Fifteen years ago, we'd have been hard-pressed to believe that Cadillac could build SUVs that appear in rap songs or performance cars that can keep up with BMWs. We probably wouldn't have predicted a station wagon, either. On the other hand, we'd have been aghast to learn that Cadillac could neglect the traditional full-size sedan, as it has for most of the last decade. That will change starting this spring, when Cadillac launches the XTS, which debuts in production form this week at the Los Angeles auto show.
To better understand what the XTS is -- and isn't -- it's helpful to remember what was going on when the project started a short three years ago. Cadillac had just introduced the second-generation CTS and had been considering several plans for a larger car -- rumors abounded that Bob Lutz wanted a six-figure flagship based on the 2003 Sixteen concept. Then the economy collapsed, and General Motors quickly ran short of cash.
"It was leading into some financial crisis that changed plans - the world changes, customers' needs change," says Cadillac product director Hampden Tener.
In other words, Cadillac wasn't going to mount a full-on assault on the likes of the BMW 7-series and the Mercedes-Benz S-class as it -- and many luxury-car buyers - stared down the barrel of a crippling recession. And yet the brand urgently needed a new full-size sedan. The rear-wheel-drive STS was failing to attract many new buyers into showrooms, and the antediluvian DTS was actually scaring them away.
Cadillac's solution was to forgo the rear-wheel-drive, brand-specific-platform mantras of the STS and the CTS (not to mention the forthcoming ATS) and employ the front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive Epsilon platform that underpins everything from the Chevrolet Malibu to the Saab 9-5. The resulting product looks every bit the part of a line-topping full-size luxury sedan -- the XTS is longer than a short-wheelbase 7-series - but will actually compete in price against mid-size luxury sedans like the Audi A6. Although the 2010 XTS concept was a plug-in hybrid, the production car, at least for now, comes with a 300-hp version of GM's 3.6-liter V-6 paired with a six-speed automatic. Neither Tener nor XTS chief engineer Sheri Hickok would comment on fuel economy or on what other powertrains may be on the way.
It's clear that this will be a Cadillac sedan more focused on luxury and comfort than spitting lightning and setting records on the Nuerburgring -- "We'll have ATS's and CTS's all day long for that," said Tener. Still, it receives some performance hardware, including standard magnetorheological dampers, nineteen-inch wheels, Brembo front brakes, and firmer suspension tuning than that of the Buick LaCrosse, also a platform mate. Torque-vectoring all-wheel drive that can send as much as 90 percent of the car's torque to the rear wheels is optional, as are twenty-inch rims. Like most of its competitors, the XTS has a full suite of driver aids, including lane-departure warning, swiveling HID headlamps, radar cruise control, and automatic braking, which will work even at low speeds to avoid parking-lot accidents.
Hickok says her team has also "optimized the structure to get the mass out" by using more high-strength steel and structural adhesives, although she would not reveal the curb weight. Exactly how much fat has been trimmed will be critical, as other vehicles on this architecture are exceedingly heavy. The 9-5, which has the same 111.7-inch wheelbase, tips the scales at about 4500 pounds when fully equipped with all-wheel drive and an automatic transmission.
More art, more science
The luxury leanings of the XTS are readily apparent in its design. Although there are still enough creases in the sheetmetal to identify the XTS as kin to the angular CTS, it's more graceful and, well, prettier. The roofline arcs softly and the body sides have gentle character lines. And where the CTS is pointedly undecorated, the XTS has all manner of nicely executed details that identify it as a more expensive car. There are LEDs in the headlights, taillights, and - here's a new one - the door handles. Unlock the car with the key fob, and they light up in procession. The trim and the grille on top-of-the-line Platinum models are brushed aluminum. Even the softball-sized badge has unusual depth and detail.
As design editor Robert Cumberford noted in his design analysis of the nearly identical concept car, the XTS can't entirely hide the short-hood, long-overhang proportions that are inherent to front-wheel-drive cars, but it is upscale and attractive nonetheless.
Inside, the big story is CUE, Cadillac's new user interface, which debuts on the XTS and will soon appear on the ATS and the SRX, as well. Much like MyFord Touch, CUE banishes buttons and dials in favor of an eight-inch color touch screen and a piano-black center console that incorporates touch-sensitive controls. There's also an optional LCD gauge cluster similar to that on a Jaguar XJ. The system worked quite well in our short demo. The graphics are excellent, and the center touch screen responds with the crispness we've learned to expect on smart phones but never experience in cars. That's because this system uses the same capacitive touch technology found in devices like the Apple iPhone. Another novel aspect of the Cadillac system is haptic feedback -- icons on the screen and the controls on the panel below send a pulse when you touch them, simulating the texture of physical buttons. When you scroll through radio stations on the touch screen, for instance, you can feel "bumps" over each station. It didn't work perfectly on the example we briefly tried, as the feedback didn't always correspond with what the screen was displaying. Cadillac blames outdated, "beta" software on the example we tested.
The XTS balances its high-tech center console with exquisite, traditional trim -- multiple layers of leather, brushed metal, and large slabs of wood trim. The quality of materials and the overall cohesiveness of the design is a notable advance over the CTS, never mind the STS and the DTS. If it still falls short of some of the best cars in its segment, blame the areas one normally doesn't look at very closely. The lower half of the dashboard wears soft but cheap-looking plastic, and the cutline for the glove compartment -- at least on the preproduction model we saw -- is wider than it should be. These complaints may sound petty -- indeed, they are -- but the leaders in this segment get such details right.
Cadillac will almost certainly be a leader in its price segment when it comes to interior room. As noted, the car is longer than a 7-series, something that becomes evident when you stretch out your legs in the back seat. Rear occupants also get their own touch-sensitive climate controls. In the best Cadillac tradition, there's also a deep, eighteen-cubic-foot trunk. Cadillac's representatives get a little antsy when we mention how this would make for a great limo (Tener: "We don't want this car to become known as the livery car."), but it would make for a very good limo.
Conclusion: Filling a gap with style
The XTS, developed in a narrow time frame and with a presumably tight budget, doesn't quite herald the rebirth of the full-size Cadillac as the glamorous "Standard of the World" (we'd pin those hopes on whatever comes from the Ciel concept). It does, however, appear to be a very credible offering that's attractive and luxurious enough to deserve mention alongside the likes of the Audi A6 and the Mercedes-Benz E-class. Whether it merits full consideration against such tough competitors will depend on how well the driving experience lives up to the design.