Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
As with the term "minivan," "station wagon" still carries enough cultural baggage that most automakers avoid it. The Europeans have always used terms like "touring" or "estate" while American car companies are now trying out names like "sports tourer" or "crossover." Read through the Cadillac SRX's press material and you'll find it referred to as a "driver's utility" and a "luxury utility," which suggests that even the recently popularized "crossover" term has now outlived its marketing magic.
To clear things up, we're going to tell you what the SRX is it's a station wagon. Admittedly (by modern standards) it is a big station wagon. And it does come in all-wheel-drive flavors with over 8 inches of ground clearance, but like Chrysler's Pacifica and Volvo's XC90, and even Infiniti's sleek FX35/45, this is simply a Cadillac station wagon marketing hype and image spinmeisters be damned.
Now that we've gotten that bit of confusion cleared up, we are happy to report that in terms of driving dynamics, interior comfort and overall execution the SRX is a very good station wagon. No, it doesn't have quite the steering feedback of an X5, the sheer sportiness of an FX45 or the pure refinement of the RX 330. But like the Corvette, this vehicle succeeds by being nearly the best vehicle in its segment in multiple areas rather than by being the best in the segment in only one or two areas.
One of the areas where it is "nearly the best" is inside the engine compartment, where on V8 models Cadillac installed the same 4.6-liter Northstar V8 that it offers in the XLR roadster. This engine is the velvet hammer every luxury maker strives for. Its 320 peak horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque imbue the SRX with the same urgency and refinement we've come to expect from Infiniti and BMW. Low-end torque stands constantly at the ready, yet this engine can effortlessly hang out in the 5,000 rpm range all day a real bonus when utilizing the SRX's manual-shifting mode to keep the five-speed automatic in a lower gear. A smaller (and cheaper) 3.6-liter V6 comes standard in the SRX and produces 260 hp and 253 lb-ft of torque. Both engines feature variable valve timing and utilize electronic throttle control, but don't expect economy car fuel mileage. Our week with the SRX netted just over 13 mpg in mixed driving conditions. The SRX's maximum tow rating, regardless of engine and drivetrain configuration, is 1,000 pounds.
Our test model was equipped with the V8 engine along with the optional (and fuel-sucking) all-wheel-drive system that splits power 50/50 front to rear and maintains it unless traction loss is detected at one of the wheels. This system works in conjunction with Cadillac's StabiliTrak stability control system to combat skids when road surfaces are slick or when a driver gets too enthusiastic about testing the SRX's limits, which are surprisingly high.
Driving dynamics are the hallmark of BMW's X5, though recent entries from Infiniti, Volkswagen and Porsche are now meeting, or beating, the BMW for sheer driver thrill. The SRX doesn't eclipse any of these vehicles when the road gets twisty, but its combination of confident handling and comfortable ride quality leaves little room for complaint. The all-aluminum suspension consists of an independent short/long arm design in front and multiple links in back. Our test vehicle was further outfitted with Cadillac's Magnetic Ride Control, a real-time damping system that actively adjusts shock-absorber stiffness based on road conditions. The result is a 4,400-pound SUV, er station wagon, that handles like a RAV4.
If there's a downside to this level of twisty-road proficiency in a two-ton vehicle, it's that the SRX driver can get lulled into a sense of overconfidence. Not that we'd have any personal knowledge, of course, but some drivers might soon forget they're driving a midsize crossover with 8 inches of ground clearance, and simply embrace the idea that the SRX can be flung about like a BMW 3 Series. For the record, it can't; but it will get astonishingly close to that level of flickability, and even come back from situations the driver has no business ever getting the SRX into.
Adding to the SRX's handling capability is 50/50 weight distribution (front to rear) and a four-wheel ABS system that is both capable and user-friendly. It produces minimal noise/vibration when pushed into ABS mode and features large brake rotors that are nearly 13 inches in diameter for both the front and rear brakes. It also features GM's Panic Brake Assist system that will apply full braking power when an emergency situation is detected. If you're thinking this sounds like a GM version of Mercedes' similarly named Brake Assist system, you're right. All of this hardware rides on GM's Sigma platform, the same one used for Cadillac's CTS sedan. It might be a stretch literally to simply think of the SRX as a CTS wagon because the SRX is longer, wider, taller and, of course, heavier than a CTS. But the smaller sedan's DNA is undeniably present in the SRX's driving demeanor. And to be clear, this is not a complaint.
Steering feel and feedback, not typically a strong suit on GM products, are among the best we've experienced in a GM product. It won't keep the BMW engineers up nights, but in terms of being tight and accurate, with absolutely no on-center "dead spot," the SRX is as good as it gets. Weighting is progressive, meaning it gets higher as the wheel turns further off center. This provides the SRX driver with a sense of how enthusiastically he's making the vehicle change direction, but, again, the BMW and Volkswagen (and Porsche) folks can relax, for now.
They can also relax when it comes to interior ambience. Cadillac, and GM as a whole, is making a concerted effort to address its longstanding tradition of producing interiors with as much charisma as a K-Mart tuxedo. We've seen the fruits of the General's labors but with rare exception (XLR) they still aren't ripe enough to pick. Bright spots within the SRX included the wood-trimmed steering wheel and center stack, all of which were convincing in both look and feel. And the stark interior colors (everything inside our test model was either black or gray) added to the SRX's Euro flavor.
But when we started tapping on parts of the overhead console, center console, grab handles and lower dash, we found ourselves once again experiencing "That Great GM Feeling." No vehicle selling for over $50,000 in today's competitive car market can get away with this type of plastic and rubber in exposed areas. Highly textured inserts within the steering wheel hub, door panels and dash were likely meant to add to the SRX's high-tech styling theme, but there's nothing high tech about sharp rubber.
Beyond the subpar materials quality, we felt the SRX lacked some basic features for a vehicle at this price point. Our test model had no power lumbar control and no power tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Only the front windows were one-touch up and down (all four side windows have this feature on a $24,000 Passat) and the only clock you get is a small digital display in the central screen. And, if you want to know outside temperature, distance to empty or any other basic information, you lose the digital clock because this same display has to serve all those purposes but it can only show one at a time. We know that Bulgari is working with Cadillac these days; maybe it can cut the company a deal on a dedicated clock that mounts in the SRX dash, a la Jaguar/Infiniti.
When it came time to interact with the interior, either to perform basic functions like climate control or more advanced activities like programming the DVD-based navigation system, we were happily surprised at the SRX's general functionality. Heating/air conditioning controls were clearly marked and logically placed. Basic audio controls, along with voice command buttons, were placed within fingertip reach on the steering wheel. We're not sure about having the gauge-cluster brightness control in the overhead console, but we like having the seat heater buttons among the other climate controls rather than hidden on the side of the seat or in some obscure panel.
GM has a habit of cramming turn signal, cruise, foglight and headlight controls onto a single steering column stalk, but this was a minor annoyance compared to performing basic audio controls like manual radio tuning or tonal adjustments. As is all too common on modern luxury cars, the audio controls in the SRX are bundled with the navigation system, meaning a touchscreen must be utilized for just about any effort beyond adjusting the volume. The interface is relatively straightforward, but it doesn't reduce your irritation when you want to manually tune a station, and it requires three or four steps to do it. At least the optional Bose system in our test car sounded incredible, as noted in the stereo review portion of this road test.
We can also give kudos to Cadillac for its ability to create a quiet and comfortable cabin. Despite a lack of lumbar adjustment (power or manual) and a steering column that only tilts (no telescoping), it was easy to set up the driving position for either relaxed highway cruising or aggressive performance driving. Features like power-adjustable pedals, shoulder belts that are integrated into the seat back and articulating front headrests helped out here, as did a spacious cabin that supplies plenty of head-, leg- and hiproom.
Rear-seat accommodations are similarly plush with a high seat bottom for excellent thigh support, a fold-down center armrest with cupholders and exceptional legroom (best in class, actually). A fan speed control knob in the back of the center console allows rear passengers some power over the auxiliary heating/cooling vents, and in SRXs equipped with the UltraView sunroof both front and rear passengers can experience open-air driving.
SRX buyers with genuine utility needs will be happy to know that either a power-folding third-row seat or an effective cargo organizer can be placed in the cargo area. Our test model featured the cargo organizer with under-floor storage compartments. With 32.4 cubic feet of storage behind the second-row seat, and 70 cubic feet when both second and third rows are folded down, the SRX lands about midpack in terms of storage space for this segment.
Luckily for Cadillac the car does not feel like a midpack player when taken as a whole. Its drivetrain and handling dynamics are sublime, its interior comfort and spaciousness are class-leading and its exterior design lends it a distinctiveness few modern vehicles can offer. If the interior were better sorted it would be hard to fault the SRX, but as it stands the vehicle is still one of the most compelling in its segment.
Hmm, you could replace "SRX" with "Corvette" in that last sentence and it would still work. This whole "breakthrough" thing just might have some legs.
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our test vehicle was outfitted with the optional Bose audio system, which includes a 212-watt amplifier, an in-dash six-disc CD player and Radio Data System (RDS) and digital sound processing (DSP) technology. Eight speakers are arrayed throughout the cabin in the following areas: a pair of one-inch dome tweeters in the A-pillars, a 2.5-inch centerfill speaker in the center of the dash, a 6.5-inch woofer in each front door, a 5.3-inch full-range speaker in each rear door and a 5.3-inch woofer in an enclosed compartment in the right cargo panel. The system also utilizes "AudioPilot" noise compensation technology. "AudioPilot" consists of a microphone located in the overhead console that monitors overall sound levels and adjusts specific frequencies to overcome ambient noise that affects said frequencies (such as tire or engine noise). With the exception of basic volume and scrolling buttons located on the steering wheel, the system must be operated via a touchscreen in the center of the dash (a control system we've not been particularly fond of on any vehicle we tested).
Performance: The extremely tight bass response and effective imaging exhibited by the Bose system effectively lit up the SRX's interior with high-quality sound. Highs were clean, though with certain music types and in certain DSP settings it seemed as if the treble had to be turned up to near maximum levels to properly capture the high notes. We were impressed by the effectiveness of the system's various "DSP" modes, which could focus the sound on the driver or rear-seat positions. The "spaciousness" mode was also well executed and added noticeable depth to the music without the artificial hollowness that often accompanies such settings.
Best Feature: Highly advanced settings allow for a high level of customization.
Worst Feature: Have to use the touchscreen for almost every function (some basic controls on steering wheel).
Conclusion: The system's sound quality was impressive, but its convoluted touchscreen control operation wasn't. Carmakers still haven't figured out how to combine complex technologies with simple, straightforward control systems. Karl Brauer
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: After driving (and enjoying) the SRX, I felt so patriotic I wanted to install a U.S. flag on the front fender (like the presidential limo) and drive around some more, shouting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Why the huge swell of red, white and blue pride? Because the SRX is so darn good I'd put it against anything out there in the midsize luxury SUV game.
The Northstar V8 has power everywhere and the automatic is brilliant at choosing gears and seamless when changing up or down. The adroit handling and quick, precise steering are more sport sedan than SUV, no accident as the SRX is based on its athletic CTS sibling. I even like the styling; Cadillac's new design direction (that being wide-set, stacked headlights along with angular and creased sheet metal) is toned down a bit and thus works much better on the SRX than on the too-busy CTS. The comfortable cabin features great seats, a well-finished cargo area with several usable under-floor compartments and storage bins in the front doors that glide open at the touch of a button. And even though the dash and console are essentially the same as those in the CTS, the wood grain trim makes it look more upscale.
In short, the SRX is powerful, handles great and is comfortable. It also has a kickin' stereo. In those important areas it gives absolutely nothing away to anything from Europe that's in its price range. Yes, there are a few details that could use attention. The parking brake release handle is too small and one can feel the flashing from the molding process on that handle. At this price point, power lumbar adjustment should be standard, not optional. And lastly, the clock shouldn't be hidden at the top of the nav screen; it should be separate and more prominently displayed.
Apart from those minor nits, this is a great first-year effort from Cadillac, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says: The SRX comes off more like a CTS station wagon than any kind of crossover SUV. This isn't meant to be a criticism, but merely an observation or a reaffirming of what I had suspected about this car all along. Anyway, I like wagons.
In general, the interior is befitting a Cadillac, but I would have liked just a tiny bit more plushness. The seats are comfortable and there is enough expandable cargo space to accommodate light hauling duties. The really great thing about this car is the smooth V8; there's plenty of power and it's readily available although, at times, the engine seemed to make too much noise. It was especially noticeable at lower speeds and sounded like a bad bearing or noisy power steering pump. It's hardly what I would call intrusive, but definitely noticeable.
While the SRX has to stretch our perceptions a bit to fit into the Cadillac lineup, it still delivers a distinctly Cadillac feel. If I was in the market for a luxury/crossover SUV, I would sure give the SRX serious consideration the Lexus RX 330 and BMW X5 might be better in a few areas, but I sure do hate driving down the street and seeing 10 other cars just like mine. Besides, with the Porsche Cayenne, VW Touareg, Volvo XC90 and now the Cadillac SRX, the X5 is so five minutes ago.
"Unfortunately, the car reminds me too much of a 'station wagon' and not an SUV. I suspect Cadillac is going to have problems selling 30,000 of these vehicles. Women will like the looks more so than men. It handles well and has great performance features, but it just looks like a ladies' station wagon and not a beefy SUV." tomc100, Sept. 18, 2003
"I sat in a silver V8 4x4 SRX $54K. Ouch! I thought the exterior was beautifully done, though I could do without the third-row seat and thus be happier if the vehicle were somewhat shorter but that's minor. The extended sunroof was terrific. I'm going to trust that the dynamics are great and that most of the good things I've read are true. However, the interior is disappointing. I've read countless times that GM is going to put more emphasis and money into quality interiors, but I haven't seen any evidence of it. Who wants to be surrounded by cheap materials in a $50K-plus machine? And if you don't believe the interior of the SRX falls WAY short, take a look at any competitor. The interior, in part, comes right out of the CTS, which continues to suffer this same complaint from owners, admirers and detractors. Admittedly, this particular vehicle came without the wood dash trim (shouldn't make a difference) and was in gray (may make a difference). I still hope it's successful, and that mine is a minority opinion. I wanted to love this car." jbgraham, Sept. 20, 2003
"If one gets the nav system then that entire HAL-like center stack gets covered in wood, which really improves the interior in my opinion. The interior materials in the vehicle aren't actually cheap. They just somehow conspire to make it look cheap. For instance, what appears to be plastic with that weird grain pattern on the dash and door panels is actually a new synthetic material that's essentially a fabric. Still, I think something more like the XLR's interior treatment would be a big step in the right direction. That said, the leather, wood, switchgear, etc., in SRX are still of better quality than anything else GM has (with the exception of XLR). And it doesn't rattle! Thank god. Our '01 DTS hasn't had a single quality problem, except that after about two years the dash above the gauges started rattling on bumpy roads. Nevertheless, I think the functionality and excellent and efficient use of space in the SRX, as well as UltraView, more than make up for the interior's 'fashionability' shortfalls." baron87, Sept. 20, 2003
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