Several weeks ago, I was given a tour of Cadillac's new Mercedes E-class fighter, the XTS sedan. Until this week, I was allowed to put some miles on the car and to learn what Cadillac's CUE entertainment system achieves in a real-world setting.
In some cars you can sit down, and you know in an instant what to do – which buttons to press and how to drive it. The Cadillac XTS is not that car. Let's take two steps back before we delve into the technology that is packed into this new sedan.
The XTS is a special car, special in its very own way. Just as the fantastic 556 hp CTS-V screams sports sedan, the XTS screams luxury. The reactions we received when driving the Black Raven painted sedan were very consistent. "Beautiful car" were the words we often heard from people who walked by. We were asked at stoplights which "beautiful" car it was; even a police officer had the nerve to flag us down and ask for a demonstration of CUE, which he had read about.
As striking as the XTS is (it shares its size and silhouette with the Buick LaCrosse, upon which it is based, but with much more pronounced geometrical lines that give the car a unique visual identity), as confused were those bystanders about the engine choice. "What, no V8?" they asked. Yes, no V8, dear reader. Cadillac chose its 3.6 liter V6 with 304 hp that is, in a similar configuration, also available for the Buick LaCrosse (303 hp). In fact, a few days of driving suggested that the XTS with 4-wheel drive was a bit underpowered. It never feels slow, but you have to push it hard into the 4,000 RPM range via its manual shifting options to get the acceleration you expect from its looks. Another 100 hp certainly would not hurt.
However, let's remember that the XTS is not a sports sedan. It has some features that it shares with the CTS-V, such as GM's magnetic ride control and the V's superb Brembo brakes, but it is no BMW 5-series. It is built right on top of the rather soft LaCrosse. Given that foundation, the XTS has a much more determined ride and connection to the road. At the same time, it can also serve as a car that removes you entirely from the road and shuts you out. With all the gadgets activated, this is how I imagine a car to feel when it is one step away from taking active control of driving while I lean back answering emails.
At the dealership, I was reminded that Cadillacs have to fill very distinct roles. People buy them to drive other people. They buy them as comfortable family cars. With the XTS, that formula adds a sporty note. If you want to throw it around corners, it will give you the confidence that you can. In this view, the XTS is light-years ahead of the DTS that it replaces.
Tech: A Milestone and Eye Opener
The interior of our XTS AWD Premium was just as beautiful as the exterior. Tastefully appointed, it is in a different class than the DTS and the CTS. Our tester carried a base sticker price of $55,810 and was equipped with a fancy, screen-covered sunroof for $1,450. With the manual sun shades in the rear and destination, the final price came to $58,340, a bargain for the right buyer, in my mind. Subjectively, it feels like an $80,000 car. All XTS versions come standard with the CUE entertainment system; the two top editions, the Platinum and Premium levels, also replace the traditional gauge cluster with a 12.3-inch LCD for the driver that provides several configuration options regarding what information should be displayed. For example, drivers can choose from advanced features such as speed limit information, central navigation and phone connection information.
Cadillac hopes that CUE is a key feature that will attract buyers to the car. In fact, it is a visually stunning implementation; think of it as a tablet that is built right into the car. It has tactile feedback, you can swipe, and pinch zoom. There is a proximity sensor that reacts to your hand moving toward the screen. It adds screen options when you move toward it, and removes clutter from the screen after a few seconds when you pull back.
There is no doubt that CUE is the most advanced UI for entertainment systems in cars today. From the crisp 800x480 pixel screen to the quick reaction times, I found it a pleasure to use. The screen is a highlight in the cabin, from the 3D navigation data that includes buildings in metropolitan areas, to the live graphics of weather that is as good as the information you can draw from weather.com on your PC at home.
However, I found myself constantly playing with the system when I was really not supposed to be doing so. Because information is removed from the screen, you are required to take your eyes off the road much longer than you would if you knew where to place your hand without having to wait for the system to react with more display and menu options.
In its first generation, CUE seems to result in having the driver’s eyes focused more on the screen in the car rather than on the road where they belong. The attention-getter appeal of the UI surely comes with the nature of being distracting as well. Fortunately, the XTS has a very effective collision and lane change warner that even makes your seat vibrate when you are about to cross a line without setting a turning light. It takes some getting used to when your left butt cheek suddenly gets massaged, but I quickly learned that I may be a bit too close to the middle lane of the road and should correct my direction. The system won't save drunk drivers from being pulled over, but it is present enough, for example, to let tired drivers know that they need a break.
One problem with CUE is that it requires a massive learning curve from non-tech enthusiasts to use the system effectively. My fiancé loves her iPad and her Android phone, but she was frustrated with the user controls of CUE to the point where she refused to drive the car. Our 12-year-old ended up explaining to her how to navigate the screen. The lack of physical buttons and the integration of everything touch felt much more natural to him than to her, which should be a telling sign that our kids will expect such features in cars in the not too distant future. Similarly, I do not believe that older buyer groups will fall in love with CUE.
Another problem with CUE is that its audio recognition is not as advanced as I had expected. The controls are very much what is standard today and cover especially navigation and audio. However, our family minivan, priced $20K less than this XTS, can also cover climate controls, which the XTS cannot. This is a feature that can be extremely useful, particularly with very clean dashboardsand should be on Cadillac's list as an immediate needed improvement.
In addition to the above, the advanced UI and the audio controls are two major downsides that I found. Once you are used to the system, it is a tech geek's dream come true. There is nothing on the market today that can match the modern technology appeal of CUE.
The 12.3-inch display in front of the driver is very much a matter of taste. It fits well with the striking appearance and technology approach of the entire car, but personally, I did not like it being positioned exactly vertically without an angle towards the driver. Readability, however, is excellent, and the options to configure the display are a hint about just how much Cadillac wanted this car to be a demonstration of what is possible today. If there is a car on the road that exemplifies how future sedans may look and feel, the XTS is as close as you can get.
Conclusion: A Step Closer
We have been discussing systems like CUE for at least a decade. In a strange way, CUE may even be a bit ahead of its time with an appeal to those who grow up with touch computing interfaces and LCDs everywhere. The Cadillac design team should be applauded for pushing the CUE design through, even if it can clearly benefit from some improvements. That said, remember that this is a digital interface that can be flashed. Just as you update your phone occasionally, this system can be updated equally as easily.
Given the background of the DTS, the XTS is a giant leap in the right direction and is exemplary for the transformation of GM. A few years ago, we complained about GM's old engines, plastic dashes and rides that were reminiscent of a sofa on wheels that was about to fall apart at the next corner.
This XTS is proof that GM is making unmistakable progress to run with the Europeans. It may not be the sportiest sedan on the road, but if you are looking for striking design, luxury, and you enjoy technology, this is a car that should be on your shopping list.