Not The Cadillac We Deserve, But The One They Need Right Now
June 25th, 2012
by: Alex Villani
Cadillac has had trouble trying to break back into the top tier luxury space for quite some time after losing ground to both premium German and Japanese name plates. There was a big push in 2005 to totally reinvent the brand, moving it away from the traditional large, soft, boat-like vehicles to cars that offered a better driving experience and smaller dimensions. This move to smaller, nimbler vehicles pushed Cadillac into a world it had never been before, offering vehicles it had never sold before, and trying to appeal to a market and demographic that had forgotten Cadillac and moved right on to the Bavarian flavored vehicles. To everyone's surprise, the CTS hit the market and slowly started to build a reputation for a solid driving vehicle, which was followed up by a larger STS and sports crossover the SRX. Despite the CTS's successes in altering the image of Cadillac, the brand still could not stem sales losses. What exactly was going on? Cadillac had finally brought out several great driving vehicles that rivaled their German counterparts, but sales continued to slide further and further down. It seemed Cadillac had lost focus on something it used to do very well, and that was the finer details as well as offering a true luxury experience. It was always the missing piece to the puzzle as to why these new Cadillacs were not enjoying the same success of the imports; not offering an interior truly befitting of a luxury car. Well, it seems as if Cadillac might have finally come around to figuring out the last part, and they are showing it off in the new XTS.
The first thing you notice is size of the car is more in line with the Caddys of yore, thanks to the long wheel base and large dimensions in every direction. Size wise, this car fits in right along side the standard wheel base versions of the Audi A8 and BMW's 7 series, offering greater interior space for rear passengers. Despite it sharing the same basic chassis of Buick's LaCrosse, the XTS's larger dimensions seem to work better and improve the vehicle's stance. Normally the short dash-to-axle ratio can throw off the proportions of front-wheel driven vehicles, but the XTS seems to pull it off better than others. Cadillac also added a few extra inches to the tail of the big sedan to increase trunk size, something that will surely have your friends making Mafia jokes over and over.
Overall design is much softer and less dynamic than previous Art and Science expressions, and that is on purpose as Cadillac cuts down on the sharp creases and replaces them with more organic flowing curves. This can be seen in the headlights as they arc up and over the fenders, stretching back almost to the wheel opening. This if highlighted by Cadillac's signature LED pipe that runs up the outer edge of the fog light and into the headlight. The standard grill is very detailed and much more upscale looking compared to the plastic grill Cadillac has been trying to get away with for the last few years on the CTS while the top-trim Platinum's grill is all metal. The use of polished and brushed metal replaces chrome accents all around the car, something that Caddy made famous for the last 60 years.
Even the wheels, the last bastion of the chrome-clad culture, have been replaced with the much more contemporary brushed metal look. It talks to how Cadillac wants to shed more of the past image while trying to become a true leader in luxury. The loss of the sharp creases and detailed surfacing associated with the old design is missed as the car's general shape is not generic but does not exactly stand out if it was not for the face and tail light fins. Speaking of the fins, they protrude and stand out much more than any Cadillac sedan before the XTS. The trunk lid does have a bit of a heritage design cue shared from Cadillacs of the 1970s, a slight bulge that forms ever so slightly on the deck.
While the outside arguably takes a step back in the exciting department, it is inside that Cadillac finally takes five big steps forward. The XTS concept showcased an amazingly beautiful interior, which was wrapped in various types of leather, suede, wood, and metal and it all revolved around the technological centerpiece of a capacitive color touch screen center console with a brilliant LCD instrument panel that could be reconfigured to display all sorts of information. Most people expected Cadillac to lay up and just replicate the LaCrosse's interior with just slightly more leather, but they brought everything to bear to turn this interior into one of the most beautifully laid out and well appointed in the segment. The non-Platinum trimmed XTS has a very nice hand-sewn vinyl dash, woven headliner, along with well-crafted door panels.
The Platinum model receives the full leather treatment, also hand-sewn for the dash and door panels. Above your head, you are treated to a nice suede ceiling, something that we have not seen in a Cadillac sedan since the now-dead STS-V. The addition of real wood accents and more brushed metal are highlighted by a soft white glow of ambient lighting. Every surface of the interior that isn't covered in leather is high-grade, soft touch plastic, which is expected from a car like this but something that Cadillac has missed in the past.
Cadillac's new CUE system is just as sharp as the materials, offering tablet-like interface of gestures to control just about every aspect of the infotainment system. The big fear is that CUE will have the same pitfalls of Ford's system, and that fear is shared with the CUE team which is why they made sure that there was more than one way to access what you want. If you put 40 people into a room and give them something technical to do on a computer, say create a Power Point presentation, there will probably be about 40 different ways that the job will get done. It was that type of mentality that the CUE team kept in mind so that people can access the system however they felt comfortable with it. The more intuitive the system is, the faster people will adapt to the technology without issues, something that companies like Apple have already figured out.
They even figured out a way to remove unessential icons when you are not using it by installing proximity sensors to detect your hand going towards the screen. When you are just driving, only the basic icons remain on the screen but as your hand approaches the screen, the sensors pick it up and other icons appear on the screen to give you other choices. Yet another way to make the whole set up look cleaner when you are not using it. CUE also makes it very easy to link your smartphone to the car by just tapping on the screen or just using the voice commands. Syncing my Galaxy Nexus to the phone took three seconds, and I had full access to my phone book as well as music through Google Play through the Bluetooth connection, all standard fare. It might sound boring, but to have the ability to control what songs I want to listen to, streaming from the cloud and down through my phone, added to the technological orgy going on inside. The sound out of the base Bose system was very clear and offered great tone, something I was not expecting.
To many people of my generation, Bose is more synonymous with infomercials about sound-canceling headphones and small radios that offer big radio sound and not that of a world-class stereo system. When we asked why Cadillac did not go for a higher-end name for the stereo, we received a little lesson on exactly what is the difference between the Bose system and others found in the competition. For example, what Bang and Olufsen do is licence their name to companies like Audi and allow their engineers to design the system using B&O parts. Bose, on the other hand, has full control of the sound system, allowing people who's specific job it is to make sure the music is optimized for the cabin. This is even more evident when you step into the upgraded 14-speaker Bose system, complete with seat-mounted speakers.
Back in the drivers seat, you notice the standard instrument panel looks rather boring when the car is off, but turn the car on and the gauges light up with crisp blue and white light. The center display gives you basic information from the CUE system and can tell you radio station, incoming phone calls, all the stuff you need to look at with a glance. But the big news is that the concept's futuristic LCD screen has made it to production, and it offers you the most interactive experience over any other car the segment, or any car period. In yet another way Cadillac shows you can customize how you interact with the car, you have three different lay outs to suit your need, and each one of them can be customized to display the information you want. And in case that was not enough, you still have a full color heads-up display projected in front of you, also customizable so that it shows you the info you want to see. The large and brilliant nearly foot-wide instrument panel is super sharp and there was no issues with the sun destroying visibility. The "Simple" design theme was the preferred layout, placing a digital speedometer center stage and surrounding it with a navigation screen, fuel gauge, radio information, odometer, as well as trip computer information. The beauty of the interior makes up for the rather lackluster exterior design, so this leaves the driving dynamics to really see if this car is worth it.
Looking at the spec sheet we see that the XTS is powered by the familiar 3.6 liter direct injected engine making over 300 horsepower which is pushed through another familiar unit, a six-speed automatic transmission that sends the power to the front wheels. That sounds rather standard, but it is when you check the box for all-wheel drive that things change. Instead of your normal passive all-wheel system found on other cars, the XTS's system is from Haldex, which in layman's terms means it's super advanced. Large amounts of the 304 horsepower can be sent rearwards and then the electronic limited-slip differential can send power to each of the rear wheels when it needs to. This gives the Cadillac a different feel when launching away from a light or accelerating on the highway compared to the standard front-drive version. The advanced drivetrain is just part of the package to improve the XTS's driving skills.
Up front is GM's complex HiPer Strut system, helping to eliminate torque steer typically found in powerful front-drive cars. Keeping the front suspension pinned to the road is another high-tech feature that makes its way back to normal road cars, Magnetic Ride Control. The same system started at Cadillac and Corvette nearly a decade ago as a way to improve handling without sacrificing the ride. Since then, the suspension has been programmed to handle performance vehicles such as the Corvette ZR1 and Ferrari 599 GTB, as well as Cadillac's CTS-V. In the case of the XTS, MRC returns to its roots as a way to improve handling while still offering a compliant ride and it does it very well. The steering feel is precise enough to dart through New York City traffic but not twitchy as the combination of the HiPer strut system and MRC system does a good job of giving some confidence to the driver. Driving this large car through congestion can also cause owners to have a panic attack, so Cadillac added a virtual safety barrier around the car to make sure you know what exactly is going on around you. It combines the use of a road-reading camera and various radar sensors to feed you information via vibrations in the seat.
At highway speeds, the car is plenty quiet and comfortable, even over the broken pavement of the Palisade Parkway thanks to the magic of the magnetic suspension up front and air suspension in the back. Taking turns at highway speeds is a bit different as the car has a little bit of a disconnected feel and the steering is not as responsive as it was at lower speeds. You expect with the lack of that floaty feeling normally associated with large Caddys in the past, that the XTS would feel more buttoned down at high speeds but the car falls somewhere in between. Power is always there when you ask for it and the transmission exhibits no issues of the hunt-and-peck indecisiveness found with other GM vehicles.
The XTS is a car for the greater good of the brand in that Cadillac has finally exercised their ability to make a fantastic interior complete not only in design but with materials and attention to detail. This has been the missing link for Cadillac for so long, this ability to come up with some truly high-end stuff that customers in this realm want and demand. CUE acts as the centerpiece to the whole car and ties the art and science theme together for the first time, transforming it from a design language to a motto that Cadillac can move forward with. XTS sits in this middle ground of the sporty, performance image of the CTS and ATS and former nameplates like Deville and Eldorado, leaning in neither direction. It is a car for Cadillac to build off of, something to give everyone at the division a baseline of what is to be expected when it comes to playing in the luxury field. From this point on, all Cadillacs must have the same execution to detail, but with every aspect of the car. Until every car has that level of excellence, the XTS will be the finest example of what Cadillac can do when it really wants. Hopefully one day we will look back at the XTS and know that it helped start changing things at the brand for good.