x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Cadillac XTS aspires to Mercedes and Lexus luxury heights

Road Test While it failed before due to poor handling in its DTS, this latest model could yet persuade buyers to switch their allegiance.

Inside the Cadillac XTS combines the relentless hedonism of some of its classic interiors with a modern feel, while its handling is vastly improved on its predecessor. Photo courtesy of Cadillac
Inside the Cadillac XTS combines the relentless hedonism of some of its classic interiors with a modern feel, while its handling is vastly improved on its predecessor. Photo courtesy of Cadillac

Starting his treatise on why the new XTS is the greatest thing to ever hit the luxury segment, Cadillac's vice president of marketing, Don Butler, points to the Lexus ES 350 as its most direct competitor. It's an understandable comparison given that both Lexus and Cadillac have traditionally been marketed to the blue rinse set, those for whom bowling and golf are full-time activities. And even though Cadillac is striving to change its geriatric image (with products such as the mega-motored CTS-V), most of us still think of Cadillacs as big, old, squishy land yachts.

But then Butler seems to (and seriously, I might add) posit that the new XTS — the company's replacement for its DTS road hog — should also be compared with Mercedes' E350, one of Germany's premier luxury saloons. That's the kind of hubris that traditionally got the "old" General Motors in trouble; they'd promise much and deliver little, leaving an impression that they really did not understand their competition or the marketplace.

Besides, trying to challenge both Lexus ES and Mercedes-Benz E-Class would seem positively crazy, especially for anyone who has ever driven Cadillac's previous top-of-the-line saloon, the DTS. The DTS never met a corner it couldn't wallow through and, while Lexus ES 350 intenders might not damn its alarmingly soft suspension and rudderless steering, a Mercedes E-Class owner would probably understeer a poor DTS right off the road were he plunked behind the wheel of Caddy's best-forgotten boat.

But, says Cadillac, while the XTS definitely has to replace the DTS, it claims the new car is actually nothing like the DTS. And, indeed, from behind the wheel there is a little of the bipolar to the XTS. The suspension, for instance, is marvellously well calibrated - in standard mode compliant without being boaty and, flipped into its sport mode (by moving the gear selector from its normal drive mode to Manual, which modifies the suspension tuning as well as activates the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters), it's positively sporty. During one spirited traipse through the canyons above Malibu, California, for instance, the XTS exhibited almost Germanic-like body control, including one giant mid-corner bump so abrupt it might have bottomed the suspension of even that previously mentioned German icon. Yes, it would, like any big front-driver, understeer when pushed, though at the same speeds, a DTS would have been long out of control and probably ploughed a furrow well down into the canyon.

The credit goes to the Caddy's magneto-rheological fluid suspensions system. Similar in concept to the systems that maintain the poise of top-of-the-line Corvettes and the Camaro ZL1, the XTS's system may be tuned for more comfort but still minimises body sway. The Magnetic Ride Control system uses damper fluid that changes viscosity, or thickness, in response to electrical input. In less than a blink of an eye, the viscosity in the XTS can change from water to molasses, the suspension vacillating between pillowy soft to something approaching sportingly stiff. Cadillac mentions a new HiPer front strut design as also aiding the XTS's composure, but the credit really goes to the very cool goo in the shock absorbers.

But then in true multiple personality form, the XTS's Magnasteer steering box feels over-boosted, too flighty and numb to match the excellent suspension control, especially in sport mode. Cadillac's engineers, to their credit, are well aware of the problem (I wasn't the only journo to complain) and promise a correction by the time the XTS reaches final production. The most probable solution will be to firm up the steering in the sport mode while leaving it nice and grandpa-light in the standard trim for those grocery store car park grands prix.

Making this transformation all the more impressive is that the XTS we tested, a top-of-the-line Platinum edition, was equipped with Cadillac's new Haldex all-wheel-drive system. And surely this is a sign that the times they are a changin'; the XTS comes with powerful, four-piston Brembo front brake callipers.

The XTS's powertrain, however, doesn't quite match the chassis' get-up-and-go. The six-speed automatic would otherwise be satisfactory - shifts are smooth and quick - if the motor just had a little more jam. The 3.6L V6's 304hp is adequate and its direct injection (fuel is ported directly into the cylinder rather than injected into the intake manifold) is state-of-the-art but there's precious little torque at low speeds and it struggles against two tonnes of automobile at low revs. It's especially noticeable since shoppers in this segment want the instant jump that prodigious low-end torque brings. And, when the revs do arrive to save the day, they do so in a flurry of gnashing cams and gears, the engine not able to match the buttery smoothness of some of its German competitors. Cadillac is aware of these issues and hints that a revised powertrain is on the way, but naysayers looking to decry anything North American will have their pretext.

Cadillac will need no such excuses for the XTS's interior, however, which somehow combines the relentless hedonism of some of its classic boudoirs with a thoroughly modern feel that would make a German or Japanese engineer proud. The leather one expects. Same goes for the wood. That the new CUE (Cadillac User Experience) system is so good, however, is a surprise. The company's interactive engineers are obviously fans of Apple and the touch-screen system iconography is easily deciphered. There's still a few too many features but the basic necessities - audio, navigation and climate control - are all easily accessed by the excellent voice-control system.

As intuitive as the CUE system is, there are still a few too many sub-menus and buttons to guide the powerful electronics. The XTS's TFT gauge set (available on Premium and Platinum editions), for instance, is as marvellously adaptive as the Jaguar XJ's, able to flit in between displays (the "performance" edition is spectacularly informative, not to mention colourful). But working through the screen's sub-menus and optional details is way beyond my manipulation skills, not to mention my patience level, so one has to wonder how my father's generation will handle its digital overload.

On the other hand, oldsters are always boasting about the roominess of their old land barges and this the XTS has in spades, Cadillac boasting 1,016mm of rear-seat legroom. For those of you trying to picture that in practical terms, you'll need to be wearing size 15 shoes before you run out of room. Throw in 50 cubic centimetres of boot space and you have every golf-addicted retiree's perfect car.

They will also absolutely love the XTS's multiple safety systems that include a lane departure warning as well as a rear cross traffic alert and a collision avoidance system that automatically applies the brakes. Cadillac has also dispensed with the shrill audible alarms that are the pox of all modern motor cars and alerts the driver to impending doom by simply vibrating the seat. The Safety Alert Seat even shakes the side of the seat appropriate to the threat. Still, as I do in all my test cars, I shut down the lane departure warning system; it's simply too annoying.

Cadillac's mandate over the last decade has been to broaden its customer base from the retirees that used to buy such products as the outgoing DTS. For the most part, it has done so, with varying degrees of success, by competing directly with the Germans and eschewing its traditional customer base. With the XTS, it tries to straddle both worlds and, even if it's unlikely to win over many Mercedes customers, by setting its goals higher, Cadillac may still lure some Acura and Lexus intenders.

The car will arrive in the UAE later this year.