The Cadillac Escalade earned its place as an icon with classic American automotive values: it’s big and sparkly. But it’s also lumbering and inefficient. Can Cadillac distill that swagger into something that gets half-decent gas mileage without boiling off all the mojo? I drove the new 2017 Cadillac XT5 to find out.

(Full Disclosure: Cadillac wanted me to drive the new XT5 so bad they brought me to a nice hotel at California’s beautiful Monarch Beach and paid for all my food and booze. The next day they offered to buy me whatever I wanted at a gas station convenience store.)

The XT5 isn’t actually a miniature Escalade so much as a matured SRX, which it replaces with Cadillac’s new naming system. You probably didn’t realize was that vehicle was the company’s best-seller.

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While GM is still printing money on cheap-to-build, traditional truck-based SUVs, their volume items have been mass appeal mid-sized crossovers for some time.

The SRX, and now its replacement the XT5, is a rival for the Lexus RX 350, Volvo XC60, Audi Q5, BMW X5 and Mercedes GLE. Basically, the entire parking lot at the“nicer mall” in your town.

Improvements

The XT5 is almost 300 pounds lighter than the SRX with a tiny bit more power. Can you feel it in the seat of your pants? Not really, but you will appreciate the fuel economy bump; with seamless cylinder-deactivation the XT5 is rated to 27 MPG on the highway where the SRX topped out at 24.

Inside everything’s just plain prettier. But the biggest leap, which people seriously considering one of these will definitely appreciate, is the touchscreen infotainment system’s increased operational speed. Unlike the outgoing unit, Cadillac’s new CUE runs a faster processor and it pays.

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It’s really as simple as “things happen when you push the buttons.” Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also a part of the equation now.

If you really want to dive deep, Cadillac has compiled a comprehensive spec sheet for your nerding pleasure.

Exterior

Here it is in a nice shade of dark red. Photo credit GM

The XT5's silhouette doesn’t give us too much to talk about, and that’s probably good. Inoffensive curves are key to any car a company is hoping to sell a lot of. It’s the details where you want to stand out; and the XT5's got one in particular that’s exceptional.

Hello, beautiful

From right below the wingmirrors out into the taillights is this crease that throws some zoom into the car’s profile while widening it from the rear and quarter angles.

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Unfortunately as your eye follows that crisp line from the taillights to the top of the front wheel you can’t avoid that little chrome zit Cadillac insisted on sticking to the fender—why they felt the car needed another badge I don’t know, but at least it’s nothing a little fishing line and some hot water couldn’t remove.

The next shape we’re working with is the headlight, and there’s a lot going on here. Cadillac wants Escalade-style vertical LEDs to be a brand signature so what probably started out as hawk eye-ish headlights were augmented with sparkly tears running straight down toward the road.

I respect what they’re trying to do with it; the long lights definitely make the front of the car more interesting to look at but once you see them they sort of dominate the face.

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The XT5's last embellishment worth discussing is the grille, which is perfect. Mere micrometers from being caricature in breadth, it’s unmistakably classic Cadillac without looking out of place on an otherwise modern shape.

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Unfortunately you have to step all the way up to the $60,000 Platinum trim to get the proper chrome treatment, but I bet it will be an option across the board soon enough.

Inside, A World Of Difference In Trim Levels

Lame (left), Platinum (right)

The XT5 comes in several trims, which all seem okay until you climb into the Platinum and realize the rest are all injection-moulded piles of crap in comparison. The Platinum models are gloriously appointed with stitched-leather. Cool shapes of beautifully textured wood punctuate swaths of suede. A sunroof the size of a swimming pool lets light drench the whole affair.

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Even though all U.S.-spec XT5s run the same 3.6-liter V6 with 310 horsepower and 271 lb-ft of torque, the Platinum trim is so much plusher inside that it hardly feels like the same car. I guess that’s why there’s a $20,000 price leap from the base to the $60,000 top of the range.

The other ones are plastic and industrial-grade leather. Sure looks like it’s trying, but the shapes that feel fun when they’re made of open-pore wood look like Happy Meal toys when they’re executed with matte plastic.

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The base models also, inexplicably, use the garbage parts-bin gauge cluster that people hate about other Cadillacs. It’s a big idiot-proof speedometer plopped on top of a rectangular screen with all the elegance of a Ti-84 calculator.

I’d rather have the seat pulled out of a John Deere tractor than have that starring me in the face for my $40,000 any day. Meanwhile, the Platinum gets a dignified two-circle speed and RPM readout.

Besides optional AWD, the whole XT5 lineup is mechanically identical and they’re all just fine to drive. But if the Platinum interior is Whole Foods, entries below are a Rite-Aid after midnight on the wrong side of town.

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Otherwise, the XT5 is fundamentally good inside, but imperfect in ways that are frustrating at this price.

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The good news is that the driver ergonomics are excellent and seats are comfortable. That’s worth reiterating; the seat shape felt just a little optimized for people on the slim side but the cushioning was in a nice Goldilocks zone between soft and taut.

Didn’t these pictures come out nicely?

As mentioned earlier, Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system processes commands much more quickly than it used to. But I still feel like the “slide your finger across a glossy black plane”-style volume controls are frustratingly vague compared to a traditional knob. Sure looks classy though.

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Cabin storage is another huge plus; GM has used a totally electronic shifter (which is another story), that has freed up space where shift knob mechanisms would usually be to make a little shelf. Pockets are tucked around the driver making it easy to stash a few phones, lens caps or purses.

That’s a 12V socket in the pass-through (all trims)

You don’t have a lot of options when it comes to beverage storage though; the door pockets aren’t quite big enough to carry water bottles so you’re out of luck if driver and passenger each have two drinks.

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Rear seats are viable for adults, and the snap-down into cargo mode with the finality of a guillotine.

Materials (Platinum) feel nice where you can see them and weak where you can’t. Materials (lower trims) feel fine in the most prominent chunks, but weak everywhere else. Noticing a pattern yet? Put your hand on the lower plastic around the console and it feels about as solid as the disposable case your kid’s last action figure came in.

Great shapes, colors and materials (Platinum)

Where plastic slabs are mated, particularly in the door and center console, sharp edges are exposed and uncomfortable if you catch one the wrong way. At any rate, your hands will spend most of their time on the steering wheel; which is one of the more interesting ones I’ve seen lately.

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All the buttons you want are there. Too bad their brazen inelegance clashes with the rest of the interior so aggressively. These fat clackers are a real letdown when so much effort has been poured into making the center-stack volume control look like a Star Trek prop.

There’s also the shape of the wheel, which is funky, even daring, to cop Cadillac’s new catchphrase. With the Platinum’s open-pore wood insert I really like it. But downgrade that for a big piece of plastic and it looks like something off the bottom shelf at Toys R Us.

The Rearview Camera Is No Gimmick, It’s Great

I was skeptical about the idea of turning the rearview mirror into a screen, which is also on the CT6 sedan. Redundant! Technological bloat! I was wrong.

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The big bullet point Cadillac shoved down our throats about the mirror-screen is that it provides “300 percent” the visibility of a traditional mirror. Sure, maybe, it certainly seems like it.

There are no blind spots, no rear passengers awkwardly making eye contact with you. You have complete visual command of the lanes behind you and it’s a huge advantage.

Only breakdown is that the delay is perceptible. Barely, but it’s there. I managed to drive an entire four hours without ramming anyone out of their lane so I’m sure you’ll be able to live with this.

On The Road

Before you get the XT5 moving, you have to figure out how to put it in gear.

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“We debated whether to explain the shifter or let you figure it out,” one of Cadillac’s representatives told me. So yeah, you can see where this is going.

The stick pretty much looks like a standard automatic center-console shifter; push the interlock button, move knob. But you can’t just slide between “D” and “R,” you consciously shift through the gears in sequence and that gave me some grief.

Either way it’s not enough to sink the experience; once the car’s in drive the eight-speed automatic manages itself beautifully. There’s a manual mode too with paddle shifters, which have about the same surface area and haptic feedback of your iPhone’s volume buttons.

I can’t imagine anyone buying this car with the intention of riding the gears to redline and carving up canyons. But I will say the shifters are plenty responsive, and that the car’s really comfortable around corners.

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All the weight feels nice and low, steering assist is dialed right in for a much more pleasant backroad ride than you might expect.

If you want more details, ask specifics in the comments. But you might have to wait until I get my hands on the car for a few solid days.

AWD, FWD and ‘Driving Modes’

AWD is optional on every XT5 except the Platinum, where it’s standard. It hits you with a fuel economy tax of 1 MPG bringing the crossover’s max rating to 26 on the highway. Most of the time you’ll keep any XT5 in front-drive mode because it only benefits the driver under hard driving and rough weather, neither of which you’re likely to see between your grocery store and yoga studio. That really steep parking lot exit does not count.

The XT5 can also be run through three “driving modes” with a toggle on the center console; “normal,” “touring,” and “sport.” The latter offers the only perceivable change; full-time activation of the AWD system.

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Mash the gas in regular mode and you’ll get a cute little chirp out of the front tires. Sport, somewhat ironically, feels significantly more slumberous off a line but much more confident around corners.

The XT5 uses a true power take-off setup to swap between two-wheel drive and four; but more interestingly it uses a twin-clutch setup to be able to send 100 percent of its power to the front wheels or rear depending on the traction situation.

An electronic rear differential also allows power to be managed laterally, so the car’s theoretically always making the most of the traction it has.

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If you drive the car like everyone drives a car; a little over the speed limit with the occasional veer or panic stop when you spend a second too long looking at your phone, you’re never going to notice this tech.

Of course if you go balls-out on the way home from work one night you’re not going to notice either, and that’s exactly the point. Once you put the XT5 in your desired “mode” the operation of everything underneath feels smooth as the fine Platinum seats.

Worth It?

The XT5 looks good and drives well. It’s hard to call it “superior” to German rivals without spending more time in it, but the Caddy is distinctive and that might be enough to put it on your shopping list.

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Determining value is slightly trickier. $40,000 gets you in the door, but even though the XT5's entry trims offer a decent drive, the experience doesn’t feel like anything special, and in a segment this crowded you can’t waste your time with half-measures.

“The experience,” however, is there in the Platinum. And compare its $60,000 price tag to a $90,000 Escalade and it looks like a bargain; the Crossover Touring (“XT;” get it?) vehicle offers all the same interior splendor sitting on a more agile chassis at a much lower fuel burn.

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The Cadillac XT5 is just another high-riding hatchback. The XT5 Platinum is a legitimate luxury SUV alternative.

There is something sexy about the big carbon footprint of a full-sized truck that crossovers will never be able to completely capture, but if you actually give a damn about driving, or the fickle nature of fuel prices, I think you’ll find the XT5 Platinum makes a solid case for its genre.

Images via the author, GM


Contact the author at andrew@jalopnik.com.