but not a real balanced system sound-wise. I gave it high marks for its user-friendliness, but marked off for sound quality. Even so, it still merits an 8. Scott Memmer
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