As car enthusiasts, we’re obligated to despise the Cadillac XTS. A decade ago the marque seemed on the path to glory with exclusive rear-wheel-drive platforms. Now we get this front-driver that shares its architecture not only with a Buick but also with a mere Chevy. Such backsliding mustn’t be condoned, much less rewarded. Unfortunately for me, a Mercedes-Benz E550 had muddied the waters.
Even after seeing the XTS all over metro Detroit (they’re thick on the ground in these parts) for months, I remain of two minds about its exterior appearance. We’ve got a tall, blunt nose; a high beltline; and a long tail topped by a short deck owing to C-pillars that just won’t quit. With such odd proportions, the XTS isn’t beautiful by any conventions I’m aware of. Yet I’m intrigued, and find the car oddly attractive despite an inescapable feeling that I should not. In comparison, the oh-so-three-box E-Class is…boring.
Inside, the XTS is more inarguably attractive, with two-tone upholstery, thick chrome trim, contrasting stitching, and vivid liquid-crystal displays providing tasteful visual interest. Anything that looks like it could be luxuriously padded is. GM’s interior designers clearly sweated every last detail. Check out the area where the instrument panel meets the door. Four different levels come together perfectly.
The manufacturing engineers must have shit a brick. (Maybe they’re still shitting it.) Though also highly detailed, the E550’s interior is less artful and more reserved. At the same time, the XTS’s cabin retains enough “art and science” flavor that it lacks the warm, cosseting atmosphere of a late-model Jaguar or current Infiniti.
The reconfigurable LCD instruments in the XTS are at once beautiful, highly informative, and functionally unnecessary. The contents at the center of each circle can be customized. Yet, when supplemented with the comprehensive head-up display (HUD), there’s little need for the instruments’ primary functions. The CUE infotainment interface is less successful. While I experienced none of the crashes reported by others, and was generally less frustrated by the system, I often wished that the home button (an actual button on the center stack) and the back button (a virtual button on some screens, but not others) were present at the top left of every screen. To my great surprise, the Chevrolet Malibu I drove the following week had the buttons I wanted, where I wanted them. For this and other reasons, the less comprehensive, less powerful system was much easier to use. The CUE folks need to talk to the MyLink folks.
I first sat in an XTS at last year’s NAIAS, and its seats were the most comfortable I’d experienced in recent memory. Because the tested car wasn’t a prototype, or because it was the next-highest trim level rather than the highest, or because I hadn’t been toting a heavy bag around Cobo for hours, its seats weren’t as comfortable. They’re still more comfortable than most, “most” including the E-Class, but less cushy and form-fitting than I recall from the show. Forward visibility is much better than in the related LaCrosse, thanks to thinner (if still far from thin) pillars and an instrument panel that seems less massive. But better than awful isn’t necessarily good. The XTS doesn’t approach the conventionally packaged Mercedes in this area.
GM expanded its “Epsilon” midsize vehicle architecture as far as sound engineering principles would allow for the XTS. Consequently, the cabin of the XTS seems somewhat narrow for a 59.5-inch-tall, 202-inch-long sedan. Three adults can fit in back, but they’ll be rubbing shoulders. Length, on the other hand, can be extended quite easily. Perhaps to compensate for merely adequate shoulder room, GM endowed the XTS with an abundance of legroom. Unfortunately, as is too often the case in luxury cars, not enough room was left beneath the front seat for feet. I had to scooch mine back a few inches, in the process lifting my legs off an otherwise sufficiently high seat cushion. Note to seat engineers: if the second row passengers cannot fit their feet beneath the first row, you’ve essentially sacrificed at least four inches of rear leg room.
Interior storage is better than in many current luxury sedans. Not one but two “superzoom” cameras can fit inside the center console. At 18.0 cubic feet, the trunk of the XTS is among the largest in any car (though that in the Lincoln MKS holds another cube). Just be sure to use the cargo net for groceries, or you’ll have to climb halfway in to retrieve items that have slid forward.
Last week I found little point to 402-horsepower in a luxury-oriented sedan, and suggested that the E350’s 302-horsepower V6 was a better fit. So the 304-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 in the XTS should serve plenty well? Close, but not quite. Thanks to a combination of too little low-end torque and overly tall gearing, the powertrain in the 4,215-pound (with AWD) XTS cannot deliver the effortless thrust off the line American luxury sedan buyers often desire, even expect. The 3.6 does come alive at 4,500 rpm, but even if you use the paddles to hold first gear this doesn’t happen until 30 mph. The paddles also must be employed for speedy corner exits. Left to its own devices, the automatic transmission often hesitates to fill pedal-issued orders for moar rpm. (Oddly, the transmission was much more responsive in the Chevrolet Malibu 2.0T I drove the following week.) Granted, the engine and transmission in the XTS are far from awful, and many luxury sedan drivers could be completely satisfied with their performance. But anyone asking for much more than adequate will find them wanting. They are the weakest parts of the car.
Perhaps they redeem themselves with excellent fuel economy? The EPA rates the XTS with all-wheel-drive at 17 mpg city, 26 highway. The trip computer reported 17.5 in suburban driving, pretty close to the estimate, but only 22.7 on a 75 mph run to the airport. At this speed in sixth the engine is spinning only 2,000 rpm, but with an eight-speed automatic it would be spinning even more slowly. An Audi A7 on the same route managed nearly 30. Judging from its 19/29 EPA ratings, an E350 would similarly out-eco the XTS. Only compared to the 18/26 Lincoln MKS do the Cadillac’s numbers seem competitive.
Given the platform employed, it might seem silly to have dinged the XTS for powertrain responsiveness at corner exits. After all, this is the DTS successor, and anyone desirous of a largish Cadillac that handles should wait for the next CTS, right? Well, the chassis engineers didn’t get the memo. They fitted the XTS with a HiPer Strut front suspension to minimize torque steer and maximize front tire grip, Magnetic Ride Control dampers to control body motions, rear air springs to keep the car level, an active rear differential (with the Haldex AWD system) to help the rear end around, and Brembo front brakes. Not just this loaded XTS. Every XTS. Of course, applying complicated technology to a basically flawed chassis fails to hit the mark more often than not (e.g. the Lincoln MKS and more than a few previous Cadillacs). But in the XTS the technology has been tuned to work in concert and deliver. When hurried, the XTS feels more balanced and composed than the Mercedes and far less clumsy than its Taurus-based archrival. Blip the throttle while turning, and my-oh-my there’s even some oversteer. The non-defeatable stability control system will kick in before things get out of hand, but it has a reasonably high threshold. This chassis could handle far more power. Perhaps a turbocharged V6 to match that in the MKS is on the way?
You might have noticed that one key system wasn’t mentioned in the above list of chassis enhancements. The steering in the XTS is overly light and nearly as numb as the tiller in the Benz. Many luxury buyers do want light steering, but the suspension doesn’t seem to have been tuned with the silent majority in mind. Instead, this feel-free steering might, at least in part, be a by-product of the HiPer Strut front suspension. Reducing the scrub radius has definite benefits, but steering feel isn’t among them. (The much simpler, much cheaper Malibu 2.0T scores another surprising win in this area.)
The XTS rides more firmly than a traditional Cadillac, but those who prefer well-damped control to cushy float will find it comfortable. Especially at low speeds the sport-suspended E550 has a thumpier ride. Unless the somewhat unrefined V6 is being prodded towards its power peak, the optional 245/40VR20 Bridgestone Potenza RE97 all-season tires are the largest contributor to the small amount of noise that survives the trip into the cabin.
The big Cadillac starts at $44,995. The tested XTS Premium with AWD ($2,225), adaptive cruise control ($2,395), 20-inch wheels ($500), and red tintcoat paint ($995)—but notably without the sunroof($1,450) or rear sunshade ($250)—lists for $60,620. Drop the paint and add the missing options, and the sticker checks in at $61,325. Clearly, Cadillac isn’t overly focused on the crosstown competition, as a similarly loaded up Lincoln MKS lists for $8,860 less. Adjust for the Cadillac’s additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the gap is still a touch over $6,000. Compared to a Lexus GS, the XTS is $2,165 less before adjusting for feature differences, and about $3,200 less afterwards. And the Mercedes-Benz E-Class? It doesn’t make sense to compare the E550, since the E350 can keep up with the Cadillac. But even the V6-powered E-Class costs $9,000 more before adjusting for feature differences, and a cool ten grand more afterwards.
In the end, we’re as confused as the car is. The Cadillac that shares a platform with lesser GM offerings handles well enough that absent steering feel is missed. With a proper rear-wheel-drive basis, the E-Class should be the better behaved, more satisfying car to drive, but it isn’t. The E550’s V8 power could be put to better use in the nose-heavy Cadillac. So we’re left wanting that as well. Similarly, GM’s designers were given some insane hard points to work with, yet managed an intriguing, up-to-date, expensive-looking car…while on the other side of the studio their colleagues modeled a C-Class with Cadillac facias. In these and a few other areas (shoulder room, CUE), the XTS team came so close to transforming a sow’s ear into a silk purse that we’re left perceiving the glass as one-tenth empty. We don’t despise it. We even admire it. But we’re not quite at peace with it.
All cars mentioned in this review were provided by their manufacturers with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.