Larry Armstrong, who covers Japanese carmakers for BUSINESS WEEK from Los Angeles, and Katie Kerwin, who follows the Big Three from Detroit, occasionally do some Japan-Motown sparring. To review the new entries from Lexus and Cadillac in the fast-growing, $30,000-plus "entry-luxury" segment, they agreed to drive both cars during the same two-week period and exchange E-mail about their impressions. Here are some excerpts:
L.A. Drove a Cadillac Catera for the first time today. Wow! I really like the way this car handles--much better than the Lexus ES 300. The steering is nice and tight, unlike in the Lexus, which has too much power steering at slower speeds. That makes for sloppy turns.
K.K. The two are certainly distinct when it comes to ride and handling. The ES 300 is very floaty--a true Lexus cocoon. Not bad, when you have to cope with craterlike potholes. But not exactly exciting driving. The Catera gives a much better feel for the road. And it feels more nimble in turns than the ES. If the Seville and Eldorado didn't convince people that Cadillac's "boulevard ride" days were over, the Catera certainly will.
L.A. I suppose typical Cadillac buyers will think the suspension is too stiff--it transmits a lot of road feel into the car. But I like it, and I think the fortyish buyer whom Cadillac is targeting will, too.
K.K. You can thank GM's German engineers for the European-style ride and handling. They actually softened the ride from the stiffer feel of the Omega MV6, from which Catera was derived.
L.A. But what about amenities? Lexus says that 43% of entry-luxury buyers are trading down from other luxury models. So it loaded the new ES with all the goodies it offered on the original 1990 LS 400 flagship. The Catera has even more.
K.K. Maybe that's not as surprising when you remember that the original Lexus was $35,000. Now that the LS 400 has moved upmarket to $50,000-plus, the ES 300, starting at $30,395, is inhabiting its old neighborhood.
L.A. Oops. Only Day 2 and a problem. The Caddy's "Check Engine" light has come on, at 636 miles on the odometer. The manual says it's an emissions problem and I should try a different brand of gas. So I'm going to ignore it.
K.K. I can top that. Yesterday and this morning, when I started the Catera after it sat overnight, the engine died. And until the car warms up, the automatic transmission's shift from first to second gear has been rocky. Not what I'd expect from a car starting at $30,635.
L.A. I was startled by a symphony of wheezes and whines from the Catera. And while the engine's growl wasn't unpleasant, it didn't particularly sound like that of a luxury car. Worse, at lunch, I parked it next to a Chevy Lumina. I got a sinking feeling from the striking resemblance between them.
K.K. I never thought I'd be saying this, since Japanese luxury cars are so often nondescript, but I think the Lexus is the more stylish. Its lines are crisper, and the front headlights look sharper. With the Catera, you can't mistake its parentage: It has that glaring chrome grille in front and the Cadillac wreath-and-crest emblem slapped all over it.
L.A. When I got into the Catera, there were so many tiny lights it looked like a Christmas tree. But I like the three buttons on the bottom of the mirror you can program to operate your garage-door opener, and the sunroof control, a simple dial that opens to preset locations.
K.K. You're right. The sunroof control is nifty--unlike the ES 300's moonroof switch, which is almost identical to the map-light switch nearby. Other than that, the Lexus' interior controls, in true Toyota fashion, are remarkably logical and ergonomic. I found Catera's radio controls on the steering wheel annoying. Every time I made a sharp turn that required moving my hands around the wheel, the radio station would suddenly change. This would distract my attention from the road--the exact opposite of what those controls are intended to do.
L.A. I've noticed storage is a problem in the Catera. The trunk and glove box seem small, especially when you consider that the ES 300 gets a six-CD cartridge-changer into the glove box.
K.K. All in all, I'd take the Catera over the ES 300, just for the fun of driving it and the Autobahn-ready feel. The ES 300, though, is a better choice for someone who wants a comfy ride and the hassle-free Lexus experience.
L.A. I agree. We boomers expect a great car from Lexus. But despite some nagging questions about quality, I think that we're getting one from Cadillac, too. And for sure, it's one that's more fun to drive.