From time to time, I see one of these wretched heaps parked in someone’s yard, or, more rarely, moving under its own power, and I wonder, how on earth does this German pile of Mist still exist?
There weren’t that many of them sold to begin with. Sales for the first two years, 1997 and 1998 hovered around the 25,000 mark after which word got out and sales dropped to around 15,000 for 1999 and 2000, by 2001, its final year, sales dropped to under 10,000. A lot of them died due to reliability/cost issues, including timing belts snapping and destroying the engine.
(this picture still causes me some PTSD, I spent a lot of time dealing with the damn hood up.)
And the ones that survived long enough got Cash-for-Clunked, having achieved dismal fuel economy.
How are any still left? My experience was, if anything, better than average from what I have read, and I had the benefit of an extended warranty and some patience. The long series of costly repairs would lead everyone to junk them forthwith.
Before I segue into my tale of woe, an introduction; The Catera had its roots in the Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton which debuted in 1986, a solid German sedan sized between the C and E class Mercedes or between the 3 and 5 series BMW. It was price competitive with the lower rung German cars but afforded space similar to the higher rung German cars and could be optioned from taxicab basic to near luxury levels.
Said car was also manufactured in Australia and Brazil with local market adaptations. It featured a traditional longitudinal engine and RWD, bucking the high tech trend at the time which was a push towards FWD. It won the European Car of the Year award in 1987. An interesting variant was the Lotus-developed 1989 Lotus Carlton, which featured twin turbos, an expansion in engine size from 3 litres to 3.6 litres, and a top speed of 186 mph. This car had a lot of potential.
It had a 3.0 V6 engine in American export form, shared with various Saabs and Saturns, and came very well equipped. Mine had leather seats, cd/cassette player, bose stereo, all the various power options, steering wheel radio controls, sunroof- mine had everything except for heated seats and a power sunshade.
The car came to Cadillac as a result of GM’s 1980’s death throes. This story has been told here before and better than I shall tell it, so I’ll skim over the key points here. Cadillac at one point in the 1970’s realized that the future was smaller, sportier, more European cars, and put leather and a fancy grille on a Cavalier and called it a Cimarron, and nobody was fooled and 35 years after the Cimarron debuted, people are still mocking Cadillac for it. Lincoln did the same thing with a Granada, calling it a Versailles, and Chrysler tarted up a Volare and made the LeBaron and then the Fifth Avenue, and people didn’t feel those were such egregious sins, but never mind.
With the 8-6-4, diesel, and HT4100 disasters, and downsized C body and E body peculiarities, whatever customer base hadn’t died off was driven off to Lincolns or Lexus and Acura or the Germans. Cadillac decided it needed some better product to revitalize its image, so what better idea than to bring over a product that was competitive in Europe as little adulterated as possible? Why develop a new product from scratch for the American market when you already have a perfectly competitive product already?
This argument has been made as regards to the Vega and Pinto and Mustang II and long lists of dreadful Detroiters; why didn’t they just bring over a European platform? The only really popular European car sold under an American nameplate that I can recall was the Capri of the 1970’s, for many years the top selling imported car, although I do not believe it was sold as a Mercury. The Omnirizon had some French Rootes but they were somewhat different than the cars sold in France. The argument could be made that the Chevette as a relative of the Opel Kadett was a European car. Various German and British Fords appeared and sunk; the Opels that were imported failed to stop the Beetle swarms; Ford’s Merkur experiment failed; and most recently, the various Opels imported as Buicks and Saturns have failed. My theory is that those people who want to buy a European car will buy a European branded car for the image and those people who want an American car will buy just that. Discuss amongst yourselves.
By the time this generation of Omega appeared in 1994, there were signs of a turnaround at Cadillac. The Northstar was an incredibly impressive engine when it debuted, considering that in 1989 Cadillac was still putting wheezy carbureted Oldsmobile 307s in its flagship Brougham, so to go to 4.6 liters, 32 DOHC valves, aluminum construction, and 300 hp was a quantum leap forward, and the Seville, Eldorado, and Deville had shed their stubby unfortunate exterior styling to be quite sleek and dumped the cubist chrome interior look in favor of equally slick interiors. The silly Allante experiment was drawing to a close. Cadillac had yet to hit on the Escalade, but needed a new product to woo younger, sportier buyers. Thus, they dragged over the Omega from Germany in 1997.
Cadillac gave the car a completely forgettable exterior, an anycar exterior, akin to the Lumina or Hyundai Sonata at the time, a very comfortable, somewhat plush interior, and an odd, but memorable ad campaign. People who remember nothing else about the car remember the “Caddy that zigs,” the cartoon duck, Dr. Lisa Catera, and Cindy Crawford. Well, besides the odd Led Zepplin music commercials, what other Cadillac commercials do you recall? If it wasn’t entirely effective, it was at least memorable.
The name, Catera, was odd but not at all memorable, and given Cadillac’s long history of illustrious names, Catera seems an odd choice. Unlike some other invented names, like Acura, it isn’t close to anything and doesn’t have any positive associations. Other than that, the car had pluses and minuses. It had a very solid, well put together feeling. Only the Germans can make a car door thunk like that. For the price of a Camcord, this definitely felt a couple of classes more solid and luxurious. The interior materials were luxurious and had a very high quality feel to them, again, much nicer than most of the other cars in its class and nicer than the successor CTS. It was very spacious and comfortable and you could seat four adults very comfortably and five moderately comfortably. It had lots of useful bins and storage. The minuses were somnolent styling, it was quite overweight for the 200 odd horsepower engine, and a fairly dull feel. If it was athletic, someone like me who drives at about 4/10ths will never notice.
I was in the market for a new car in 2001 because my current car, a 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Convertible, had developed a tendency to shed expensive bits like a striptease dancer. Every couple of months something fairly expensive went wrong on it and it had reached that losing battle point, where you dump money into a bottomless pit. It should have been cheaper just to get a Certified Pre Owned car.
I was in one of those oooh, European phases of existence that people go through at 25 and looked at Volvos, which at 2 years old seemed beset by expensive maladies; I test drove one and the CV joint was making a tremendous racket. I don’t like Toyotas or Hondas. I liked the Camaro Convertible but the windshield header came way over my head, which means you miss the whole point of a convertible, and it was cramped and plasticky; I looked at Town Cars but I didn’t, and still don’t like the way they drive, they were all plasticky feeling and the engine didn’t sound good and at two years old a lot of switches were coming off or had broken; I looked at Saabs and BMWs which were too small and expensive.
I was looking at a two year old DeVille, which I really liked, and should have bought. But. The Catera was the closest car available in 2001 that was similar in philosophy to my dearly missed 1986 Cutlass Supreme Brougham, being GM, RWD, and spacious and luxurious. The Catera was German and unfairly shunned, I thought, doesn’t GM get cars right in the last year of production? I was considering a CPO Catera, but GM was offering MASSIVE incentives on the thing and it turned out I wouldn’t really save anything by doing CPO. I also bought the GM extended warranty.
Best. Deal. Ever. A lot of racket is made about extended warranties, and how terrible they are, but I’ve had good luck with a Chrysler extended warranty on a Plymouth Sundance and this GM extended warranty. I would not give you two cents for an aftermarket extended warranty. The great thing about the manufacturer extended warranty is you can take it to the dealer and say, this broke, fix it, and they do! There isn’t any ridiculous haggling about reimbursement and so forth. It paid for itself. I cannot remember everything in the parade of horribles that happened with that car, and I think it only had to be towed once, when some transmission control something went out, but it had an endless series of niggling but would have been expensive fixes both in and out of warranty.
The sunroof control went bad, a body control module went bad, something broke on the car at least every three months so every time it went for an oil change, it also visited the dealer for a while. The air conditioning went out. The battery developed corrosion on a post, the car wouldn’t start, then it needed a new special German battery which was over $200. Endless headaches, and I think nothing would have been under $1,000 to fix, and this on a new car! It gave me a lifelong distaste for German automobiles.
I had forgotten this, but about 6 months after I bought the thing, before I had realized how demon plagued it was, I was letting my friend drive it to Little Five Points to practice parallel parking for his driver’s test and a chap in a Ford Aerostar was behind us at a yellow light. We stopped. He didn’t and plowed the Catera through the intersection into a light pole and the airbags went off and the car filled with smoke. There were two impacts, one from behind and then the car hit the light pole in front, and then I had no idea what had just happened and I thought the car had caught on fire and was frantically trying to get out. Had I known what the car would have been like, then I would have insisted on it being totaled and walked away with a check, but at that point I still liked it a lot. The other party’s insurance company wanted to have it repaired. Incidentally, it wasn’t the collision that caused all the car’s problems, they were all like that.
The extended warranty was good for 80,000 miles and as the car approached 80,000 miles in 2006, I had had enough. Perhaps had the car presented a really exciting driving experience, I would have been more willing to put up with the maintenance, but it was so expensive and so high maintenance I would say no.
The overall effect on Cadillac may have been worse than the much derided Cimarron. Although the Cimarron was a bad idea, it was a decent car and if you wanted a really fancy Cavalier from the Cadillac dealer, it fit that bill. People who bought Cimarrons were probably happy with them, and they probably didn’t engender as much resentment as many of their contemporaries in the Cadillac showroom, like the obscenity of 4300 lbs of Brougham + passengers + a 140 hp HT4100 V8. The Catera wasn’t a traditional Cadillac with presence, plush fittings and chrome, and came across as bland, boring, and staid. It was luxurious in a way, but not really impressive in a Cadillac style of grand opulent presence. Neither did it deliver on the promise of a thrilling German driving experience, and had the expense and hassle of German maintenance costs.
People who bought a Catera, unlike Cimarron customers, were very likely to go somewhere else. Lincoln’s LS was arguably more successful, as it was better styled, offered a V8 option, and offered both a better driving experience and was more luxurious. It achieved 262,900 sales over a 7 year run, but was axed after 2006 with no replacement, partially due to Ford’s sale of Jaguar.
The next car would be incredibly thrilling and also incredibly low cost and low maintenance. I went and bought what I had essentially wanted in the first place: the ultimate G-Body, a Buick Grand National.