After my first ride, however, I wondered what was supposed to be so special about the car? Ride and handling is certainly better than the minivan I regularly drive. Does that qualify as luxury? Pickup is more than adequate and special features plentiful. But I was not overly impressed -- at first. As the week wore on, however, and I encountered common driving conditions, such as sudden stops in heavy traffic, poor visibility, and highway driving with five adults on board, the Catera showed itself to be a more-than-competent vehicle.

Of course, when you spend $30,000 for a car, you expect it to be a notch or two above most others. You expect leather seats and electric controls for just about everything, along with a healthy engine. The Catera delivers all that. Power comes from a smooth, quiet 24-valve, 200-hp V6. Dual-overhead camshafts help deliver 192 lb-ft of torque at 3,400 rpm.

You also expect solid handling, and it's outstanding. No perceptible body lean in tight turns, and no wandering in lane when just trying to hold a straight line. The suspension is a bit firm, but that pays dividends at higher speeds with a feeling of confidence and certainty.

It's the unexpected things that make the Catera endearing. For example, when opening the hood the first time, I didn't have to search or fumble for the latch lever. And the OnStar system puts a human being at your service 24/7.

As a test, I hit the OnStar button. Yvonne answered. "Can you pinpoint this car?" I asked. She knew the exact location of the parking lot I was in. You don't have to use the system to benefit from it. For example, if the airbag inflates, for whatever reason, and you don't respond, Yvonne or one of her counterparts notifies local authorities to check out your situation.

The information center on the Catera also appears on a few other GM cars but deserves mention because of its oil-monitoring system. It calculates oil life as percent-used, on inputs such as throttle, temperatures, and speed. So instead of changing it every 5,000 miles as the book says, you might change it sooner if bad habits lead to a lot of slingshot starts. Or, if you're less aggressive, you might get 8,000 miles between changes.

Ordinarily a car's brakes are not worth praising, but the Catera's are. To be fair, credit must be shared with 17-in. tires. One day in heavy, 25-mph traffic, my attention wandered. When I glanced back to the road, red brake lights were coming up fast. Slamming on the brakes brought the Caddy to a quick halt. No squealing, no noise, and no side-to-side motion.

A few other features deserve mention. For instance, the optional rear-seat heater could come in handy during midwestern winters. Light-emitting diode taillights are easy to see, and should never need replacing. Speed-sensitive steering always comes in handy, and an indicator tells when it's time to change brake pads.

My only gripes are that the cruise control is on a steering-wheel stalk. This standard GM fare still strikes me as odd. Cruise controls seem more ergonomic on the steering wheel. The accelerator petal also has an odd feel, as if it had too much travel. Maybe that's just me.

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