I fell in love with the Catera when it debuted in 1996 and blown away by the supercharged Steinmetz Concept Car in 1999. Smaller, sportier, and more agile than any Cadillac ever, the Catera was different from all the American FWD junk out there. I wanted one but I quickly gave up on the idea. At over $30,000 the Catera was too rich for my blood at the time, what with alimony, child support, and all. Plus Cadillac's stupid Ziggy promotion was embarrassing. It made a joke of the car before it had a chance to establish itself in the market. Not even Cindy Crawford's ad presence could make up for that. Why would I buy a car that wasn't respected by its own GM division?
The Catera wasn't a homegrown Cadillac project. GM saw the success that foreign automakers were enjoying in the US sport sedan market segment and decided they wanted a piece of the pie. It was "suggested" to Cadillac that it quickly fashion a sporty car to attract the Yuppies. They had tried years earlier with the Allante, but even with Pininfarina styling and a NorthStar V8, it was the wrong car. The Seville STS, while a great looking car, was too big and heavy to pass for a sport sedan. Touring yes, sporting no. Besides, GM wanted a rear drive platform to match the European competition. With no time or money to design and build one themselves, nor finding anything suitable they could co-opt from GM's stateside stable, Cadillac searched GM's worldwide holdings. They found the Opel/Vauxhall Omega B. Designed and assembled in Germany on a RWD platform, with a British built GM V6 engine (used also in some Saturns and Saabs), and a French built GM transmission (used in BMW's 3 & 5 Series). This was no warmed over Chevy Cavalier like the Cimarron. It was a genuine rear drive sedan born & bred to fly down the Autobahn and devour sharp twisting Alpine roads. This midsize European executive sedan was the foundation for the Cadillac Catera.
In the early '90s Opel & Vauxhall built a world class super sport sedan based on the rather ordinary Opel Omega A platform. They handed it over to Lotus, then also owned by GM, where its 3.0L Inline-6 grew to 3.6L, with twin-turbochargers, generating 377 HP. Its drivetrain consisted of a ZF 6-speed Corvette transmission with a Lotus tuned semi-trailing arm IRS w/Limited Slip Differential (LSD). The Opel Lotus-Omega / Vauxhall Lotus-Carlton was the world's fastest production sedan in its time. Top speed was 177 MPH, with 0 - 60 MPH attained at 5.2 sec with no governors or other restrictions. Not only fast and quick but it handled like the Devil's own racer. Before today's electronic traction controls and active suspensions the Lotus-Omega carved its way around "old school style" with skilled feet on the pedals, and quick hands at the wheel and shifter. Tires squealing and smoking said you were doing it right. Obviously Opel had the credentials for building the world class sport sedan which GM wanted the Catera to be. According to GM MediaOnLine 2000:
"Launched in the fall of 1996 as a 1997 model, Cadillac Catera is part of a global GM vehicle family that includes the Opel and Vauxhall Omega MV6. Catera was developed as part of a cooperative effort between the Opel Technical Development Center in Germany and Cadillac’s world headquarters in Michigan. It is built at the Adam Opel assembly plant in Ruesselsheim using components from GM’s German, French, British and North American suppliers. Catera Sport joined the lineup in May of 1999 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."
With the CTS still on paper and far from production, and all that sport sedan money slipping through GM's fingers, Cadillac had no choice but to proceed with Omega/Catera project. But who could blame Cadillac for its lack of enthusiasm? The Omega B started development in the late '80s and started production in 1993 so Cadillac had no hand in any of its planning, engineering, or styling. Remember, the Catera hadn't even been proposed at that time. Why would they be thrilled about putting their proud name on someone else's car? To Cadillac's credit, they took the lessons learned from the Catera experiment (plus I'm sure a bit from the Lotus-Omega) and applied them to making the CTS a true match for the Euro sport sedans when it debuted in 2003.
Extensive testing at Germany's Nurburgring racetrack helped the CTS match or surpass Europe's best. One omission Cadillac corrected with the CTS was to include a V8 model. Then came the coupe and station wagon versions. Opel had an "estate" version of the Omega B but Cadillac passed. Another was to make a true world class high performance version; the CTS-V. The Catera Sport was more of an appearance package. It included a slightly lower, slightly stiffer & firmer suspension and bigger wheels & tires but the rest was pure show. The Sport had no extra power to back up her looks. The Omega V8 would have fixed that but, naturally, GM killed it shortly before its debut. By the way, CTS originally stood for Catera Touring Sedan. Cadillac won't admit it today but when the CTS was first proposed, that was its name. Just like STS (Seville Touring Sedan) and DTS (Deville Touring Sedan). But that was early during CTS development, before the Catera's reputation was ruined and sales plummeted. After that Cadillac down-played the Catera/CTS connection.
Little money was budgeted for new sheet metal to give the Catera a Cadillac family resemblance. A new front bumper cover (incorporating fog and cornering lights), a Cadillac styled front grille, and a trunk lid with LED center brake light strip, were it for the exterior. Oddly, the trunk got a rear light treatment that joined the corner rear light housings via a reflector/light panel spanning the width of the trunk lid. Very un-Cadillac. Next came the Omega Elite's leather interior and near luxury comforts. Major changes to the Omega's engine management system were also needed to convert it to America's OBDII. Not yet satisfied, Cadillac ordered still more revisions before this altered Opel Omega B became the new Cadillac Catera.
And what other revisions did Cadillac order? Its engineers instructed Opel to add 400 lbs. in "chassis reinforcements and sound deadening" for a “Cadillac feel”. To de-tune the engine from 220HP down to 200HP, to govern the top speed to 125MPH from 150MPH, to delete the 5-speed manual transmission, in addition to passing on the LSD option. Cadillac ordered recalibrating the Omega suspension from autobahn firm to boulevard soft. The suspension was originally meant to be identical to the sporty Omega MV6 but Cadillac nixed it and ordered the softer standard Catera tune. It was still firmer than the usual Cadillac but not what you'd call sporty.
Granted, the chassis reinforcements were needed to pass Federal crash tests but adding weight while taking away power was just plain stupid. Heavier than the Omega by 400 lbs. but without its 220 HP? By rights the Catera should have had 20 HP more than the Omega just to maintain parity. And no 5-speed manual transmission or LSD? Why? Their target buyers were young people looking for driving excitement not seniors with arthritic knees. Drivers, not occupants. What happened 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"? Shifts with an "auto-stick" might've been acceptable. No mention of increased power but with no American "autobahn" available handling and control are even more relevant. So why didn't we get the MV6 suspension they alluded to? North America has more than its fair share of mountains and hill countries.
Why did Cadillac water down Opel's design? Who knows? Maybe, it being a rushed project, they relied on their existing customer database and, erring on the side of caution, tailored the car to fit past buyers. Maybe they asked potential sport sedan buyers what they'd like in an American sport sedan but didn't trust their answers. Why were sales down from expectations? Initially sales were good ('97 - 25,411 & '98 - 24,635) but "Ziggy the Duck"? "The Caddy That Zigs"? A cartoon character and a cute catch-phrase? You don't impress potential buyers by talking down to them. Plus several mechanical issues, resulting in a 1999 recall, tainted the Catera's reputation. By the time Cadillac realized their mistakes, addressing the oil cooler and timing belt tensioner, plus upgrading to Omega MV6 kit with the Catera Sport, it was too late. The buying public stayed away in droves.
Catera production ended in 2001. European production of the Omega continued until 2003. There are rumors that a few 2002 Cateras made it to the US. One was supposedly sighted in or near Chicago by a forum member. Supposedly it was equipped with the upgraded 3.2L (LA3) V6 used in the CTS and a 5 speed manual transmission but it was never verified. "If they're ain't no pictures it didn't happen". An Opel Omega V8 with a 5.0 Liter Chevy Small Block (LS1) and a 5 speed Corvette manual transmission was ready for production and weeks away from debut when GM canceled it due to engine cooling problems. Huh? The Small Block? Haven't they been cooling that engine since 1955?
Compared to the Ford Taurus SHO, the only car close to being an American sport sedan at the time, the under powered Catera was still a sport sedan but the souped up Taurus wasn't its real competition. The SHO was more of a FWD muscle car and not meant to handle like the European sport sedans. They came closer with the Contour SVT but again, it was FWD. Ford saw the RWD light same as GM and introduced the Lincoln LS6 and LS8 which were within the Catera's design parameters but a little more on the luxury side than sport (however, since they used Mustang engines there were aftermarket performance sources.). GM was looking to compete against the foreign models sold here like the Mercedes C280 and BMW 328i, both RWD. Audi's A6 too, specifically the all wheel drive Quattro version. Jaguar had the XJ6 but it was more touring than sport. Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti had sport sedans too but not in the requisite RWD. Saab too but besides being FWD it was a GM holding thus it wasn't considered competition.
In the '80s Ford tried to transplant the "Ford of Germany" (FoG) Sierra and XR4Ti (Sport Sedan and Coupe) into the American market. Both were good performance cars. Ford's failure was in their marketing. They would have sold better as Mercurys like the very successful '70s Capri, also from FoG. Instead the Sierra and XR4Ti were sold here under the Merkur banner. New cars from a new division? No, they were cars already in production at FoG but unknown in the "States". American car buyers were confused. Many of the more simple-minded couldn't even pronounce Merkur. Americans are a suspicious bunch so few bought them. Our loss.
The car magazines often mention the Catera, along with the Cimarron, as one of the worst Cadillacs ever but that's not fair. The Cimarron was a Chevrolet Cavalier, 4 cylinder "Iron Duke" engine and all, trimmed to look like a Cadillac. They later fitted it with a 2.8L V6 but made no other substantive changes to improve the car and justify the price they were asking. It was an economy car, poorly built, with none of the Cadillac excellence buyers expected. The Opel Omega was an executive sedan designed with the Autobahn and Alpine roads in mind. Unfortunately Cadillac de-tuned them to protect the frail American drivers from themselves not to mention for the poor American roads this reworked Omega would encounter. So that, plus the Elite's leather interior, a few Cadillac badges, and some body colored trim, turned them into Cateras. Lightyears better than the Cimarrons but once the connection was made nothing, not even the facelift and Sport versions could remove the stink. Not saying the Catera didn't have problems just that she wasn't the fraud that the Cimarron was. If Cadillac was truly serious about competing against BMW, MB, et al they would have addressed the problems.
Continued in Part 2