What I'm Driving At: Keep the Change

Ugh. Cadillac changed everything back in the '80s, when it downsized, homogenized, and apostatized its model line with front-wheel-drive and generic GM styling. What was once the icon of the rich and famous became a symbol of the old (its customers) and the outdated (its technology)--just at a time when Japanese and European automakers were targeting young affluents with fancy new goods. To make matters worse, Cadillac took a sow's ear in the form of Chevrolet's '80s-era Cavalier and tried to fob it off on unsuspecting yuppies as a silk-purse Cimarron; but even Me-generation logo-maniacs perceived the image devaluation that was taking place. Cadillac's generation and technology gaps continued to widen: What to do? What to do?First, GM's premium luxury division settled down to rescue its core business with Northstar, a V8 powerhouse of a powertrain that has revitalized all of the big-body, high-dollar models in Cadillac's lineup. And now, while Cimarron molders unmourned in an unmarked grave, Cadillac is trying once again to attract bright young things blessed with excellent credit: The all-new Catera is the "entry-level" Cadillac that the division has needed--and that the marketplace has demanded--since the early '90s. Oh my, what a wonderful thing is change!Of course, the change has to be in the right direction. In the Catera, it's in exactly the right direction; and yet, in a sense, it's also a step backward. The car's most expressive change--in both literal and figurative terms--is the incorporation of rear-wheel-drive. This bears pondering for a moment: In 1996, when it "retired" the Chevrolet Caprice and Buick Roadmaster, GM eliminated the last of its American-made rear-drive sedan platforms. Now here's this new Caddy four-door--and it's a pusher, not a puller.You don't have to be a corner-crazy aficionado to appreciate the balance and predictability of a car with rear-wheel-drive. In a nutshell, it's a case of divide-and-conquer engineering: let the front wheels provide the guidance; let the rear wheels provide the motivation. During acceleration, weight transfers rearward to enhance the traction of the very wheels that are doing all the work. (In a front-drive car, weight shifts away from the wheels that do the driving, effectively limiting how much power reaches the road, no matter how high the engine rating.)It's really no accident that most status-cars worldwide employ rear drive, and now GM finally returns to this prestigious roster. In fact, it was precisely to prevent a marketing accident like the Cimarron that Cadillac turned to German automaker Opel for the Catera. Opel has been a member of the GM family since 1929, and the Omega MV6 it sells in Europe is its largest, priciest sedan. With a few body sculpts here and a few engine tweaks there, GM designers have transformed Opel's last word in luxury into Cadillac's fresh new start.To begin with, the Catera offers one of the most unique driving sensations for an American nameplate. Its road manners are precise, if not especially nimble. The car feels dense and solid, but not stolid. The doors, for example, open with a glide, but they feel notably heavy and reassuring. At 3,800 pounds, this is basically a nine-second car, zero-to-60. But it behaves perkier than that: Low-end torque (of 192 ft./lbs.) enhances the car's responsiveness from a standing stop, and the 4-speed auto shifts gears with surgical precision.Like many cars in this class, the Catera features two gear-shift "computer scripts" that the driver can select with the push of a button; but only in this new Cadillac does the switch from "touring" to "sport" so dramatically change the personality of the car. Although the Catera shares its twin-cam V6 with the SAAB 9000 (thanks to GM's co-ownership of the Swedish firm), the SAAB rates 10 more horsepower; nevertheless, Opel's "Strasbourg" transmission livens up the Catera's performance more than enough to compensate. It's a transmission with many fans, including BMW, which buys almost 100,000 of them a year for its own cars.Interior room is one of the Catera's main strengths. Rear seating is generous for three. Nice extra touches like rear seat heaters (bundled with optional front heaters) and adjustable rear HVAC vents improve upon the "steerage" conditions found in the back of many other sedans--even in this class. Especially clever is the way the rear seat-back folds down in three (not two) sections so that large items in the truck can cohabit with rear passengers in a variety of arrangements.Only in the area of styling does the Catera fail to assert itself. Gone, for example, are the Omega exterior's more aggressive angles and facets, replaced by rounded edges that just sort of droop. Knobs and controls inside the cockpit do all the right things, but their shapes and locations take getting used to, and sometimes it takes one or two tries simply to figure them out. The only truly awful snafu is a cup-holder of which Cadillac is just a little too proud. Folded, it contorts awkwardly into the console cubby to consume all the storage space. Extracted, it interferes with hand brake and shifter. But it is removable...so just throw it away.The Catera is priced to cut a swath through the ranks of its competitors. Its combination of rear-drive powertrain, a spacious interior, and a mid-30s sticker should put many other models on the defensive: They either cost more, offer less room (particularly in the rear), or feature the underwhelming performance of front-wheel drive. But what many of the competitors don't have to face is the issue of trust: Can Cadillac be trusted to know what it's doing in an important market category where it has flopped before? A lot of the smart money is betting it can. The Catera is already perceived as an instrument of change at GM's luxury division. This time, it's a change worth making--and keeping.[Image] Refreshing, affordable, et Catera '97 Cadillac Catera sedan, 4-door, 5-pass., RWD 3.0-liter V6, 200 HP, 18/25 MPGs, $36,215

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