2019 Cadillac XT4 First Drive Review: The Escalade Puppy

First Drive

Can the smallest sized Cadillac take a big bite out of the competition?

The consequences for tardiness are obviously wide-ranging. If you’re late for a rocket launch, that’s just too bad it’s gone, but if you’re late for your brother-in-law’s birthday party, well, at least you made it.

So, if you were to pin the luxury compact crossover space somewhere along that spectrum, you’ll find that it leans far closer to a party you wish you weren’t at than it does rocket science–which is lucky for Cadillac considering its first compact crossover, XT4, is virtually the last of the major players to arrive. It’s also 2018 and there are no real allegiances inside the suburban image slaughterhouse, while the downtown crowd is more likely to opt for intelligent choices rather than pure flash.

Chief exterior designer, Robin Kreig, affectionately calls the XT4 an “Escalade puppy”, it’s a good metaphor for the work his team did paring the most attractive bits from Cadillac’s beefcake flagship down into something softer, playful, and more palatable. The theme starts from the stretched wheelbase and squat stance, with the widened track and big wheels almost making the XT4 look like it has a set of oversized puppy paws, while the chiseled, vertical LED lighting elements in both the front and the back strongly resemble not just the Escalade, but the universally adored CTS-V Wagon.

Bright wheels and tasteful bodyside drama give the XT4 a handsome presence among the silver jelly beans that populate the rest of the segment, something which the brand is betting will appeal to a crowd of dissatisfied owners who currently pledge allegiance to rivals from Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Lexus, and Acura.

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Curb appeal and stance didn’t just drive the program’s design decisions, they also dictated key engineering choices when it came to the vehicle’s architecture. Instead of repurposing the company’s compact Delta architecture which underpins the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain, Cadillac instead was able to give the XT4 the first crossover specific variant of GM’s mid-sized Epsilon architecture. Like a boxer cutting weight for a fight, the larger architecture allowed the engineering team more freedom to stretch the wheelbase and chop the overhangs while still being able to boast best in class torsional rigidity.

The front half of the chassis sports a solid-mounted front cradle and a lateral cross brace that provide a solid support structure for the MacPherson strut front suspension and allowed engineers to keep rebound rates tight in order to reign in any unwanted body motions or weight transfer.

In back there’s a five-link independent suspension borrowed in its entirety from the larger XT5’s parts bin. The rear end is mounted to a fully isolated rear cradle system that’s been engineered to quell the sound reverberations caused by the crossover’s open cargo areas.

The additional lateral stiffness is definitely noticeable with just the smallest amount of trail braking when you chuck the XT4 into a back road sweeper a touch hotter than you should as you close down a balding man in a Fiat 124.

XT4 Sport models are available with an Active Sport Suspension with Continuous Damping Control which provides variable damping using an array of vehicle and road inputs to adjust suspension behavior for each wheel up to 500 times per second. The whole package rides on a set of custom-developed, Continental all-season tires which were designed to optimize grip, handling, braking, and quietness. Cadillac says more than a year was spent refining the compound and tread design of the standard 18 and available 20-inch tires, so don’t go skimping on tires when it comes time to refresh the stock equipment.

Also borrowed from its big brother, the XT4 gains an available twin-clutch all-wheel-drive system which can be a boon to driving in both ideal, and inclement conditions. In AWD or Sport mode, the twin clutches integrated into the rear differential will independently control the amount of torque given to each rear wheel based on road conditions and driver demands; which means it can shuffle torque to the outside rear wheel during spirited driving to help rotate the rear, or it can add stability and peace of mind when dealing with wheel slip in sloppy winter conditions. However, keep the drive mode in Tour and the system will disconnect entirely, allowing you to enjoy the benefits of FWD-only fuel economy.

Beneath the hood, XT4 takes its motivation from an all-new 237-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. A twinscroll turbo offers a torque curve that is both fat and flat, delivering an absurd 97-percent of available twist between 1,500 and 5,000 rpm which makes driveability and throttle application suitably linear.

At 118.5-hp per liter, it’s actually one of the most powerful engines GM has ever created, making more jam pound for pound than the company’s 640-hp supercharged 6.2-liter V8 in the CTS-V. Power makes it to the wheels via GM’s new nine-speed automatic transmission, which shifts smartly and crisply, even up long grades it was good at keeping itself from hunting around for more torque. Gear shifts can also be actuated by the set of wheel-mounted paddles, but the ECU is faster and smoother.

XT4 also gains a new tripower valvetrain that uses a unique sliding camshaft barrel to switch into different valve lift modes to either optimize power, efficiency or even cut the load on the engine in half by reducing the number of operational cylinders. From a dig, you’ll find the 2.0-liter to sound somewhat course until you shoot past 2,500 rpm, at the top of the rev range you do get extremely pleasing high-lift sounds.

Other highlights include the use of active thermal management technology which will keep the engine cooler under heavy loads but should also aid with warm up in cold conditions. Lastly, there’s a stop/start system which you’ll either like and leave engaged, or loathe like some grotesque vaudevillian caricature. The new 2.0-liter will eventually proliferate throughout the corporation, but for now it remains Cadillac exclusive. There’s definitely more room in the engine bay to fit something larger, be it in terms of displacement or cylinder count, but there are officially no future plans to offer additional engine choices.

For all its technical wizardry, the XT4 will be bought primarily based on the cabin experience. Just about every surface is wrapped in soft-to-the-touch leather, including the upper and lower sections of both the dashboard and door panels. The seats are comfortable enough and are available with heated, cooled, and massaging functions, there’s wireless charging, which is always nice, an air ionizer, and driving aids like surround vision and a rear camera mirror.

Additionally, shoppers get 4G LTE connectivity, a totally revamped Cadillac CUE system which is offered through an 8-inch diagonal interface, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and new Near Field Connectivity capability which allows you to connect your phone in seconds with a tap on the little NFC logo on the dash. The most useful buttons are laid out horizontally beneath the touchscreen, it looks like a mouthful of teeth, but at the same time it’s preferable to burying functionality within the screen itself.

In fact, the only real part of the interior experience I didn’t like was the steering wheel, it’s just chunky for no reason and the stitching felt course when fingered. Elsewhere in the cabin, Cadillac claims best in class rear seat legroom, which is definitely believable if you spend any time whatsoever in the second row, another benefit of opting to use a larger donor platform.

The XT4 also debuts Cadillac’s new Y trim strategy, which splits content off into two distinct streams of luxury and performance as you move up the trim ladder. The company actually claims the XT4 is the most contented car in its class, which is true, but you’ll also have to pay for it. For example, the Sport model shown here stickered at more than $55,000 and required things like the 20-inch wheels, sports suspension, and performance AWD system to be added as optional extras.

But realistically, the XT4 should help Cadillac print money after losing out to established players like the Lexus NX, Mercedes-Benz GLA, Audi Q3, and BMW X3. The only question remaining is will consumers take to the XT4’s refreshing exterior design, and can Cadillac do enough to command consumer attention in what is becoming an increasingly competitive space?

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