by Richard Russell
Kinross, Michigan – The biggest challenge facing Cadillac’s marketing department is communicating the degree to which GM’s luxury division has changed. The edgy new Cadillac style certainly looks different – but it’s what’s beneath the skin, and in the hearts and minds of those charged with developing new product, that is the key.
Case in point – Cadillac SRX.
This brand new luxury SUV arrives this Fall as a 2004 model at prices likely to start in the mid-fifties. Just what the world needs, another SUV. But wait, this one is different in a couple of respects: 1) it’s got the best of everything from the world’s largest car-maker and 2) it is a genuine delight to drive hard and fast. The latter is the challenge – convincing wary consumers any Cadillac is fun to drive, let alone a Cadillac SUV.
The small team behind this new Cadillac are enthusiastic to a degree I have not seen in a quarter century at GM. This is a dedicated group of highly intelligent, capable and committed young people. Under the new GM organization, they have been given the directive, and more-importantly, the resources to put Cadillac back where it once was – in league with the best the world has to offer. The SRX, for example, is based on a brand new rear-drive platform, boasts a heavily revised drivetrain and the very latest electronic driver aids available anywhere, from anyone. I first drove pre-production prototypes of the SRX last fall in West Virginia – crude, disguised running models. I was impressed with the driving dynamics and the packaging. Then, I drove pre and early production models in the midst of winter at GM’s winter testing facilities here, and was quite frankly blown away – not by the constant and strong sub-zero winds howling across the frozen landscape – but by the development that continued to go into these new vehicles.
Despite not having yet finished fine-tuning their work, they let us flog their new baby back-to-back against a BMW X5, Mercedes ML500, Lexus LX300 and a Volvo XC90. No provisos, no excuses – just go through a variety of exercises on frozen lakes, high-speed snow-covered tracks and various other venues. The instructions were simple – throw everything you’ve got at them, compare them back to back with the best out there, and tell us what we’ve got left to do. My recommendation? Finish picking out interior colours and materials, ensure build quality is up there, crank up the production lines and figure out how to get people to drive them back-to-back with the competition.
The SRX was heads and shoulders above the competitive set on poor and slippery conditions. The incredible detail work done in upgrading the StabilTrak system for this application has resulted in a seamless method of helping drivers of all competencies through tough situations. Whether on sheer ice, deep or packed snow, the difference was dramatic. When grip is lost, the others rudely interrupt with loud, abrupt and disconcerting brake and throttle application. The SRX’s Stabilitrak is almost invisible. It’s there and it’s marvelous but the driver has a much better sense of control. Where the others cut in taking away control, the new SRX’s system is like a coach, gently encouraging the car back into line. The difference will only be noticed by those fortunate enough to try the vehicles back to back on poor conditions. But it is indicative of the phenominal development work.
Built on the Sigma architecture used for the CTS and its European sedan brethren, the SRX retains plenty of American attributes including a big beefy engine, loads of creature comforts and turnpike-gobbling ride qualities. But thanks to development on race courses including the famous Nurburgring in Germany, they exhibit European-like sports sedan driving dynamics.
The SRX is positively bristling with technology including a new full-time All-Wheel-Drive system, new engines, electric steering, award-winning Magnetic Ride Control system, ABS with Panic Brake Assist, Traction control and the aforementioned four-channel StabiliTrak system. It will be available in rear or all-wheel drive formats.
Dave Masch, the SRX program engineering manager, says the project was a dream. “We were given all the assets we wanted to develop this vehicle.” The primary emphasis was on dynamic performance. To reach this goal they got the center of gravity 3 cm lower than the competition and utilized the longest wheelbase in the class for excellent ride qualities. Near 50-50 weight distribution was achieved by placing the engine in a North-South configuration well back in the chassis. This also allowed a tighter turning circle because narrower frame rails were possible. All-up weight is at or slightly above two tonnes depending on model and equipment.
While the engineers were busy developing the stuff you don’t see, others were hard at work on the necessary luxury touches – including not only materials and features, but eliminating the source or path of unwanted sounds. The SRX is the first application of a laminated dash at GM; wind and road noise levels have tested at class-leading levels. The interior boasts rich upscale materials, a full load of power assists and a number of available entertainment systems. The short of stature will appreciate the availability of adjustable pedals.
The SRX will seat up to seven with the optional third row seat. The second seat folds virtually flat to the floor and the third electrically so, at the touch of a button. Open-air aficionados can order a massive sunroof cutting a five square foot hole in the roof, augmented by a separate vented glass roof over the third seat. The seats themselves are truly theatre style, with the second row 5 cm higher than the front and the third a further 7-cm up.
Dubbed the luxury utility with the heart and soul of a sports car, the SRX has been designed literally from the ground up with extensive attention to chassis and driving dynamics. The goal is nothing less than segment-leading handling – in all conditions. Multi link suspensions composed of lightweight materials front and rear provide an exceptional balance between ride and handling. The SRX boasts a fully automatic self-leveling system and more than 20 cm of wheel travel in front and 22 cm in the rear.
Motivation will come from two all-new engines, a new transmission and an optional new all-wheel-drive system. A heavily revised 4.6 litre Northstar V8 produces 315 hp, 310-lb. ft. of torque and a smile-inducing mellow bellow under wide open throttle. This 90-degree V8 now boasts a stiffer aluminum, two piece block, electronic throttle control, improved oil flow/control/cooling, a forged steel crank, tighter-fitting polymer coated pistons to reduce slap on startup and 25,000 km oil change intervals. It is the first Northstar application with a full dual exhaust system.
The base engine will be the first appearance of the all-new Northstar-derived 3.6 litre V6, expected to put out 260 horsepower and a hefty 252 lb. ft of torque. This aluminum 60-degree unit will boast dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, electronic throttle control and a host of other state-of-the-art technologies. Both engines will be mated to a new five-speed automatic transmission – 5L40-E for the six and a higher capacity 5L50-E for the eight.
The optional all-wheel-drive system splits power delivery 50/50 front-rear until there is a need for more or less power to one or more wheels through open front, center or rear differentials.
Cadillac is no longer content to sit back and watch the competition eat it’s lunch. The CTS was the first sign of the fight back, the potent two-seat XLR sports tourer and SRX all-activity vehicle are next. The 1,000 horsepower Sixteen shown at Detroit a few months ago is further proof Cadillac isn’t just going to protect its turf – it is going to take the battle to the competition. All the components are in place – to drive one of these new Cadillacs is to get the message. With Oldsmobile no longer on the horizon perhaps its time to resurrect and modify the old slogan – this isn’t your father’s Cadillac.