Sometimes you have to leave your roots and follow a different path. Cadillac is doing that with the Catera.

What is a Catera, you ask? It's the new small Cadillac (forget all the bad vibes from the Cimarron) with a European heritage and a specific mission: Attract younger buyers to Cadillac showrooms and provide ammunition with which to counter competition from Japan and Europe. It is roughly the size of the Lexus ES 300 and Infiniti J30.

Based on the front-engine, rear-drive Opel Omega made in Germany by General Motors' European Opel division, the Catera is a bold experiment, decidedly different from the rest of the Cadillac family. Will it work? Will a distinctly non-Cadillac create its own identity inside an existing company whose traditional buyers expect their cars to be big, soft and laden with chrome? Only time and the marketplace will tell.

The product, however, is solid. Its biggest drawback is likely to be its styling, which doesn't really capture the flair that exists under the skin. Like most German sedans, the Catera has impeccable road manners, strong brakes and a no-nonsense interior ruled by function, not fashion. True to its heritage, it is a sensible car in tailored clothes.

The transition from Omega to Catera was accomplished fairly easily. The most obvious difference is addition of a sharp-looking front end. Around back, however, the full-width taillights just don't have the same amount of visual excitement as the front.

Slide behind the seat, however, and twist the 3.0-liter V6 to life. Your ears will perk up at the engine's slightly raspy voice. Once underway, you notice how firm the steering feels. The ride is taut, and the seats wrap around your torso without being confining.

The Catera's dual-overhead-camshaft (DOHC) V6 puts out 200 horsepower. Tuned to have strong low- and mid-range response, it accelerates with enthusiasm; at high speeds, its German roots surface in the way it covers ground with a minimum of fuss and a comfortable gait.

The four-speed automatic transmission has a Sport mode activated by a button atop the shift knob and a winter-start feature that selects second gear to limit wheelspin in slick conditions.

The standard traction control and anti-lock brakes go a long way toward giving it acceptable behavior in winter conditions. I only drove it for a couple of days when our last snow was on the ground, and it got around just fine with one exception: It was hard to bull through the snow piled in front of my drive by the snow plow.

The interior is understated and functional. White-on-black gauges for all major functions are arrayed in front of the driver. The radio and climate control knobs are as large a quarters and three times as thick, making them simple to grip, even with gloves. Similar to those used by Lexus, they are a joy to use. Cadillac has added similar ones to the Concours and Seville this year, as well.

There is a separate control for passenger-side temperature.

The only downside to the new radio and climate control designs are small, digital readouts that make it hard to check the time at a glance, for example.

Befitting a car geared toward younger audiences, the Catera has a split-folding back seat. The center armrest opens to swallow long objects, such as skis, or both sides of the back seat fold forward so you can carry bicycles or other such gear.

Cadillac added a fold-out cupholder to the center armrest, but I found it was perilously close to the driver's elbow.

Aggravations? For one, the window switches are mounted on the console and not labeled, yet the lock button is on the door. And, in a car of this price class, I am surprised that heated front seats are not standard. Third, the gas gauge is angled so that reading it accurately takes a sharp eye.

The Catera is definitely a different breed of Cadillac, and the company is playing heavily on this in its adverti ng. Whether there is sufficient appeal for a European-inspired Cadillac remains to be seen, but the car itself is a pleasure to drive.

Price

The base price of our test car was $32,995. Its only options were the Bose stereo and 16-inch alloy wheels. The sticker price was $34,713.

Warranty

The basic warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The Catera looks, drives and feels like the European car it is. It is priced competitively, equipped well and has understated styling.

Counterpoint: The understated styling actually sells the car short, because it drives more energetically than it looks.

This is definitely not a typical Cadillac, and mixing it with the more traditional models may or may not work.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 3.0-liter, V6

TRANSMISSION: Automatic

WHEELBASE: 107.4 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,770 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $32,995

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $34,713

MPG RATING: 18 city, 25 hwy.