Once dismissed as "soft trucks" that couldn't put in an honest day's work, crossover SUVs have proven to be an easy sell in the early years of the 21st century. These trendy vehicles that look something like traditional SUVs but don't drive like them speak to those tired of dealing with the clumsy handling of truck-based SUVs, the parent-for-life image of minivans and the comparatively limited space of plain old sedans. Profits on luxury-branded crossovers are especially high, and now that Porsche has the Cayenne, everyone who's anyone among the premium automakers has one at the ready. And in the fall of 2003, it will finally be Cadillac's turn.
The basic character lines may remind you of the Vizón concept unveiled at the 2001 North American International Auto Show, but this vehicle will go by the name SRX. Cadillac notes that it is the first of the company's S-series models the second will be the 2005 STS, the replacement for the Seville. We're not exactly sure what sort of relationship the "S" establishes between the two, but both the SRX and STS will ride on GM's capable Sigma platform already used by the CTS entry-level luxury sedan.
Rear-drive architecture is somewhat unusual in the world of car-based SUVs, and it usually indicates a sporting disposition as is the case with the BMW X5 (built on the 5 Series platform) and Infiniti FX35 and FX45 (built on Nissan's 350Z/G35 platform). And after several hours behind the wheel of both rear-wheel-drive (2WD) and all-wheel-drive SRXs, we can say without hesitation that this is also true of Cadillac's entry, a delight to drive among the ranks of taller-profile vehicles.
Scrutinize the photos, though, and you'll see that the SRX doesn't have an overwhelmingly tall profile, appearing shorter in stature than most crossover SUVs and not at all unlike a Chrysler Pacifica or Subaru Forester. In reality, the SRX is actually about the same height as its peers with similar ground clearance (a little over 8 inches). But it is about 10 inches longer than most midsize crossover SUVs (7 inches longer than Acura's MDX), which likely contributes to the illusion of a hunkered stance.
Long and low doesn't tell the half of it, though. Although more sedate in appearance than the Escalade, the SRX is one crossover that will never get lost in a parking lot. Like it or not, there's no escaping Cadillac's "art and science" approach to exterior design, and the SRX bears a strong family resemblance to the CTS. After spending the better part of a day with the vehicle, we decided it was mildly attractive the Euro-style pull handles on the doors are a tasteful detail (one that we wouldn't mind seeing on the CTS). At the same time, we found the shape of the C-pillars rather awkward (their large size is doubly apparent from inside the vehicle); when we asked an engineer about this, he told us that the pillar design provides extra structural support necessary to accommodate the optional UltraView sunroof, which lets in up to five square feet of open air over the first- and second-row seating areas. Any further aesthetic judgments are best left up to you.
Inside, the SRX is more practical than its BMW and Infiniti performance rivals, though we're not ready to call it the top choice for families, either. Comfortable front-seat accommodations are basically a given in this price range, but differences arise when it's time to put kids in the backseat or wedge a piece of furniture in the cargo bay. Rear legroom measures 41 inches in the SRX more than any other midsize luxury SUV while the Cadillac's 56.3 inches of rear hiproom tie it with the MDX for the most in that category.
A two-person third-row bench is optional on every SRX something you can't get at all on the X5, FX35/FX45 or the Lexus RX 330. Nevertheless, if you compare the dimensions of its rearmost seat with those of family-oriented SUVs like the MDX, Volvo XC90 or Lincoln Aviator, you'll find significantly less shoulder, hip- and legroom to go around. Climbing back to the third-row seat was no problem, though: The 60/40 second-row seats are lightweight and easy to fold out of the way. Once seated in the way back, we were hard-pressed to call the quarters any less acceptable than those of the MDX or XC90. Obviously, it's intended for children and would be passable for adults only on short trips. The second-row seats offer 4 inches of fore/aft travel, which gives you the flexibility of divvying up the legroom between the two rows.
Similarly, the SRX falls midpack in terms of cargo capacity. There's significantly more room behind the second-row seats (32.4 cubic feet) than in the X5 and FX35/FX45, but all other luxury crossover SUVs offer more room back here. Still, the Cadillac does have a few advantages, including the third-row seat, which powers down into the floor in one piece at the touch of a button (the power-down process took longer than we would have liked, though, and we wouldn't have minded a manual override). If you don't opt for the extra seat, you get a couple of in-floor storage compartments. Another plus is the retractable cargo cover it's built right into the passenger-side wall, so that you never have to wrestle with a removable spring-loaded contraption when you need to use the third-row seats.
While the SRX may not set any records for third-row accommodations or cargo carrying, the driving experience alone should make it a desirable choice among midsize luxury SUVs. Cadillac will give buyers the choice of a 3.6-liter V6 good for 260 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque, or the 4.6-liter Northstar V8 that generates 320 hp and 315 lb-ft of torque. Both engines feature variable valve timing and electronic throttle control, and V8 versions, at least, should deliver better fuel economy than their peers (X5 4.4i and FX45) preliminary estimates put city mileage at 16 mpg and highway mileage at 20 to 21. A five-speed automatic with regular and sport shift programs, as well as a separate automanual gate, comes standard with either engine.
Buyers must also decide whether they want rear-wheel drive (to maximize performance and economy) or all-wheel drive (for driving in the snow). The AWD system uses a 50/50 front-to-rear power split under ideal traction conditions, shuffling power as necessary to combat wheel slippage. StabiliTrak, Cadillac's traction and stability control system, comes standard on all SRX models. In keeping with the vehicle's sporting personality, StabiliTrak offers two-stage disengagement: Press the button once to discontinue traction control (and throttle intervention); press and hold to defeat the system completely.
Cadillac only had V8-equipped models on hand for journalists to drive at this event and we came away suitably impressed by the Northstar's performance in the SRX. Mat the accelerator pedal at any speed, and the V8 responds with a rush of forward momentum, serenading the driver in a refined yet spirited manner all the while. The transmission did an admirable job of gear selection when left to do its own thing in sport mode, delivering crisp, timely shifts. Although all SRX automatics have an adaptive feature that holds lower gears longer when aggressive use of the accelerator pedal is detected, V8 models get a slightly more advanced version of this transmission with an additional algorithm that detects increasing G-forces (as when going around a sharp curve) and holds the lower gears. This feature worked beautifully as we hustled an SRX around a few curves on the scenic drive to Sedona, Ariz., as we were always assured of ample torque for exiting turns.
Handling around said turns was nothing short of exceptional, as the body felt tight and responsive, giving the 4,400-pound vehicle a tossable feel on par with only the X5 and FX45. We were also impressed by the well-weighted steering and progressive brakes. Together, these attributes made the SRX genuinely fun to drive and getting into it after driving a 2004 CTS (with the 3.6-liter V6) and an XLR on the same day was no disappointment. If you love to drive but need more space than either the BMW or Infiniti can provide, this is probably the answer. Like other car-based SUVs, the SRX employs a fully independent suspension and a load-leveling feature to prevent the rear end from sagging under the burden of long summer road trips. It should be noted that all of the SRXs we drove at the event were equipped with optional Magnetic Ride Control, an adaptive damping system also in use on the XLR, Seville STS and Corvette. As a result, we're unable to comment on the extent of the handling benefit Magnetic Ride Control provides over the regular suspension setup, but we suspect this is an option that enthusiastic drivers will want to get.
Alongside its taste for sport, the SRX offers a smooth, quiet highway ride. Those accustomed to the soft ride of a Lexus RX 300 or 330 may find it a tad stiff over bumps, but such is the payoff for the Cadillac's handling acuity. We doubt most buyers will mind. V6 models come standard with 17-inch wheels wrapped in 235/65 Goodyear tires, while V8s get a set of 18s with 235/60 Michelins in front and wider 255/55 rubber in back.
As capable and desirable as we've made the SRX sound, we would be remiss if we didn't point out a major weak point that was apparent to us right from the start: Interior materials. Taken on its own, the Cadillac's cabin might seem OK. The seats are comfortable; storage areas are abundant for a luxury SUV (and many are felt-lined); most of the controls are easy enough to use (though opting for the navigation system does require you to negotiate a touchscreen for audio functions); and the wood trim on the steering wheel, console and doors is rich and warm. What's more, there's not anything overtly unattractive about the whole ensemble. Taken alongside other competitors in this price range (BMW, Infiniti, Lexus), the SRX has to take a hit for its pebble-grain plastics and vinyls that don't replicate the upscale look and feel of competitors' materials. Basically, it's much the same ensemble as you'll find in the CTS, and when the asking price is $38,690 (including destination charge) for a base V6 model, that isn't going to cut it.
Price is another matter that gives us pause about the SRX. For sure, this is the most refined sport-utility vehicle a domestic manufacturer has ever turned out for sale in the U.S. market, but are luxury crossover SUV buyers ready to pay as much for a Cadillac as they would for an Acura, BMW, Infiniti or Lexus? Escalade sales say yes, but there are considerably more nameplates to choose from in the midsize segment. Perhaps XLR buyers will decide they need a more practical vehicle to go along with their new roadsters we shall see.
For its part, Cadillac has equipped each SRX with a decent list of standard equipment. V6 models include leather seating, StabiliTrak, side airbags for front occupants, head curtain airbags for the first two rows and OnStar telematics. V8 models start at $46,995 and add such features as wood trim pieces, seat heaters, power-adjustable pedals, a power front-passenger seat and six-disc CD changer. Options include all-wheel drive, Magnetic Ride Control, the third-row seat, the UltraView sunroof (or a "Plus" version that adds an additional venting sunroof over the third-row seating area), a DVD rear entertainment system (with the screen mounted on the center console so as not to interfere with the sunroof), a DVD-based navigation system and XM Satellite Radio.
While we're disappointed that Cadillac didn't invest a few more dollars into the materials budget for the SRX, that doesn't change the fact that it is a carefully engineered crossover SUV with road manners more in line with those of a sport sedan than a utility vehicle. It also offers roomy accommodations in the first and second rows, a third-row seat for those who want one and a decent amount of cargo capacity for a pleasure-oriented vehicle. If Cadillac can convince buyers that these are good enough reasons to choose the SRX over import competitors, then perhaps a younger, wealthier customer base really is within reach. If you're in the market for a luxury crossover SUV, we'd encourage you to add the SRX to your test-drive list.