For 2000, the Cadillac Catera received its first makeover: a nice face lift and rear-end treatment that makes it look richer and more distinctive, a sharper-looking interior, more supportive seats, firmer suspension and tighter steering, among other improvements.

But going into 2001, the Catera still hasn’t gotten what it really needs: more muscle and less weight. Though since that describes so many of us, I suppose I’m being harsh.

The Catera is the small Cadillac unveiled for 1996 and advertised with that truly awful campaign with the cartoon duck and the slogan “The Caddy that Zigs.” Now, Catera is being marketed with a more adult tack.

With a more-than $3,000 lower base price, Catera looks better than ever.

Based on the Opel Omega of Germany and assembled in a German plant, Catera is designed to lure drivers attuned to the European stuff. It goes up against serious competition from Europe and Japan, as well as Lincoln’s well-received import fighter, the LS.

The Catera tested here was equipped with the $2,500 Sport package, which includes a bunch of power and convenience features, as well as a rear spoiler and other superfluous body trim.

More importantly, it adds a sport-tuned suspension with upgraded shocks and stiffer springs, and 17-inch alloy rims with performance tires.

The ride is stable and compliant, maybe a bit harsh for a Cadillac, but comparable to BMW or Audi. The Catera feels poised and Germanic, with responsive steering, balanced handling and a solid, rattle-free ride.

A trip up winding Yarnell Hill road and over the mountains to Prescott was enjoyably quick and sporting. But the rural blacktop revealed the weakness in the Catera: too little power for nearly two tons of heft.

The Caddy felt bogged down on hills and accelerating out of curves. The transmission downshifted heavily to make up for lack of torque, causing a racket of engine roar. That’s unwelcome in a luxury ride.

This excellent chassis cries out for something comparable, maybe a V-8, to take best advantage of fine road manners. Though the V-6 is advertised as making 200 horsepower, it’s just a 3-liter unit that makes most of its power high up in the RPMs.

Catera’s chief competitor, the Lincoln LS, offers a strong V-8 as an option. The LS also has a stick shift option with its standard V-6, in a nod toward Euro-style drivers. The Catera should offer both as well.

The styling of Catera, though pleasant and improved over the last version, still needs to be more interesting. Exciting, even.

With the successful design of the Seville STS and the restyled DeVille, as well as interesting prototypes such as the Evoq sports car, Cadillac designers need to make the Catera look edgy and futuristic, instead of mainstream.

The interior is more successful, a modern take on luxury trim. Gone are the fake, plastic wood accents in favor of plas tic accents that mimic brushed aluminum. A car in this price rage should have genuine aluminum trim. A few dozen recycled pop cans should cover it.

The dashboard is very nice, as are the well-designed cupholders and door pockets that snap open and shut.

If there’s a major clinker in here, it’s the climate control. The air-conditioning was not effective during the hottest days of the summer. And if you crank up the fan, it roars noisily. Both factors are contrary to Catera’s luxury image.

The Bose stereo sounded great, as long as it wasn’t competing with the noisy fan.

Like all Cadillacs and some other GM vehicles, Catera comes equipped with the OnStar communications system.

The regular, non-Sport Catera starts with a decent base price of $31,010. Fully equipped with the Sport package, moonroof and stereo upgrade, Catera still undercuts most sedans in this class.

A new Catera is rumored for 2002. It needs a stronger i mage to b e a true contender.

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan; rear-wheel drive.

Base price: $31,010.

Price as tested: $36,128.

Engine: 3-liter V-6, 200 hp at 6,000 rpm, 192 lb-ft. of torque at 3,400 rpm.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic.

Curb weight: 3,770 lbs.

Wheelbase: 107.5 inches.

EPA mileage: 18 city, 24 highway.

Precise steering, handling.
Solid structure.
Moderate base price.

Low power to weight.
Noisy, ineffective A/C.
Generic styling.

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