Cadillac’s Crossover Do-Over, the XT5, Gets It Mostly Right

A post-SRX mea culpa.

cadillac XT5 Review

Crossovers may be the new staple of the American automotive diet, but they don’t always get a lot of love here at The Drive. We tolerate them with varying levels of graciousness, as one does when facing a business lunch in a humble Midwestern town: Cheesecake Factory, anyone?

Rather than bitch about how there's no foie gras on the menu, I tend to get all consumer-y, to focus on how crossovers stack up in their class. These, after all, are vehicles that readers might buy in real life once they're done mooning over Aston Martins.

By that standard, the Cadillac XT5 will make its parents proud on any play date, even against private-schoolers like the BMW X3 or Audi Q5. The tall-saddled XT5 isn’t as exciting to drive as Cadillac’s lauded sport sedans, but it’s a veritable Ferrari versus suburban softies like the Lexus RX or Lincoln MKX.

As patient fans know, the XT5 elbows the SRX out of Cadillac showrooms. That SRX was simultaneously Cadillac’s least impressive and best-selling model, even as it aged like Jake LaMotta. One might argue that Cadillac itself took one too many shots to the head; rivals like BMW and Mercedes have taken heat for purportedly whoring out to crossovers, but now they’re laughing all the way to Deutsche Bank. Under the tutelage of a new trainer—former Audi of America boss Johan de Nysschen—Cadillac has finally determined that this crossover thing might be more than a fad.

Consider the XT5 a belated present, with associated XT-badged models to come. Design imperatives force nearly every luxury crossover into a similar, doughy bread mold; here that means two rows, room for five passengers, and the trendy rear-canted roof that Americans seem to demand. (Wouldn’t want something too practical, right?) But where the SRX was a mild cigar, the XT5 takes virtually the same shape but addsrobusto ingredients and a distinctive new wrapper. Go ahead and light it up, with 310 horsepower from Caddy’s newly professional 3.6-liter V-6. An eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission replaces the six sluggish cogs of the SRX.

The Cadillac passed its first test at Po, in the West Village, one of New York’s neighborhood-Italian perennials, where my XT5—painted crystal white, with sparkling, optional 20-inch wheels—drew appreciative glances, and questions, at the curb. The face especially, with Cadillac’s scaled-up, metal-ribbed grille, is glam enough to make Tommy Bolin shimmy in his grave. A slim waterfall of LEDs streams from the headlamps and extend into big front air inlets, as though the Caddy were crying illuminated tears. (There, there, XT5—who says you’re not pretty enough for those arrogant BMW buyers?)

The crisply fitted sheetmetal hints at fluid performance, and the stuff underneath mostly measures up. After decades of notorious flab, Cadillac has become the Biggest Loser in luxury. Like the CT6 flagship sedan, the XT5 shames rivals on the scales, at 3,985 pounds in front-drive trim or 4,257 with AWD. That’s 278 pounds fewer than the old SRX, 650 fewer than a same-sized Mercedes GLE, and about 100 fewer than Audi’s substantially smaller Q5. Tip a feathery cap to GM’s new C1XX architecture, which will gird a global army of mid- and full-size crossovers.

Cadillac continues to elevate its interior craftsmanship while toning down the more baroque tendencies of its designers. Check off an impervious chassis and walled-off noises, and the result is a legitimate luxury cabin. Wood is real wood and leather is leather—though to get the primo hides requires anteing up for the Platinum edition. Platinum status also nets Cadillac's groundbreaking camera-linked rear-view mirror that expands the typical field of view by 300 percent. Forward visibility is another plus, despite a bulging, banked dash that seems to go on forever. The brand’s first by-wire electronic shifter is shaped like a saddle horn and easier to corral than some rivals’ units, including BMW's, though the dogleg to "reverse" may still require some practice strokes. But Jesus, those front seats: unyielding cushions, vague bolsters, and a flat, slippery backrest had me sliding into poor posture and a numb posterior after just three hours behind the wheel. Excepting the Recaros in high-performance V-Series models, Cadillac’s chairs remain the bleacher seats in a world of luxury suites: enough to turn off some prospects accustomed to work-of-art chairs in Audis, Benzes, or Volvos.

On the plus ledger, the XT5 gains a critical 3.2 inches of legroom versus the SRX, thanks largely to a two-inch wheelbase stretch that shoves the wheels further to the corners. The sloping roof threatens to haircut riders over six feet tall, but knee room is plentiful, especially with the back seats' new fore-and-aft adjustment.

I’m not entirely sure when or how it happened, but Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system, once murder-inducing, is now just mildly cumbersome. Sure, processing is faster and the eight-inch screen clearer. But replacing CUE’s oblivious touch-sensitive panels with physical buttons puts a literal finger on the improvements. New Apple Car Play and Android Auto bypass some hassles entirely.

The Cadillac’s initial driving impression, like that of many SUV competitors, was of isolated competence, with the assisted-living steering that makes it easier to phone or text while driving. Ride quality is excellent, the XT5 smoothing out every New York pothole it could find, though with some cabin boom that’s endemic to kettle-drum SUV interiors.

The eight-speed transmission is determined to escort you to the highest possible gear to save fuel—sometimes hovering in sixth gear at speeds as low as 45 mph. Yet that transmission resists throttle-induced downshifts unless you push past the ridiculously stiff pedal detent, at which point the XT5 rears back, downshifts a few speeds, and surges ahead. I timed this pregnant pause at roughly three months. Interestingly, Caddy demands that owners eat their peas, enforcing more fuel conservation via an engine Stop/Start function that can’t be shut off—ever. Fortunately, as opposed to BMW’s raggedy engine restarts, the XT5 springs back to life with minimal noise and vibration.

Yet damn if the Caddy didn’t win me over, saving its best for the hills and dales of upstate New York. The mellow-throated V-6 moves the XT5 to 60 mph in a discreet 6.5 seconds, a few ticks quicker than an Audi Q5 with its overachieving turbo four. That’s well off the stonking pace of a BMW X3 xDrive35i, but owners will have no problem ditching slower traffic.

Considering Cadillac’s stunning climb up the sedan performance charts, I was surprised at the XT5’s reluctance to engage with knotted roads. The BMW and (far pricier) Porsche Macan remain the cornering kings of this class, and Type-A drivers will have to hold out hope for a XT5 V-Series with more aggressive intent.

Yet the Cadillac’s light footprint and typically superlative body control—aided by an optional continuously damping suspension—shined on faster sweepers and under hard braking. Those brakes are ultra-confident, with a solid initial bite and dual-piston calipers up front. Cadillac adds that its new “Twin Clutch” AWD system can shuttle 100 percent of torque from front to rear, with an electronic rear differential moving power side-to-side.

On a fast return to Manhattan via the Taconic Parkway, a beautiful collage of forested climbs and breakneck descents, the XT5 rocketed into the lead with a Porsche Cayenne in pursuit. With more room to operate, the Caddy was suddenly alert, fully committed, and reasonably fun—enough to make the Porsche, and its admittedly more timid pilot, say nicht mehr.

Ultimately, every crossover lets you ride tall. For people who care about driving in style, the XT5 lets you hold your head high as well.

--

2017 Cadillac XT5
Price (as tested): 
$39,990 ($57,725)
Powertrain: 3.6-liter six-cylinder, 310 hp / 271 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 6.5 seconds
Top speed: 130 mph
EPA fuel economy (AWD model): 18/26 mpg

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and the Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to find it a good home.