Cars

Get a lot of car with Cadillac XTS

The world is missing a big Cadillac sedan. A big, stomping, chromed, V8-powered Cadillac sedan that is the American equivalent of Rolls- Royce. Cadillacs like the 1966 DeVille, with doors that slam as heavy as a Vegas vault, or a 1950sera Fleetwood like the one Robert DeNiro ran gangbusters in “The Godfather.” Beautiful, imposing luxury cars.

The car you see here, while appearing to be the biggest and best, isn’t that Cadillac.

Sure, the 2013 XTS is the biggest sedan Cadillac makes. It’s pretty and stately enough. It’s longer than a BMW 7-Series and stuffs more bodies in the trunk than a Mercedes S-Class. But with the departure of the midsize STS and full-size DTS, the XTS isn’t so much a flagship as a placeholder to what Cadillac executives promise will be the return of a V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive masterpiece that can compete with Europe’s best $90,000 sedans. The XTS has a V6 that, without optional all-wheel-drive, drives only the front axle.

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That said, the XTS is the best Cadillac can offer now, and thankfully, it is a lot of car. The starting price is $45,000, to which all the requisite luxuries are available. Step up another $16,000 to the all-wheel-drive Platinum and you have a fully loaded sedan brimming with the latest technology not even offered by the Europeans or Japanese. How about a driver’s seat that sends warning pulses into your back and butt when you’re following too closely to another car, or drifting out of lane? (Later this year, the XTS will include an active safety package that lets the car stop itself, including when in reverse.) There’s a digital instrument cluster that’s reconfigurable in no less than four ways, plus a center infotainment display that zooms and sweeps like an iPad (a real one is also included, like Hyundai did for first-year Equus buyers). Like Apple, Cadillac’s system requires little rethinking to use.

The cars I sampled during a press event in Los Angeles had early versions of the infotainment system, or what the company calls CUE for “Cadillac User Experience.” It was slow to respond and didn’t offer all the slick animations you may have seen on TV. By the time you read this, Cadillac says they’ll be fixed. It is impressive, though. Wave your hand near the high-res touchscreen and more menu options suddenly appear, then fade out when you draw away. It keeps the screen clutterfree and devoid of the confusion of Ford’s MyFord Touch system. Tap an item and the screen vibrates to let you know you’ve pressed it, like on certain Blackberry phones. Pinch the navigation map with two fingers to zoom in or out, swipe your finger left or right to move between menus, tap and hold to rearrange icons and favorites—if you’ve got a tablet, you already know how to use CUE.

The full-width LCD instrument cluster is another gee-whiz feature that automakers have done wrong since the 1970s, when they had all the aura of a bedside alarm clock washed out in sunlight. Today, Jaguar and Land Rover use full-color, high-contrast TFT screens, as does Chevrolet on the Volt plug-in hybrid. But nothing comes close to the rich sophistication on the XTS. Depending on your mood, you can go all-digits or replicate a classic, three-dial display, as well as cycle through maps, radio stations, and other vehicle settings without taking your hands off the wheel. It’s imaginative and not at all tacky, but part of me pines for the simple elegance of physical needles and painted numbers. You can have those and still order the CUE system, just not on the Platinum models.

The technology that fails—and doesn’t work either in Fords or Lincolns—are the touch-sensitive controls on the center stack outside the LCD display. Here, Cadillac has replaced knobs and buttons for the radio and climate control with a slab of backlit, glossy black plastic. Those silver edgings you see aren’t where you’re supposed to touch, even though they look like you should. They’re just guides. You’re supposed to press above them, and when you finally touch the correct sensor, you’re rewarded with slow response and no tactile feedback. Raising the stereo volume or switching on the heated seats, easy tasks in most luxury cars, are frustrating, distracting affairs in the XTS. Sitting still, it’s only half-bad. On the road, this dash is electronic design at its very worst.

So, most of the technology is pretty good (those vibrating seats did the job), and as befitting a large Cadillac, so is the comfort and ride. On our brief test drive, I hardly heard the outside clamor of Los Angeles traffic, and most everything around the driver is padded softly with smooth leather (with available purple stitching, nonetheless). If you can force the passenger to adjust the A/C, you’ll relax in the XTS.

Like all large Cadillacs, the XTS is not a sports sedan. Its magnetic suspension, which automatically adjusts for imperfect roads while keeping the body flat in turns, does a good job keeping the XTS on its feet, but this is not a car that wants to dance. It was obvious on Mulholland Drive, a twisty, mountainous stretch of road near Los Angeles that’s meant for Miatas and Porsches, not two tons of cushy Caddy.

The steering isn’t quick or accurate enough for that task, and the XTS feels big all the time, unlike an Audi A8 or a Jaguar XJ, both of which tend to shrink around the driver. The brakes are quite good (they’re sourced from Brembo, fitted on nearly every sports car) and the 304-horsepower V6 delivers decent thrust but not enough for a head rush. Fuel economy, estimated at 17 mpg city, 28 mpg highway for front-wheel-drive models, is acceptable for a car this size. During our short drive, we weren’t able to calculate a proper average.

An XTS will likely excel at loafing around town or racking up hundreds of highway miles at a time. While Cadillac marketers compare the XTS to other German sedans, the car doesn’t try to be a BMW, and that’s just fine. When compared to the old DTS, however, the XTS might as well be an M5.

Cadillac has done well against those Germans with the smaller CTS, and the plan is to fill the holes in Cadillac’s current lineup, which right now includes just two sedans, the midsize SRX crossover, and the huge Escalade SUV. The compact ATS goes on sale later this year. Cadillac’s best work—a very own “Godfather” sedan reimagined for this century—has yet to come.

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