While Acura is launching its first American-engineered model, Cadillac is leveragingCorp.'s European resources, gussying up the Opel Omega platform into the long-awaited Catera.
This project, which has been in the works for more than three years, is not driven by currency forces. To build on its rather sparse cadre of under-50 buyers, Cadillac clearly needs to offer an entry-level rear-drive sports sedan that can compete with the3-series, Mercedes-Benz C-class, Lexus ES300 and Infiniti 130 and J30.
The Omega, Opel's top-of-the-line model, had been redone and introduced two years ago. The cost of retooling an American plant and developing a car from scratch in the U.S. with annual sales projections of about 30,000 made the decision a no-brainer, although a U.S. Catera may surface in the future.
Cadillac designers and engineers on the Catera project have spent most of the last two years at Opel's Technical Development Center in Russelsheim, Germany, also home of the assembly plant where Catera a production begins in April.
"The primary premise is the platform itself," says Gregory A. Payne, Cadillac's resident manager for the Catera program. "The layout of the seats, the height of the roof, the pass-through opening in the rear seat for loading things like skis and the overall capability of the suspension system - there wasn't anything on the shelf in the U.S. that met those needs."
Indeed, even the 3L V-6 engine comes from GM Europe's Ellesmereport, U.K., factory, although it has been tuned for American road conditions and driving habits. For example, the Omega MV6 can zoom up to 160 mph (257 km/h) on the autobahn. But to accommodate a specially designed set of Goodyear all-season tires the double-overhead-cam (DOHC) engine is capped for a maximum speed of 125 mph (201 km/h).
Only a handful of engineers from Gm's North American operations have taken part in the Catera project, explains Mr. Payne, but that's not to say considerable cross-cultural learning hasn't taken place.
"The Opel people have given us a different perspective on ride and handling characteristics," he says. "In Europe people put more emphasis on braking performance. This car must stop from 62 mph (100 km/ h) in 130 feet."
Road & Track magazine recently reported that a Seville STS made that stop in 156 feet.
Traditional Cadillac buyers always have tended toward the cushy ride where braking and steering function without too much firmness. But the aging baby-boomers who have grown up in midsize Japanese cars likeAccord and Camry are demanding stiffer, more immediate handling as they move up the luxury ladder. Consequently, Cadillac benchmarked the Mercedes C-class and 3-series on body stiffness.
Opel has benefitted by many of the North American requirements Cadillac demanded that transcend the particular engineering standards of Catera's segment.
"In Europe paint finish standards have not reached the level the Japanese and American makers have met," says Mr. Payne. "We've made some pretty significant changes in the paint shop at Russelsheim, such as new ways to control dirt, and adopting a more environmentally protective clear-coat system."
Durability standards are not as stringent in most of Europe. Warranties might last for 12 months, far less than the 5-year-or-longer standards found in the U.S. luxury market.
And there were regulatory-driven changes. The new on-board-diagnostic (OBD-II) standards require addition of two new oxygen sensors near the catalytic converter. The compression ratio is 10:1 compared to 10.8:1 on the Omega MV6, primarily to allow it to run well with regular fuel.
To meet U.S. crashworthiness standards, Opel upgraded the bumpers to withstand a 5 mph (8 km/ h) impact, which in turn meant changing the airbag sensing system, says Mr. Payne.
Eventually - which means in its next development cycle - Cadillac wants to produce Catera in the U.S., but not if it dilutes the European heritage of the car. Despite a recent surge by the U.S. dollar versus the Deutschmark, Germany remains an expensive place to build a car that is expected to have a lower price ($33,000 to $36,000) in the U.S. than in Europe.
"This program will be able to make money," Mr. Payne maintains. "Remember, when we first received concept approval the dollar was at 1.3 marks. Now it's about 1.49. For us this is a core product, not a niche car. It may not match DeVille volume, but we expect it to be right in there between Eldorado and Seville."
As the value of the mark goes down, the cost of building a car in Germany goes down, too. When a Catera sells in the U.S. for $34,000, it will be worth about 50,000 marks today, up from 44,000 marks two years ago.
ButCorp. Chairman John F. Smith Jr. already has hedged his bets against wide swings between the dollar and mark. Gm's new front-drive minivans, primarily engineered in the U.S., will be assembled at GM's Doraville, GA, plant outside Atlanta. A European version will be sold under the Opel Sintra badge, with powertrains engineered in Europe.