This country's enthusiasm for sport-utilities is widely misunderstood. Americans still want the same things in a vehicle that they've always wanted: full-size roominess, all-around utility, and go-anywhere mobility. What's changed is the shape of the vehicles, not the intentions of the people who are driving them.
The SRX reinvents the sport-utility as an American automobile; this crossover sport-ute really feels like a touring sedan when it goes about its business. It is refined, composed, and quiet, yet it has a steely, high-performance character underneath.
All it took to create such a device were all the resources at Cadillac's command, part of a reported $4.5 billion being spent to remake the division's vehicle lineup. Everywhere you look, the SRX exhibits leading-edge technology and carefully crafted details, the kind of serious effort it takes to make a serious automobile. For example, just lift the hood. Instead of some great lump of a truck engine, there's the virtually all-new 4.6-liter Northstar V-8, Cadillac's most powerful car engine in thirty years.
There's some pretty sophisticated automotive technology underneath the SRX, too. The unibody chassis architecture comes from the Sigma platform that now sits under the CTS and will shortly find its way into the 2005 STS, which is the next-generation Seville. This chassis brings to the SRX all the electrickery at Cadillac's command, including a calibration of StabiliTrak skid control for the SRX's all-wheel drive. The newest part of the high-tech package is MagneRide, the quick-response adaptive damping system introduced in the 2002 Seville STS and the 2003 Chevrolet Corvette.
It's no surprise that the SRX has the aggressive creases and flat planes of Cadillac's current styling look. Now that 40,000 CTS sedans are on the road, there's no need to explain it. Beneath the sheetmetal, Cadillac took some trouble to make this great big box as structurally rigid as possible, using high-strength steel in the rockers, structural foam in the C-pillars, a cast magnesium instrument-panel support beam, and even a spring-tower brace for the front suspension. Just as important, the result is usefully lighter than comparably sized SUVs.
We don't want to make too much of our drive in the prototype SRX last November, since production models won't find their way into Cadillac showrooms until the far-off fall of this year, but it was a real eye-opener. We drove the SRX in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville, Virginia. The two-lane rural roads were narrow, and they swooped beneath trees still bright with autumn color and then crossed creeks on one-lane bridges. The first few times we'd hurtle across the crest of a hill on some little ribbon of pavement, we'd hold our breath, waiting for the SRX to bound and skip and waddle for a quarter-mile down the road until the suspension finally snubbed the 4600 pounds under control. Instead, the SRX sucked up the bumps and then planted its tires firmly on the pavement without a moment of indecision.
It was more than just carlike. On these roads, the SRX has the sort of athletic grace that helps sustain a fast, even driving pace for hours. Its long wheelbase and wide track deliver great straight-line stability. Turn the wheel, and the SRX heels into a corner without hesitation, and there's never an instant of doubt about where the corners of this great big vehicle are. Wide tires on eighteen-inch wheels provide plenty of cornering grip, and there's lots of suspension travel to help keep the rubber on the road. As you lay into the throttle, sophisticated algorithms in the transmission's electronics help kick down a gear quickly and smoothly, and then other algorithms read your intentions and hold the gear in the appropriate situations. The transmission also has a manu-matic mode (Cadillac's first). When you get to your destination in the SRX, you look down at your wristwatch and invariably discover that you're early. The speed comes without even thinking about it.
As you might have guessed, Cadillac engineers used an automotive standard of measure during development, not a truck-based one. They based their expectations of ride and handling on the BMW 530i and the Cadillac CTS, and they proved them out at the Nrburgring, not only at GM's proving grounds. The message through the speed-sensitive, variable-assist steering is one of composure--a mixture of stability and refinement, just as you'd expect from a luxury vehicle. In comparison, a BMW X5 feels crisper and livelier, but the German ute's constant heavy-footed ride motions wear you out and make you clench the steering wheel. The SRX is always easy to drive, although the steering is a little slow at low speeds and perhaps too isolated at high speeds.
Composure is what you feel within the SRX as well. The design architecture is simple, and the materials are first-rate, a lesson Cadillac has learned from Lexus. As a result, the SRX feels warm and inviting inside. A glass sunroof arcs all the way back to the rear seat, and a unique wind blocker at its leading edge keeps the huge hole in the roof from producing any annoying buffeting. When the roof is closed, the cabin is notably quiet, well isolated from both wind noise and road rumble.
Even better, there's plenty of room. The seats are large, with flat, comfortable squabs and fairly supportive backrests. The rear seat's combination of reclinable seatbacks and deep footwells enhances the feeling of roominess, and passengers sit slightly higher than in the front row, so outward visibility is great. A central pod integrated with the front console holds the requisite rear-seat DVD system. A kid-sized third seat is optional, and it deploys electrically out of a flat load floor with Disney-like cleverness. As a passenger package, the SRX is in the same league as the Volvo XC90.
For all the SRX's carlike attributes in comfort and roadgoing composure, it also offers the all-weather mobility you expect from a sport-ute. The all-wheel-drive system is always engaged, and it splits the torque 50 percent to the front wheels and 50 percent to the rear wheels, which we believe is the most effective proportion for driving on ice, snow, and loose gravel. All three differentials (front, center, rear) are open, so it's the ABS's responsibility to minimize wheelspin.
The SRX's rear hatch is broad, and the load floor (with or without the optional third seat) is usefully flat. There's also unexpected evidence of everyday utility. The front-seat height is just five inches taller than that of a CTS, so there's no need for running boards. There's plenty of steering lock, and the turning circle is relatively compact, so you can maneuver into those corner mini-malls where the dry cleaners always lurk. The trailer hitch is integrated very well, although it's optional and we think a hitch should be standard equipment for any vehicle with "utility" in its description. The optional trailer-towing package increases the SRX's towing capacity to 3500 pounds (barely enough) from 1000 pounds (too little).
Once it's introduced, the SRX will arrive with two different engine choices: the 315-horsepower, 4.6-liter Northstar V-8 or a new 260-horsepower, 24-valve, DOHC, 3.6-liter V-6. Either all-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive will be available for each engine choice. There will be two different suspension calibrations, standard with Sachs high-pressure gas-charged dampers or the more expensive MagneRide. (We think the conventional Sachs dampers offer better body control and steering precision than MagneRide, which feels more comfort-oriented in the SRX's application.) Cadillac has yet to announce pricing, but we expect the SRX will sit right on top of the Acura MDX and the Lexus RX330, ranging from $35,000 to $45,000.
With the SRX, Cadillac has successfully morphed the sport-utility formula into automotive transportation that is in keeping with its own heritage. This is a real luxury vehicle, because it delivers the luxury of speed and all-weather mobility as well as the luxury of roominess and comfort. In short, the Cadillac SRX is not a truck.