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Worst Car Wednesday: 1997-2001 Cadillac Catera

Hailed as “The Caddy That Zigs,” it was as big of a mistake for Cadillac as was the tagline. GM was popping out junk left and right while its advertising got sappier and more inane. Cadillac has still not recovered from trying to sell a small Cadillac with the horribly designed Cimarron. Now it was doing it again; this time with an Opel import. For many reasons the compromised Cadillac Catera gets its time in the Worst Car Wednesday spotlight.

The Cadillac Catera capped a two-decade plunge of bad cars, engines, and advertising

GM has never been able to revive Cadillac from those misguided years of doing almost everything wrong. On that list, the Catera figures prominently. Let’s take a brief moment to count the blunders, shall we? There was the Cimarron, Allante, 8-6-4 engine, and bad diesels. Competing with those were bad quality, old tech, gingerbread interiors, and horrible styling. And let’s not forget these were as big as a house with handling like a boat. 

Marching on with fake wire wheels, gaudy brocade interiors, and vinyl tops, Cadillac only appealed to old buyers. But old buyers die too soon. Without appealing to younger buyers your demographic gets increasingly smaller as they die off. Once you’ve exhausted your bucket of potential buyers you’re toast. 

Lexus, Infinity, and Acura were all variations appealing to a younger, more affluent buyer

The Japanese car companies knew this. So the recently created Lexus, Infinity, and Acura were all variations of the same thing: appealing to a younger, more affluent buyer. Buyers were treated to quality builds, leather interiors, and nimble handling with plenty of torque. Once they were used to that, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi were next on their list. Cadillac, on the other hand, was not even on their radar. 

But GM had European-like cars it produced in, can you guess? Why Europe, of course. Shooting for an entry-level BMW buyer Cadillac borrowed the Opel Omega from across the pond. Going for a European flair, handling, and quality, the Catera was born.

For a sophisticated new-type of Cadillac, it needed a similar ad campaign. That’s what it needed. What it got was a weird duck as a mascot and the “Caddy That Zigs” slogan. Infantile is the word that comes to mind. Also, contrived and tone-deaf. 

Looking like a three-year-old Camry with a $40,000 price tag, Cadillac had high expectations

2001 Cadillac Catera Sport.

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Looking like a three-year-old Camry with a $40,000 price tag, owners were in for a wild ride. But not the kind you are thinking of. In short order, bent valves or worse began to occur from timing belt tensioner pulleys letting go. When GM wouldn’t cover the fix under warranty, the lawsuits started flying. Before too long GM had to recall the compromised Catera which announced to the world it was a problem child. Sales slowed almost immediately. 

But the Catera cost GM in another big way. As part of the insipid marketing Cadillac was pushing leasing in Catera advertising. Once the word was out that the Catera was prone to problems, nobody wanted them. Or wanted to keep them. But GM had leased a ton of them. 

It was expected that some owners would opt to buy their Catera. Between all lessees turning in their Cateras and the bad word on the street the Catera was doomed. Off-lease the residual value was nowhere near what GM expected. Leasing them became a loser for GM.

With all of Catera’s baked-in problems Cadillac’s reputation only got worse

At 3,800 lbs the Catera’s 3-liter V6 was taxed. So was the handling. The only thing good about the Catera was the idea of a more European-like car that could open up Cadillac’s limited appeal. But instead, with all of its baked-in problems Cadillac’s reputation only got worse. It was time for Cadillac to finally stop cutting corners. With all of the flailing, it had done up to this point it had to start producing an authentic, honest, luxury car if it ever expected to stay in business. 

So, from the ashes of the Catera came the STS in 2002. Since then Cadillac has actually developed some genuinely good cars. But the skeletons in its past and the proliferation of other, better cars from the competition, has seen Cadillac slip each year since. We may actually see the demise of the marque if it can’t sell more vehicles soon. 

As for the Catera, it lasted a couple of years of production hovering at around 5,000 units a year. Cadillac had tried every way around building vehicles that were world-class they could charge world-class money for. It found that buyers aren’t stupid. To charge the top dollar it needed a top dollar car. Products like the Catera or Allante were far from it. But after 20 years since the end of Cadillac shenanigans, its reputation has never recovered.