For the past decade, Cadillac has been a true believer in the church of German luxury. It developed its own rear-wheel-drive platform, built a station wagon with a six-speed manual transmission, and has even been a regular at the pews of the Nuerburgring. But even the pious have their moments of doubt. For Cadillac management, that moment came about three years ago. All of the brand's hard work had yielded one celebrated success, the CTS, and several failures, including the rear-wheel-drive STS and SRX, as well as the Corvette-based XLR hardtop convertible. It didn't help much that parent company General Motors was very publically out of cash and had cut Cadillac's product development budget to the bone. What the brand needed was a quick, cheap, surefire hit.
The answer to this crisis is arriving in dealers now in the form of the XTS sedan. Cadillac bills it as a replacement for both the STS and the aging DTS sedan and a way to attract both brand traditionalists (read: old people) and import-intending buyers. Those with longer memories will find it's essentially a rebirth of the late-1990s Seville. Like that car, the XTS attempts to maximize the capability and luxuriousness of a corporate front-wheel-drive platform, in this case the Epsilon platform that underpins everything from the Chevrolet Malibu to the Buick LaCrosse. In old-school Cadillac tradition, the XTS is big -- longer than a short-wheelbase 7-series -- but its $44,995 base price allows it to compete against mid-size luxury sedans like the Audi A6. Although the 2010 XTS concept was a plug-in hybrid, the production car comes only with a 304-hp version of GM's 3.6-liter V-6 paired with a six-speed automatic. There will be a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder in China, but it's unlikely to come to market here. All-wheel-drive with an electronic limited-slip differential is available as a $2225 extra on all but the base trim level. The top-of-the-line Platinum model, which starts at $59,080, has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive front-wheel-drive car you can buy today.
Exterior: Lovely details, unfortunate proportions
Cadillac designers have spent much of the last decade trying to make a statement with razor-edged, in-your-face styling. That doesn't fly in the large luxury sedan segment, which prizes subtlety and hammers down protruding nails, be it the flame surfacing that's disappeared from the most recent BMW 5- and 7-series or the pontoon fenders that Mercedes is hurriedly getting rid of on its E-class. The XTS shouldn't have any trouble fitting in. Whereas the smaller CTS looks to be chiseled from a hunk of granite, the XTS is more like a block of marble that's been lovingly filed down to an intricate sculpture. Its roofline curves gracefully and its character lines express a hint of softness. 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.
Unfortunately, none of this impressive detailing can hide the stubby-nosed, long-overhang proportions typical of a front-wheel-drive car with a transversely mounted engine. The classic front-wheel-drive Eldorados of the late 1960s and 1970s -- not to mention most of today's front-wheel-drive-biased Audis -- have a longitudinal engine layout that preserves the long-hood proportions so important to a luxury car.
Best Cadillac interior yet
Front-wheel-drive proportions do afford an advantage when it comes to interior packaging. The XTS has more legroom, both front and rear, than the aforementioned short-wheelbase 7-series, and its eighteen-cubic-foot trunk looks ready to swallow a small boat. Cadillac plans to take the XTS into the livery market, and we suspect it will make many New York and Shanghai limousine drivers very happy.
In addition to feeling exceptionally roomy, the cabin feels genuinely expensive in a way no recent General Motors vehicle has been able to manage. Warm, flowing shapes and expensive organic materials dominate, and one is hard pressed to find a cutline or trim piece that hasn't been the object of close attention. There's also a good amount of tasteful experimentation with colors and textures. The top-of-the-line Platinum model, for instance, features smooth cut-and-sewn leather on the upper dashboard, perforated, purple tinged leather facing the driver and passenger, semi-aniline leather on the seats, and a suede headliner. It smells lovely.
The other big story inside is CUE, Cadillac's new user interface, which debuts on the XTS and appears on the 2013 ATS and 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.
We got acquainted with CUE as we hustled along with Los Angeles traffic. The good news is that it's perhaps the best execution of a touch screen infotainment system to date. 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.
The bad news is that even a really good touch screen infotainment system requires you to take your eyes of the road in a moving car and aim for smallish icons to do things that are more easily accomplished with knobs and buttons. CUE also responds to voice commands. It works as well as that in any competitor, which is to say not all that well. It failed on several attempts to recognize our hotel name, instead offering to take us some place 60 miles away. Unlike most competitors, Cadillac has an excellent backstop in OnStar -- the live representative had no difficulty finding the same hotel and sending directions to the nav system over the phone. Still, we can't help but wonder how DTS owners -- their average is seventy -- will take to such an avante-garde interface. To help them, Cadillac is including an Apple iPad with every XTS and says it's training an Apple genius-like expert at each dealer to teach customers how to use the system. The XTS also has a raft of safety technologies, including lane departure warning, blind spot detection, and panic braking, to aid the distracted driver. These technologies are better integrated than on many competitors. The lane departure warning, for instance, notifies errant drivers by vibrating the left or right seat bolster -- much less intrusive than an annoying beep or steering wheel vibration.
There's no V in capable.
Cadillac makes no pretenses about the XTS's driving dynamics and notes, quite fairly, that most buyers of large luxury sedans aren't looking for V-series performance. It has, however, taken measures to make sure the sedan won't undermine the brand's performance ethos. Four-caliper Brembo front brakes, magnetorheological dampers, and nineteen-inch wheels are standard equipment (Platinum models have twenty-inch rims). Both front- and all-wheel-drive models incorporate GM's HiPer Strut front suspension that decouples the steering and suspension geometries to minimize torque steer and improve on-center feel. Bombing along the switchbacks of Mulholland Highway outside of Los Angeles, the XTS displays commendable body control and reasonably sharp reflexes. The light hydraulic power steering firms up at speed and the Brembos don't fade on fast downhill stretches. The 3.6-liter V-6 puts in its usual solid effort, though it can be caught a bit out of breath when accelerating out of a corner in second or third gear. A more powerful engine, perhaps a turbocharged V-6, might come later. Most surprising and impressive is the paddle shift manual mode for the six-speed automatic transmission: it serves up smooth and quick downshifts and will hold your gear right up to the rev limiter. As with the design, however, the nice details can't entirely make up for the front-wheel-drive chassis. The nose-heavy XTS understeers in tight corners where a 7-series would hold its line.
Conclusion: An apostate, but a very nice apostate.
In case we haven't already been crystal clear, we like the XTS -- it's good-looking, comfortable, and nice to drive in the way a large car should be. But we really don't like that it's front-wheel drive. This isn't just our rear-wheel-drive zealotry speaking. The front-wheel-drive Sevilles of yore were also very nice cars that nonetheless drove the brand to irrelevancy in the late 1990s because they couldn't entice buyers out of BMWs and Mercedes. All that's changed in the last decade is that the competition is even tougher and now includes the likes of Chrysler and Hyundai. There surely is a place for spacious, comfortable front-wheel-drive sedans, but not in a true luxury brand -- this is, we thought, why GM retains four marques. Including Buick.
Fortunately, Cadillac has not lost its religion. Thanks to the revival of GM's fortunes, the ATS, which began development before the XTS, finally arrives this summer. Its all-important new rear-wheel-drive platform will spawn a larger and slightly pricier CTS next year. Meanwhile, work on a line-topping model is rumored to be going forward once more, as evidenced by the debut of the Ciel concept last fall.