In the mid 1990s, American middle aged, middle class car buying attitudes and practices were slowing shifting from the traditional stepping stone vehicles for Cadillac ownership. These people were no longer spending $40,000 for new DeVilles, Sevilles or even $35,000 for Olds Auroras or Buick Park Avenues. Cadillac executives knew that they needed to find a new vehicle to bring in new, younger customers to Cadillac ownership; however they also feared a repeat of the failed Cimarron of the early 1980s.
In the fall of 1996, Cadillac planners, marketers and executives decided to move forward with another attempt at a lower cost alternative to the traditional Cadillac – and with this – the Catera was introduced. Even though it was introduced in the fall of 1996, it was a 1997 model. Sales of this new vehicle were good, with over 13,000 being sold by June of 1997. With the introduction of the Catera, the Seville replaced the Fleetwood as the top of the line sedan, and the DeVille moved into Cadillac’s mid-range.
Cadillac’s marketing campaign for the Catera was as an entry level Cadillac. It was priced to bring new drivers to the brand. Cadillac’s engineers made additional luxury and safety modifications to the model as it was being sold to other locations world wide, softening the suspension for a smoother ride and adding weight to increase control. Catera became the only Cadillac which was built completely outside the United States and then imported into the market.
Since the Catera was being considered an entry level Cadillac, its marketing campaigns focused on the younger demographic. Cadillac introduced the catch phrase which will be forever linked to the Catera as “the Caddy that zigs”. This was not only a catchy phrase but one that the Catera was able to deliver on with its tight, European handling.
The Catera’s marketing also introduced to the world “Ziggy”, an animated duck-like creature who served as the spokes-creature for the vehicle. One of the most memorable advertisements featured supermodel Cindy Crawford and included the following information comparing Ziggy to the new Catera:
“Like Catera, he was hatched in Germany and has the sole mission of bringing fun to the luxury line of Cadillac. He was one of six mythical, beakless, footless martins or “Merlettes” in the Cadillac Crest before we gave him big feet, a giant beak, and turned him around. He’s quite a departure from his five brothers who have been part of the Cadillac Crest since the days of the crusades when the crest was the proud symbol of Le Sieu Antoine de la Motha Cadillac Family.”
The Catera changed little throughout its production years. Updating was done to its nose, wheels, interior trim, headlights and taillights. The suspension was stiffened to improve the handling of the vehicle and in 2000 side airbags were added. It was a rear wheel drive car with its power coming from a 200 horsepower V6 engine, smaller than traditional Cadillac engines. The engine was produced at GM’s Ellesmere Port facility in England. The transmission, the GM 4L30-E, was produced in France at GM’s facility in Strasbourg. This was the same transmission which was used in the BMW3 and 5 series and was considered very reliable.
Cadillac also tried a sport model of the Catera beginning in 1999. This model featured larger wheels, a firmer suspension, rear spoiler and some other cosmetic enhancements from the base model. The Catera was smaller and had less power than other Cadillac’s of the time. It received good reviews from the automotive press and consumer magazines, but sales did not meet expectations.
The Catera was often seen as too small to appeal to the traditional luxury car buyer and failed to attract as many buyers away from European luxury brands as had been initially anticipated. Some compared the Catera’s short and disappointing production run to the disastrous Cimarron of the early 1980s, although the Catera was a far better car in the opinion of most journalists and owners. The disappointment in the Catera also led to the “duck’s” disappearance from the company logo altogether in 1999.
A sampling of reviews from owners and journalists were normally good, with those that experienced Catera feeling that it was a nice car to drive. Reviews showed that the Catera handled well, even though it’s not a sports car. There was very little body lean or swaying while cornering and stopping was smooth and controlled. The Catera provided a great ride. However, there was a word of caution to those living in areas of snowfall or ice. The Catera, being a rear wheel vehicle, preformed poorly in the snow even when it was fitted with traction control.
The Catera is a comfortable car to ride in. It came with leather seats standard, which were extremely comfortable, and provided a great ride. Although marketed as a five passenger vehicle, the unfortunate fifth passenger would have the unlucky position of riding on the drive shaft hump. The interior design is very similar to what is found in a Volvo, with the thick, squared off armrests, dashboard design and other components. This design is quite different from the traditional Cadillac with a more understated appearance. Those that enjoy the styling in European cars will be impressed. Additionally, normal Cadillac accessories, eight-way power seats with memory, dual climate control, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, automatic dimming mirrors and other features were also included.
The Catera appealed to drivers who were not looking for flash, but instead looking for a solid traditional car. Despite not being produced since 2001, there are still quite a few Cateras on the road today. So while the Catera might not have been a top seller for Cadillac, the car still lives up to the Cadillac tradition of being a solid vehicle built for many years of reliable use.