First Drive: 2019 Cadillac XT4

The rest of the automotive industry should take note: if a dose of contrition is just what the doctor ordered, put a Canadian in charge.

What the Cadillac Escalade might look like as a puppy.

Cadillac is about to launch its brand-new subcompact XT4 crossover, the most important vehicle introduction the brand has seen in years.

The XT4 joins a product lineup that’s become, quite frankly, uncompetitive. Their sedans are well-regarded, but three of them operate in essentially the same segment – in a market that’s gone crazy for crossovers. On that front, the brand has only two choices: the monstrous Escalade with its highly specific customer base, and the mid-size XT5, which launched in 2016 and is considered a relative success.

Cadillac knew that the XT4’s arrival would generate a lot of questions. Why has it been so long since the brand introduced something new? Where are things going? And how is it going to fix a lineup that, in 2018, is proving disastrous?

To answer, out came Steve Carlisle, who was promoted out of the role of President of General Motors Canada this April to take the helm of Cadillac’s global operations.

What he said when he introduced the XT4 can be distilled down to this: Hey, we’re sorry. We know you haven’t heard from us in a while. We haven’t always gotten this right, but we know it and we’re planning to fix it by launching a new vehicle every six months from now through 2020, mostly to fill in our crossover lineup. Enjoy the XT4.

No beating around the bush or sweeping under the rug; he fired it straight down the line with a just-right apologetic tone and left few questions unanswered (apart from exactly what else is coming, but that’s to be expected). You’ve got to love dealing with Canadians.

As for the XT4, it’s a hugely important vehicle for Cadillac in this market, probably even more so than in the United States since we tend to prefer our vehicles smaller and more understated than, say, the Escalade.

Will it find success here? The answer all comes down to budget – as in, exactly how much this vehicle’s potential buyers have and how they choose to spend it.

An All-new Engine

The Cadillac XT4 hits the market with a newly developed engine: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder with a twin-scroll turbocharger that produces 237 hp. Its 258 lb-ft of torque is fully available between 1,500 and 4,000 rpm, and it’s 97 percent available between 4,000 and 5,000 rpm before the curve drops off.

This engine’s valvetrain switches automatically between three different efficiency modes to help reduce fuel use in low-demand operations. Under intense load, the high-lift mode uses the full length of the cylinder; when demand is reduced, it moves automatically into low-lift mode to use less fuel. In very-low-demand situations such as highway cruising, two cylinders shut off entirely. When operating in this last mode, this engine puts up a 15 percent improvement of efficiency over Cadillac’s previous 2.0-litre.

How does this translate on the road? Quite well. I mean, it’s no Mercedes-Benz GLA 45, but it’s also not priced like one (though in the premium trims it’s not as far off as it perhaps ought to be). But what the XT4’s powertrain does excel at is flying under the radar. The go-pedal isn’t exhilarating but it is satisfying, and the nine-speed automatic transmission only had one sort-of-weird shift all day and otherwise went about its business almost imperceptibly, something that not a lot of high-ratio transmissions can claim.

The XT4’s base model comes in both front-wheel- and all-wheel-drive versions, but the latter will comprise the lion’s share of Canadian sales. Those who choose to add it will get a twin-clutch all-wheel drive system that allows 100 percent of available torque to be sent from the front to the rear axle and between the rear wheels as needed. Three drive modes allow the driver to choose between full front-wheel drive for improved fuel economy, all-wheel drive on demand, and sport AWD modes.

This platform is entirely new and integrates a solid-mounted front cradle and a lateral cross-brace for chassis stability, newly designed control arms and ride and handling bushings, and an electric power steering system.

For me, the make-or-break feature is the available active sport suspension with continuous damping control. This is the difference between excessive and numbing road texture feedback through the steering versus dynamics that are engaging and fun. For anyone who appreciates refined steering as part of the driving experience, the XT4 isn’t complete without this feature.

One Expensive Puppy

The design goal of the XT4, we’re told, is to capture what the Cadillac Escalade might look like as a puppy.

Because holy crap, who doesn’t love puppies?! They’re gangly and endearing and adorable, tripping over their own huge feet and bounding along with endless energy until they finally collapse in slumber. Who wouldn’t want to have a puppy in the driveway?

This translates into some distinctive qualities that make a difference in performance. For one thing, the XT4’s wheels are way out in the corners, like a pup that’s just slid across a hardwood floor and is splayed out in all directions, a trait that’s well-known as a boon for great handling.

And then there are those great big puppy-dog headlights, which might seem garish at first glance but grew on me over time, especially once the finer Cadillac details came into focus.

The back end has long vertical taillight features – several people I spoke with compared them to Volvo’s current treatment, a well-regarded design – that are either red or white depending on whether you’ve chosen the Luxury, Premium Luxury, or Sport trim.

Lowering oneself into the driver’s seat produces a proper amount of instant impression. This is a well-executed interior design with just the right amount of movement and a sleek layout of screens and buttons. That said, fit and finish may be a concern. In the units I tested, I noted misaligned seams, untucked leather in door handles, and even some loose nuts and bolts in the second row.

That second row is very roomy, though, which puts the XT4 into an interesting conversation: is it a compact or a subcompact? Cadillac says it’s positioning the XT4 square against the Audi Q3, BMW X1, and Mercedes-Benz GLA, which answers the question clearly: those are all subcompacts, so this must be one, too. That said, there’s not one of those where I’d expect to keep a six-foot-plus passenger comfortable in the second row for almost an hour, and that’s exactly what the XT4 did during my drive through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains south of Seattle. The passenger portion of the cabin in this car is roomy enough to turn heads.

Such a coup always requires sacrifices somewhere, though, and here it’s in the cargo compartment. While there are no published volume figures yet, the XT4’s cargo area feels small compared to the segment as a whole and has a relatively high load floor, though not exceptionally so compared to its higher-priced direct competition.

Top-Tier Infotainment

Where the XT4 could easily win certain buyers over is in its infotainment and connectivity features.

Among small luxury crossovers, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality are a rarity. To be fair, the Audi Q3 will have both in its next generation, which is set to launch very shortly. But among the rest of the competition, smartphone connectivity either costs a lot of money or simply isn’t available at all, which makes Cadillac’s inclusion of both as standard equipment an exceptional offering.

On top of that, the standard 8-inch touchscreen with multiple input options carries on the premium feel with high-resolution graphics and user-friendly operation. Throw in the subscription-based 4G LTE Wi-Fi and the rear seat reminder, a potentially life-saving feature, and the XT4 doesn’t have to work very hard to position itself as the ideal small luxury SUV for the tech-savvy young executive on the go.

Verdict

I care a lot about driving experience, and so there’s only one set of equipment available for the XT4 that I would consider buying: the Sport trim with the optional active sport suspension. At that price, we’re edging into Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 or base Porsche Macan territory, which naturally gives pause. While the XT4 can’t match them in performance, its connectivity features, and the resulting liveability as a daily driver, will win a lot of people over.

Generally speaking, the XT4 enters the fray as a typical, yet affordable, luxury subcompact crossover. In the Sport plus active sport suspension configuration, it might deliver the best balance of price to value available in its segment today.

Trim Walk and Pricing

There’s just one problem: we know that the active sport suspension is a standalone feature only available with the Sport trim, but the pricing for it hasn’t yet been provided by Cadillac Canada. This story will be updated as soon as it becomes available.

In the base Luxury trim, which is available as front-wheel drive ($37,900 plus freight and PDI, which is not included in any pricing shown here) or all-wheel drive ($41,295), heated front and outboard rear seats are included as standard, as is a heated steering wheel, engine stop-start with a disable switch, a full spare tire, LED front and rear lighting, 18-inch alloy wheels, dual exhaust with styled tips, leatherette seating surfaces, a 60/40 split rear seat, keyless entry and remote start, an HD rear-view camera with rear park assist, dual-zone climate control, an 8-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, four USB ports, NFC smartphone pairing, a rotary infotainment controller, seven-speaker audio, active noise cancellation, and capless fueling, among other features.

Upgrading to either of the two premium trims, Premium Luxury or Sport, adds ambient lighting, wood décor, a tailgate sill-plate with alloy accents, front and rear parking assist, power liftgate, a memory driver’s seat and mirror, an auto-dimming rear-view and driver’s side mirror, power-folding outside mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a tonneau cover, and a suite of safety technologies: lane-change alert, blind-spot alert, rear cross-traffic alert, and haptic safety alert seat.

For the Premium Luxury trim (AWD, $46,295), add these features: 18-inch premium alloy wheels, satin aluminum roof rails, illuminating door handles, metallic side molding and fascia accents, leather seats, available aluminum décor.

On the Sport trim (AWD, also $46,295), add: a gloss black sport mesh grille, LED cornering and front turn signal lamps, 18-inch sport alloy wheels, gloss black roof rails and side moldings and fascia accents, neutral taillamps, body-colour door handles, a unique steering wheel, optional carbon-fibre décor, foot pedals with alloy accents, front-row seatback power bolster adjusters, four-way front-row power lumbar adjuster (as opposed to two-way in other trims), and an eight-way power adjustable front passenger seat (as opposed to six-way in other trims).

Both premium trims have multiple available option packages.

The Driver Awareness Package ($895) includes low-speed forward automatic braking and pedestrian braking, forward collision alert, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, following-distance indicator, and intelligent high-beams.

The Driver Assistance Package ($1,295) includes advanced adaptive cruise control and forward and reverse automatic braking.

The Enhanced Visibility Package ($1,795) includes Cadillac’s rear camera mirror (this is the feature that turns the rear-view mirror into a screen fed by a rear-facing camera, which I confess I have trouble using and usually turn off, though other drivers I know love it), an HD surround-vision camera, automatic parking assist with braking, and heated and power-adjustable auto-dimming outboard mirrors with integrated turn signal indicators.

The Comfort & Convenience Package changes in price and features depending on the trim it’s complementing. On the Premium Luxury trim, it adds $1,195 to the price and adds the four-way power lumbar front seats and eight-way power passenger seat that are already standard on the Sport trim plus front seat ventilation and massaging and a hands-free power liftgate. On the Sport trim, this package costs $2,795 and adds the features listed here plus an upgrade to leather seating surfaces from the Sport trim’s standard leatherette.

The Technology Package also has slight differences. In the Sport trim, it costs $1,895 and adds the LED front cornering lamps and front turn signal that are already standard on Premium Luxury plus the head-up display, 8-inch color reconfigurable cluster display, wireless charging, power-adjustable steering column, and a cabin air ionizer. On Premium Luxury, since the LED lights are already included, the price for this package goes down to $1,595.

Finally, there’s an available Trailering Package for $655 that’s rated up to 3,500 lb and includes a trailer hitch receiver, trailering wiring harness, transmission oil cooler, and heavy-duty cooling system.

Leading the Cadillac charge. 9/17/2018 9:00:00 AM