In 1996, Cadillac introduced a new four-door, five passenger, rear-wheel drive luxury sedan to its range. The name of the new model was the Cadillac Catera. Just 5 years and 95,000 cars later, it was gone – and for most people, it wasn’t before time. Over the course of its 118 years, Cadillac has produced some of the finest cars in the world. It’s also produced some serious duds. The Cadillac Catera was most definitely one of the 2nd types. Described by curbsideclassic.com as one of GM’s ‘deadly sins’, the Catera was, simply put, a disaster. Almost 20 years since the last model fell off the production line, it’s barely remembered. So, what exactly made it quite so bad? And why has it become little more than a footnote in Cadilac’s history?
By the start of the 1990s, Cadillac was in decline. Over the space of just 2 decades, it had gone from being seen as the gold standard of American car manufactures to an old-fashioned, bloated liability. If the geriatric brand-image (as thetruthaboutcars.com very nicely puts it) wasn’t bad enough, the cars were little better. If Cadillac wanted to survive in the new world of sporty European imports and affordable Japanese luxury, it needed to find a new sense of purpose, fast. Considering the pace at which its loyal customers were dying off, it also needed to bring in a younger generation of buyers – a group that at that point, had about as much interest in Cadillac’s ‘grandad cars’ as it had in yesterday’s news. The under 40s wanted ‘sport luxury’, not ostentation. And ostentation in the 1990s was as integral to the Cadillac brand image as shark fins had been 30 years previous.
It needed a solution, and it needed one now. Unfortunately, the solution it settled on couldn’t have done more damage to the brand’s already fragile reputation if it had tried. Plagued by recalls, performance issues, and bad marketing campaigns, the Catera failed to do anything but force Cadilac to ditch everything it had been doing until that point, and enter the new millennium with a blank slate. Which as it turned out (and as the CTS proved), wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
The Introduction of the Catera
In 1992, Cadillac had enjoyed a brief return to glory with the Seville. With its international character, classy sense of refinement, and excellent handling, it tapped into the demand for performance driven cars with good road manners a treat. But a manufacturer can’t rely on one car alone, no matter how good its sales. Enter the Catera. If Cadillac had achieved such good sales with a car that simply ‘looked’ European in design (i.e. the Seville), how much better could an actual European import be? First introduced in the US as the Cadillac LSE concept car, the Catera was an entry level vehicle designed to compete with the sedans coming from the likes of Acura, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz. In the fall of 1996, Cadilac began rolling out sales of the new model internationally. A Sport model followed in 1999 featuring power adjustable seats, heated seats, 17-inch wheels, seat memory, audible theft-deterrent system, three-channel garage door opener, high-intensity discharge headlamps, and a rear spoiler.
On paper, things looked good enough. The standard features were impressive as WIKI notes, customers could expect a cloth interior, front bucket seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, AM/FM stereo radio with cassette player and eight-speaker sound system, airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, keyless entry, security system, alloy wheels, compact spare tire, and full instrumentation), while the optional extras of leather interior, heated seats, cassette player and CD player combination, Bose premium sound system, power sunroof, HomeLink, OnStar, and chrome wheels where varied enough to keep things interesting.
But even with all those fancy features, something was amiss… something that became painfully obvious as soon as people started noticing just how similar the Catera looked to the Chevy Malibu, a pedestrian little motor priced at nearly $20000 less than the Catera. But the real problem started once you got behind the wheel. The Catara was clunky, slow, almost doddery. A 3 liter L81 V6 engine had no place in a 3800 pound car, and the result was a disappointedly sluggish drive. But that wasn’t the worst of it. A few months after the cars started selling, road accidents started increasing. Correlation doesn’t always equal causation, but in this case, it did. The problem was the timing belt tensioner pulley – a monstrously designed piece that had a terrible habit of failing, And when it failed, it failed in a drastic (and all too often, lethal) way. When the complaints first started popping up, Cadillac looked the other way. But when they stopped popping and started flooding, GM was left with no choice but to issue a recall – and a recall on a vehicle that costs the best part of $30,000 per piece doesn’t come cheap. Had it happened at another point in history, the Catara might have survived the bad press. But this was at the dawn of the internet age – once the news starting spreading online about just how bad the car was, it was all over.
The Marketing Campaign
Strong marketing can’t always save a duff product, but it can sometimes be just enough to stop it falling into ignominy. Unfortunately, the marketing that accompanied the Catera was anything but strong. The tagline was “the Caddy that zigs,” the face was Cindy Crawford, and the death bell was a small, slightly sinister animated bird named “Ziggy.” Silly to the point of stupid, it was a goofy ad that ranks as one of the worst efforts of any car brand both before or since. Ziggy may not have killed the Catara, but he certainly didn’t help save it, either.
By 2001, the last Catara had made its doddery way off the production line. All in all, it had been a dismal failure. But it wasn’t all bad news for Cadilac. If nothing else, the Catara had served as a lesson, a lesson that resulted in Cadillac re-writing the rule book and coming up with its successor, the far more successful CTS. With its sharp styling, easy handling, superb performance, and crisp interior, the CTS was everything the Catara wasn’t – and just the thing to save Cadillac’s luxury division and kick off the new millennium in style. The Catara, meanwhile, has been consigned to the pages of history… which as anyone who ever had the misfortune to drive one will tell you, is the best place for it.