TEST DRIVE: Cadillac's Best-Selling SRX Is The Crossover That Zigs

Cadillac SRX

Photo: Travis Okulski / Business Insider

Cadillac has been radically reinventing itself for the last 15 years.The company, that once made huge barges reserved for the ageing residents of Florida’s retirement homes (Del Boca Vista anyone?), has made a complete 180 to focus on different customers.

Those customers? BMW, Audi, and Mercedes buyers.

Changes started with the Cadillac Catera, an Opel-based sedan that was branded as “the Caddy that zigs.” While it was smaller and more nimble than its predecessors, the little Catera failed to light a fire under buyers.

But then, Cadillac replaced the Catera with the rear-wheel drive CTS, and things started to turnaround, especially when the second generation car came out.

Cadillac SRX

Photo: Travis Okulski / Business Insider

GM had found a winning formula. The cars had high quality interiors, great engines, and very competent handling.When Cadillac first made the SRX in 2004, they had a larger wagon that looked incredibly cool and even had V8 power. But many found it too big and too thirsty.

So the SRX totally changed, getting smaller and nimbler, while also upping the style on the outside and the quality on the inside. The new car has been a massive hit. Since the new model was released in 2009, sales have jumped from 20,000 units per year to 50,000.

Cadillac recently offered me the chance to see why people are loving it. For a week, a steel grey, all-wheel drive SRX with GM’s 3.6 liter V6 was mine for the driving. With options, my test car came to an MSRP of just more than $50,000.

Driving

For a crossover, the SRX has a surprisingly firm suspension. Unlike the Cadillacs of old, which seemed to float on the road, the SRX felt very connected to the asphalt. In some situations, I would have preferred it be a little softer, but overall it was a fine driving experience.

One impressive feature -- that I stumbled on by accident -- is how the transmission behaves in manual mode. Most cars with a shiftable automatic tend to change up a gear when the redline is approached, even if you don't want it to.

The SRX will let you bounce the car off the redline without shifting to the next gear. I was not expecting this, but it is nice to see Cadillac engineers trusting drivers to make their own decisions.

It isn't a performance car by any means, but the Cadillac is a nice handling car that is capable of some spirited maneuvers.

Looks

I have been a fan of Cadillac's 'Art and Science' design language since it first appeared on the original CTS. The straight lines, angular corners, and now trademark grill look great on a smaller sedan.

But how do they translate to the taller SRX? I'm mixed.

Certain angles of the car simply look fantastic. The rear lights, which are meant to echo the fins of classic Cadillacs, are its best feature.

But if it's viewed from straight behind or straight ahead, the SRX kind of looks like a CTS doing an impression of Stretch Armstrong; the car is just a tad too tall.

Interior

There were a few surprises inside the car as well...some positive and some negative.

On the good side, there is an excellent panoramic roof that lets you really enjoy the weather. One day when I had the car, it was so nice outside I was able to open the roof and put down all the windows. No, it wasn't close to a convertible, but it felt like I was on a very open patio.

In addition to the roof, there was a great stereo and firm, supportive seats. Rear seat passengers even had the benefit of dual screens for the DVD player.

On the down side, the steering wheel had wood on it. There is no reason for that in any car. I also found the plastic near all the heater controls to be a bit hard and unpleasing to the touch.

Dislikes

While the transmission will hold gears in manual mode, which is a big plus, I found it a bit slow to react when left to its own devices. There were a few situations where I kept wishing it would downshift but it just wouldn't.

For taller passengers, the interior can be surprisingly cramped. With three people over six feet tall in the car, the person in the backseat could barely fit with the front seats in a comfortable position.

Just something to think about.

Likes

The 3.6 liter Direct Injection V6 was smooth and torquey; it also let out a surprisingly good sound.

Handling on the road was another surprise. Unlike the old Catera, this is a Caddy that can zig. Granted, I didn't push it very hard since it is a Cadillac crossover, but through most corners it felt very stable and glued to the road.

I wouldn't say it's exactly 'fun to drive,' but it also wasn't mind-numbingly boring like a number of other cars in the same class.

SHOULD YOU BUY IT?

If you are looking at the Acura MDX, Lexus RX, Lincoln MKX, BMW X3 or practically any other vehicle with the letter X in its name, the SRX is definitely worth taking a look at.

Some may find the styling polarising, but it is also a much more interesting car to look at and drive than many of the mundane competitors.

GM's fantastic 3.6 liter V6 is another reason to buy in. It is one of the great engines on the market today.

And now might be the time to get one, too. For 2013, Cadillac is slightly changing the SRX, and I'm not sure it's for the better. They have added some bits to the grill as well as the interior, which makes the design looks a bit too busy for my taste.

The 2012 car is definitely the one to choose.

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