In the 1990s, Cadillac was in a transition period, attempting to move from making soft, luxuriant motorized living rooms to making more modern, better-handling cars that could, maybe if you really squint and take some pills, have competed with BMWs or Mercedes. This was a sort of adolescence for modern Cadillac, and like all adolescences, there were some sort of embarrassing ideas. Ideas like the Cadillac Catera.
The Catera was sort of a lazy shortcut to getting a smaller, tighter, more European-feeling car for Caddy, a car that was less likely to make everyone pause and fondly remember their grandpa, looking away as a solitary tear glides down their face.
To get a more European feel, Cadillac went to that place that really knows how Europe feels, a place called “Europe.” GM did one of the things GM does best, rebadging, and took their German division Opel’s new family/executive car, the Opel Omega B1, and dressed it up like a Cadillac.
The result was something that Cadillac’s marketing goons called “the Caddy that zigs,” since “zig” is a sufficiently vague term they’d never have to confirm in a court of law, and, compared to many previous Cadillacs, some office chairs could even be considered to, in contrast, zig.
In perfect Meh Car fashion, the Catera wasn’t bad: the specs were decent, for the time. It made 200 horsepower from its three-liter V6, not amazing, but, for the era, not terrible. It was rear-wheel drive, which meant it had at least some little glimmer of hope of being fun to drive, and it came with all the electronic crap and toys one would expect of a fin-de-siècle 20th century American premium car.
Basically, it did its job just fine. Pretty much, at least. It wasn’t exactly thrilling to drive, it wasn’t as comfortable as Cadillacs usually were, and, let’s face it, it looked about as exciting as a History Channel documentary about double-entry bookkeeping and how it could have turned the tide of the Russo-Finnish war, but didn’t.
The Catera (and, the Omega it was based on) were designed in the grip of the late 1990s tyranny of aerodynamics, when the state of the art of aerodynamic design meant that cars had to look like a bar of soap you’ve been sliding between your thighs for the past three weeks.
It was a forgettable, smooth oblong with a Cadillac grille slapped on the front. Put your thumb over the badge, Craigslist-seller-style, and the car could be pretty much anything at all made in that era, from a Hyundai to some other boring Hyundai.
The most thing about the Catera is probably the way it was marketed. Cadillac was so desperate to make this car seem hipper and younger and cooler than the Werther’s Originals-stuffed grandparent cars everyone associated the brand with, they actually did the most desperate thing any entity can do when trying to be seen as cool: they came up with an animated sidekick.
The sidekick was a bird named Ziggy, and was inspired by the ducks that are actually martins on the Cadillac badge.
Ziggy didn’t do a hell of a lot, but he showed up in commercials and pushed around the old martins on the badge and poked at a calculator and shrugged. Here, look:
This commercial is also notable for the little throwaway joke at the end of it, when the announcer says “Lease a Catera” and then follows it up with “Who is Lisa Catera?”
Okay, I guess that’s mildly funny, in the sort of way that could almost provoke a smile if you were, say, in the sort of state where you were so starved for entertainment you could also manage to get sexually aroused by watching pollen fall on a hot, exposed stamen.
Incredibly, though, a human was amused enough by that to actually take real action beyond a slight, wan smile. The producer of another very Meh institution, the television hospital drama Chicago Hope, John Tinker, actually named a character on the show “Lisa Catera.” GM was so starstruck by this they gave the guy a free three-year lease on a Catera, and the character on the show even said shit like “When you can’t zig, you zag,” a little reference to the Catera’s tagline. Jeezis.
The Catera is sort of a tragic Meh car, because GM dumped some real money into trying to make it interesting and appealing. They spent real money on a Super Bowl ad with Cindy Crawford and her then love-interest (if I remember the tabloid headlines right), Ziggy the bird:
Despite all the efforts, even the volunteered efforts of the TV hospital drama show (which, it should be noted, had viewer demographics very close to the demographics of people GM thought would buy a Catera, that is people too lazy to pick up the damn remote/too lazy to find an Acura dealer) the Catera just didn’t sell well, because, let’s face it, who ever really gave a shit about the Catera?
Sorry, Lisa. Your car is boring as shit.