(first posted 12/18/2017) Historical pieces on the Cadillac Catera often focus on its cringe-inducing advertising campaign, its myriad reliability issues and its overall failure in the marketplace. But there’s an interesting story that runs parallel to the Cadillac Catera’s development, one involving an Australian car with a Buick badge that just might have made for a better Cadillac.
That Buick was the XP-2000 concept, presented at the 1995 Detroit Auto Show. The unveiling occurred just a few months after the project was officially canceled in November 1994, after the XP-2000 had passed through three of the five stages of GM’s product development cycle. It was to be a derivative of the upcoming 1997 Holden VT Commodore, itself a heavily revised version of the GM V-Car platform first introduced in 1994 on the Opel Omega. That original version of the V-Car was what ended up on American shores. Perhaps it shouldn’t have.
The XP-2000 concept was the proof of concept of Project GMX 127, a project scooped by Australian Wheels magazine. GMX 127 was a proposal by General Motors’ Australian subsidiary, Holden, to ship 50,000 units of the upcoming VT Commodore each year between 1998 and 2004. Commodore sedans and wagons would have joined an already sedan-heavy Buick lineup, ostensibly replacing the Roadmaster. Like the other sedans in Buick’s lineup, the production XP-2000 would have been powered by the venerable 3.8 V6. However, as the VT Commodore was also available with a supercharged 3.8 V6, as well as 5.0 and, later, 5.7 V8 engines, these would have been possibilities.
Although the cancellation of GMX 127 was a huge blow to Holden, they made lemonade out of these lemons. The tooling for left-hand-drive Commodores was put to good use, with Holden embarking on its largest export program yet. VT Commodores were exported to markets in the Middle East, Asia and South America, typically wearing Chevrolet Lumina or Omega badges. The VT Commodore – or, rather, a derivative of it known as the Monaro coupe – eventually reached American shores as the Pontiac GTO. However, the only VT Commodore derivative to wear a Buick badge was the Chinese-market Royaum, based on the long-wheelbase Holden Statesman and Caprice.
There was talk GMX 127 was scuttled because of UAW opposition. What is perhaps more likely is GM realized they were effectively going to have two GM V-Car derivatives in the North American market, and the one that was going to be more powerful and more reliable was going to wear the lesser Buick badge. Opel’s aggressive lobbying to supply Omegas to the North American market also torpedoed Holden’s proposal.
The Catera first debuted in North America as a concept at the 1994 Chicago Auto Show, wearing the Cadillac LSE nameplate and looking much like the production model. For a period of time – at least a year or two – the Cadillac LSE and Buick XP-2000 were simultaneously in development. Suffice it to say, GM canceled the wrong project.
It’s not jingoism that has led me to that conclusion. After all, I can acknowledge the VT Commodore, while an impressive mainstream family sedan, wasn’t quite luxury brand material. The 3.8 V6 was too coarse, while the interior – although a significant step-up from most GM North American interiors – wasn’t on the same level as interiors in Lexuses and BMWs.
Would the VT Commodore have made a terrific Buick? Without a doubt, although it would have entered a very cluttered lineup and puzzled shoppers with its Regal dimensions but potentially higher price. But, as a Catera, the VT Commodore would have provided Cadillac with a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan with greater power and reliability. As the later first-generation CTS proved, Cadillac didn’t seem to mind having slightly less luxurious interiors and pushrod V8 power.
Although Opel was the winning bid for the Catera project, GM North America continued to flirt with Holden as a source for future Cadillacs. Holden was originally involved in the Sigma platform project and, although Holden and Cadillac went their separate ways, Holden’s Zeta platform was mooted as the base for a DTS/STS replacement known as the DT7.
Even though the Omega battled German executive sedans in the European market and the Commodore was pitched at family sedans, little was lost in translation when Holden created the VT Commodore. Yes, the Omega’s wide range of engines (I4 and V6 petrol and I4 and I6 diesel) were replaced with Buick V6 descendants and Chevy V8 engines, but the Omega’s independent rear suspension was retained. The Omega also grew in numerous dimensions to become the VT Commodore, gaining 3.6 inches in length. Much of that was in the wheelbase, which was stretched by 2.3 inches. The VT Commodore was also 1.5 inches wider.
The Omega may have had a smoother six-cylinder engine but it was down on power. The Catera’s 3.0 V6 produced 200 hp and 192 ft-lbs, while the base 3.8 in the VT Commodore produced slightly less horsepower (192) but a lot more torque (224 ft-lbs). And that was just the base engine, whereas the Catera’s 3.0 was the biggest engine available in the Omega. Later Omegas received a 3.2 V6 that matched the VT’s torque figures, but it arrived as the Catera was being discontinued.
Compared to the Commodore, the Omega/Catera had a more refined engine, a slightly more upscale interior and a more Teutonic feel. The Commodore countered with more space, more pace, and superior reliability. Would a Commodore Catera have sold as well as the real thing? We’ll never know. What we do know is the Catera was a mediocre seller.
Until its reliability issues became apparent, the baby Caddy didn’t seem like a bad deal. Priced just under $30k, the Catera was priced almost identically to the smaller, less powerful, more spartan BMW 318i and undercut the 328i by around $3k.
This echoed the Omega’s pricing in Europe, which typically mirrored that of the 3-Series range. Heavy fleet sales in Europe, however, meant the Omega depreciated much faster than the German compact sport sedans.
When it was launched for 1997, the Catera was unlike anything else in Cadillac’s lineup, being the only rear-wheel-drive vehicle and the only one without a V8 engine. The austere cabin with its imposing center stack and excessive buttons looked more like a BMW’s interior than a Seville’s, although the fake wood trim seemed to allude to the DeVille. And, true to its role as a German transplant, the Catera had useless cupholders.
Cadillac had desperately needed an entry-level model. While it may still have been the #2 luxury brand in the US in the mid-1990s, its sales were plateauing while the Japanese and German brands were seeing record growth. Cadillac had had nothing at the $30k price point; when the Catera was launched, it undercut the base DeVille by $6k and the Seville by $10k.
The Catera compared favorably to the 3-Series in many respects. It had that patented Germanic feel, with precise steering, a smooth ride and taut handling. While it didn’t quite match the 3-Series in outright handling ability, it countered with more cabin space. Standard equipment was also generous, with dual-zone climate control, traction control, keyless entry and a power driver’s seat. Despite its European origins, the Catera (and indeed, the Omega back home) seemed to follow the American tradition of offering plenty of metal for the money.
If only it offered more bang for the buck. The 3.0 V6 produced almost identical power and torque outputs to the similarly-sized and similarly-priced Acura 3.2TL, Lexus ES300 and Infiniti I30, as well as comparable fuel economy. Alas, the tubby Catera weighed a whopping 500-700 pounds more than those premium Japanese sedans. Even though it had a more adept rear-wheel-drive chassis, driving excitement was hardly assured when the only source of propulsion was a small V6 straining under the hood. And despite the Catera’s purported sport sedan role in the Cadillac lineup, there was no optional manual transmission as there was with the Omega. The only transmission was a four-speed automatic.
While Europeans largely avoided the Nissan QX – as the Infiniti I30 was known over there – as well as any other Japanese executive sedans like it, North Americans were far more embracing of Japanese products. The Catera may have seemed like good value for money next to a 3-Series but the TL, I30 and ES looked like great value for money. Not everybody wanted a canyon carver and if they did, they probably wouldn’t have thought to go to a Cadillac showroom to find one.
The Catera did succeed in bringing some younger buyers to the brand – certainly younger than those buying the Lexus ES – and became GM’s best conquest vehicle, with 45% of Catera owners coming from a non-GM vehicle. It was also popular with female buyers, who accounted for around half of all Catera buyers, while the average buyer age ticked down into the 50s. 25,411 units were sold in the Catera’s first year, just above Cadillac’s modest goal of 25,000 units.
However, sales were flat for 1998 and then began to drop. For 1999, Cadillac introduced a Sport trim level with a firmer suspension tune but extremely subtle styling tweaks.
The following year, the Catera line received an attractive freshening. The Sport received blocky, AMG-esque 17-inch wheels, brushed metal-look interior trim, HID headlamps and a rear spoiler, while all Cateras lost the very American-looking full-width taillight/reflector set-up. This styling feature had been the only major change from the Omega, and now – slightly different grille aside – the Catera was visually identical to its cousin across the pond. By now, both the Omega and Catera had also seemed to get most of their reliability issues under control.
The Sport, with its bigger wheels and tires and firmer shocks and springs, handled even more adeptly than the base Catera. But the rumored manual transmission never arrived and the Catera never received the power its capable chassis deserved. Sales increased fractionally for 2000, but by 2001 the Catera was selling at under half its original projections.
The Catera may have brought some new buyers to the Cadillac fold but its oil leaks and electrical troubles may have scared them away. While the car offered much of the dynamic poise and refinement of its German rivals, as well as greater space and value-for-money, it lacked their cachet. As for its Japanese rivals, it may have handled better but its performance and reliability were worse. The Catera’s conservative styling, widely maligned advertising campaign and Cadillac’s belated arrival to the segment – and the resultant lack of awareness about Cadillac’s aspirations – further undid GM’s efforts.
Would a Cadillac Commodore have avoided all of these pitfalls? Perhaps not. But Catera owners would have spent less time in the shop.
Catera photographed in Palm Springs, CA in October 2016.