August 29, 2012

News & Features

Auto review: Cadillac XTS a luxury workhorse

New York Times News Service

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The Cadillac XTS is a V-6 with an impressive interior. (General Motors)

It will be the black car waiting to pick you up at the airport. It's the Cadillac upon which hearses and limousines will be based. When Hertz runs out of midsize cars, it is the luxury sedan into which you'll upgrade.

For many of its buyers, what matters is how well this car will pay off on their businesses' bottom line. The new Cadillac XTS sedan is destined to become one of the world's hardest-working cars.

Beast of luxury burden that it will be, the XTS also works on a Zen level as an unpretentious machine and the most Cadillac-like of all the current Cadillacs. It won't hold with an AMG Mercedes on the Nuerburgring, any BMW M car will outrun it on the autobahn, and its brother Cadillacs wearing the V badge will crush it on any dragstrip. But so what?

The XTS is the sole remaining front-drive sedan in the Cadillac lineup and the direct replacement for the big, front-drive DTS that left production in 2011. Under its razor-sharp sheet metal, the XTS is built upon an evolved version of GM's Epsilon II platform that underpins the Buick LaCrosse, among other vehicles. The only engine is a 3.6-liter direct-injection 24-valve V-6 rated at an adequate 304 horsepower, mounted transversely alongside an easygoing six-speed automatic transaxle.

This is the first time since 1914 that the largest available Cadillac sedan isn't available with a V-8 engine, discounting those years when V-12s and V-16s were on the menu. And with the passing of the Northstar V-8 used in the DTS, Cadillac is without its own specifically branded engine for the first time in its 110-year history.

In general specification, the XTS chassis is strictly conventional. There are MacPherson struts and coil springs in the front; the independent rear suspension uses H-arms with air springs. There is one innovative element: The shock absorbers incorporate the magnetic-ride-control technology that has proved so effective on various Corvettes and been licensed by, among others, Ferrari.

The ride can be stiffened or softened when a control computer applies a magnetic field that aligns iron particles floating in magneto-rheological fluid inside the shock absorbers. It's all, of course, rather effective.

The XTS has a composed and comfortable ride on virtually any road surface, though the tires' grip is modest and the stability-control system intervenes before the car starts pushing its nose. And even if you water-boarded the electronically assisted variable power rack-and-pinion steering, it would never reveal what's going on with the front tires.

Brembo, an Italian-based company renowned for its brake systems, supplies the well-finished front calipers, which look serious and stylish behind the 19-inch polished aluminum wheels inside the 19-inch all-season tires. (Twenty-inch wheels and tires are optional.) Repeated panic stops hardly seemed to affect the big car's dignity.

The XTS' wheelbase, shared with the LaCrosse, is not particularly long at 111.7 inches. Indeed, that is 12.9 inches shorter than the wheelbase of a Mercedes S550 and 1.2 inches less than the Cadillac's primary rival, the Lincoln MKS. But the cockpit is nonetheless roomy and accommodating. Cadillac claims 40 inches of rear legroom, just 2.3 inches less than Mercedes cites for the much longer S550, and it's 1.4 inches more than in the MKS.

There's no cheating, either. The rear seat cushion is long enough to support adult thighs and, with the front passenger seat fairly far forward, my Siberian husky easily curled up into one of the rear footwells for a nap on the way to the dog park.

The car's best feature, however, is its interior design. Forget the plastic forests that provided faux wood for older Cadillacs, the XTS cabin is a model of restraint and attentive detail. It's almost astonishing that something this flat-out pretty could contain 10 air bags. There are a few thin strips of dark wood for detailing, but most of the interior is covered by leather accented with brushed aluminum elements. Everything is held together by a design theme built around the smiling, shallow V-shaped outline of the front grille. It's also helped immensely by the fact that there are few conventional buttons or switches cluttering up the well-textured surfaces.

What replaces many of those buttons is Cadillac's intuitive new CUE system, which uses a large touch screen at the center of the dashboard; think of it as an embedded iPad.
Using Apple-style gestures and swipes, the driver can scroll through various apps until finding the right one for a particular task. Those tasks include navigation, sound system and Bluetooth phone controls. Throw in some voice controls and the CUE interface sets a new standard for ease of use.

Also replacing some switches are touch-sensitive strips that control the ventilation system while continuing the design theme. This effectively and elegantly extends the use of gesture-based controls beyond the touch screen.

Less frustrating than the touch controls in recent Fords and Lincolns, CUE is simple enough to make a Luddite feel like an astronaut.

The instrumentation itself consists of a second flat-screen display in front of the driver. The speedometer, tachometer and other dials are computer-generated graphics that can be varied slightly to the driver's preference.

There's at least the potential for third parties to write apps for CUE. These could include, say, daily planning calendars and management software for a livery service business.
In addition, every XTS comes with a new iPad loaded with a training app, so drivers can quickly acclimate themselves with the system. CUE has a lot of potential yet to be exploited.

Excitement isn't part of the XTS' soul. And the sedan is bound to suffer some indignities as dealers lard up individual cars with after-market vinyl carriage roofs, continental kit fake-spare-tire covers and Vogue tires with white and gold sidewalls.

The venerable customer base for big Cadillacs may be dwindling to a few hardcore nonagenarians, but they still want what they want.

More important to the XTS' future is the flinty calculus that smart professional car builders and services are applying to the XTS as it reaches showrooms. My all-wheel-drive test car, loaded with almost every option as part of the Premium Collection package — and an oversize Ultraview sunroof — carried a sticker price of $58,180.

But the well-equipped base car, with front-wheel drive, starts at a more reasonable $44,995. If you buy a dozen at a time, discounts are sure to apply.

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