A Cadillac is a huge, ostentatious land yacht, usually piloted by grandpas wearing Hawaiian shirts and lots of gold chains, right?
Not any more. It's time to change those stereotypes now that there's the 2013 Cadillac XTS, a performance sedan that's packed with the latest car tech. It's a car Gramps wouldn't even recognize as a Caddy.
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Let's take a look at what it's like to drive the XTS. The centerpiece of the company's in-car tech is CUE (an acronym for Cadillac User Experience). It does away with knobs, dials and switches in favor of a tablet-like touchscreen interface, with a few dashboard buttons thrown in for good measure. And yes, it lets you pinch to zoom, just like you'd do with an iPad.
As I took a seat in the XTS, I found out these aren't the cushy luxo-seats of the old Elvis-era Cadillacs. These extensively adjustable thrones are firm and sporty. They can give you a high seating position if you so choose, making the XTS sedan feel almost like an SUV. Once you get them set to your preference, the seats are exquisitely comfortable.
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On a cold winter's day, I quickly learned where to find the seat heating control, offering three levels of blessed warmth. Another favorite feature is a heated steering wheel that gets nice and toasty warm in a few seconds. These hot features are not new by any means, but they're so welcome -- especially on those frigid days when the steering wheel feels like a frozen pump handle.
Cadillac lent us a Cadillac XTS Platinum Collection car (with a $61,305 sticker price) for a week. I was glad to see it was the all-wheel drive (AWD) version (also known as the XTS 4). That came in handy during this bitter winter, where I drove this sturdy steed through an icy Midwestern snowstorm.
Never have I felt so confident on an icy road -- perhaps overconfident -- as I did with this XTS 4. Its traction control and ABS performed admirably, keeping the car traveling in a straight line even when I slammed on the brakes or got a little too enthusiastic on the throttle.
My enthusiasm was egged on by the respectable horsepower under the XTS's hood, a 3.6-liter V6 engine that cranks out 304 hp without even breathing hard (for full specs, gearheads, please take a look here).
It's a six-speed automatic, but for extra thrills, I enjoyed placing the Cadillac into its manual mode and using the paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel to change gears. Even though this is a large car, weighing just over 2 tons (4,215 lb), its handling was nimble and its acceleration was brisk.
But you'll pay in gas for all that oomph. With my spirited driving, on 151.3 miles of combined city and highway driving, I got an average of 17.2 mpg. Ouch.
My only complaint about its drivability is the poor visibility out the back window and sides of the car, due to the slim design of the vehicle's windows. My wife felt it was like driving a tank.
But why even look out the back window when you have a backup camera? The one included in the XTS is excellent, using clever graphics to show you exactly where your car will go, changing their trajectory as you steer. I went to an empty parking lot and tried driving backwards using just the backup camera, and after a little practice, it works beautifully. That doesn't make up for the poor visibility out the back window, but almost.
Along with that coolness, all the accoutrements you would expect from Cadillac are there. There are no keys involved -- all you need to do is possess the Cadillac key fob, and you can press a button to start it either as you sit in the car or remotely. When you open the car door, the Cadillac CUE logo floats across both the 12.3-inch instrument cluster screen in front of the steering wheel, as well as the 8-inch screen on the center stack.
After that flashy animation is done, you're left with icons that help you control the audio, weather reports, OnStar, GPS navigation, phone and Pandora. As you touch any of those items on the screen, you feel a slight vibration, giving you haptic feedback about what you just touched. However, that doesn't help the fact that this screen is simply not responsive enough.
Perhaps I've been spoiled by touchscreens on iPhones and Android and Windows phones, but this screen did not react well. Sometimes I would need to touch an item twice or three times. This is not acceptable, particularly in an environment where distraction can mean death.
The system contains several redundant icons that I don't think are necessary. For instance, there's an OnStar icon on the touchscreen, and that capability is also present in a cluster of buttons above the windshield. In addition, there are two icons on the touchscreen for climate control of the left and right seat, which are also unnecessary because of the presence of physical climate controls right there on the center console.
You can move the icons around to your liking, but there will still be the need to swipe from one screen to the next -- if there's a function you need on the next screen, it's awkward to swipe to it while driving.
An effort toward alleviating that awkwardness are Favorites, functions such as radio stations or even navigational destinations that you can program into the system. Favorites can be accessed by a cryptic icon of unlabeled chevrons on the bottom right of the interface. Why not just make it a heart, the icon that makes it little more obvious that you'll be presented with your favorites?
If you don't designate your favorite radio stations, you'll be in for a mystery tour. For instance, if you tap on the audio icon, and then tap Radio, it's hard to tell what to do next unless you're happy with the default AM radio station. It places you smack dab in the middle of the AM radio band, and the only way to get out of it is to push that radio button again to get to FM, HD radio or Sirius XM.
Once you learn it, it works, but for first-timers, it's not intuitive at all. I'd suggest creating Favorites for your stations as soon as possible.
The car's speech recognition is slightly better than I've seen in other models from GM and its competitors. Responding in a voice that sounds a bit like Apple's Siri, the system could recognize a lot of what I said to it, including unusual addresses.
Sometimes the voice is a bit slow to respond, making you wait until it's finished talking before it can take action on what you've said. Even so, it shows me that even though speech recognition in cars is not good enough to depend on 100% of the time, it's showing steady improvement. Perhaps the quiet interior environment of the Cadillac made it easier for the system to work, but it still has a way to go before it's accurate enough to use without frustration.
The car's GPS system is excellent, and can be controlled by voice, as can phone calling and radio station selection. I especially like the way GPS directions show up in the car's head-up display (HUD), graphically counting down the distance to the next turn. The display is brilliant, appearing to hover over the hood, and you can configure it to show your current speed along with GPS directions, compass direction, a tachometer or the music you're currently playing.
After a week of testing, I began to get used to the CUE system. But I'm a technology reviewer. It wasn't that hard for me. But I'm thinking about some of the people who might be sitting in front of CUE for the first time. I think they will be bewildered. And sometimes, the difficulty of using this system could be dangerous.
For example, like the Chevy Volt, the Cadillac GPS system hides "cancel route" at the bottom of an obscure menu. This means if you've changed your mind about where you're going, if you're not completely familiar with the system, you won't be able to cancel your route. Then you'll be required to listen to unnecessary GPS commands until the next road stop. It's either that or go fishing through menus (while you're driving ) to try to find out how to silence these unhelpful directions. Not good.
The most compelling technology in the XTS is its ability to interface with smartphones. The system is set up so that it uses the cellular data signal from your smartphone to access data from the Internet. So far, Pandora Radio is the only app included with the car, letting you use your Pandora account in your car just like you would with your smartphone. If you have an Android or BlackBerry phone, you're good to go.
Once I paired up my Droid 4 smartphone to CUE, I launched Pandora on the phone and it showed up on the car's screen. Suddenly, the XTS was rocking Pandora. It was letting me listen to my favorite Pandora stations, give a song a thumbs up or thumbs down, and change stations and get songs, right there in the CUE interface.
However, if you're using an iPhone, that linkup doesn't work quite as well. To get the full benefit of controlling Pandora using the CUE interface, I had to plug my iPhone into the vehicle via its USB port conveniently located in the center console. Once plugged in, I could see an abbreviated Pandora interface, with thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons and the album cover.
Even when it's plugged in, you can't skip to the next track in Pandora using an iPhone. The only way to do that is to tap the thumbs-down icon. It felt like a work in progress.
I talked with Cadillac technicians, and they showed me how to use Pandora wirelessly from an iPhone via Airplay. But that doesn't give you any control of Pandora from the CUE interface. And I was disappointed to see that on neither Android nor iPhone could you skip to the next track using the car's steering-wheel controls.
You can use those controls to change radio stations -- why not to skip songs on Pandora? This would eliminate the need to use the CUE's touchscreen while driving, which, as I mentioned, is often a hit-or-miss affair.
At first I was wishing I didn't need to plug my iPhone into the car's USB port to use Pandora. But after using it for a while, I realized that plugging the phone into the car is important when using Pandora. As I've learned from using GPS on my iPhone as I drive in my current car, functions like that are battery hogs. If you go on a long trip, you don't want to run your smartphone battery down as it accesses 3G, 4G or LTE data to feed Pandora Radio.
So yes, you'll want to plug your phone into your car, even if it's just to top off the charge. And here is a delightful feature that makes using a smartphone easier: Cadillac created a perfect little bay tucked into the center console for your smartphone. While your phone is plugged into the well-placed USB port, it's a joy to use it while it's plugged in. Check it out:
You can close the console and there's room for the cable to come out, so you can easily see your phone's screen while it's plugged in. But when you're using your phone for such linkages to a car's audio system, keep in mind, this is going to be guzzling cellular data like this Caddy guzzles gasoline, so you might need to upgrade your plan accordingly.
Beyond the smartphone-friendly gadgetry, there are remarkable features that hint at a future of self-driving cars. The Driver Awareness Package includes Lane Departure Warning, sensing whether you're staying in your lane or not.
If you stray too far outside your lane to the left, you feel a little buzzing on the left side of the seat, or on the right cheek if you're drifting a bit to the right. It's startling the first time that tingle happens, and amusing every time after that.
The lane detection doesn't work as well when the pavement is wet -- the XTS wasn't able to tell when I strayed from one lane to another when driving on rain-drenched streets. But on dry days, the system is smart enough to know if you've engaged your turn signal to change lanes, avoiding a false butt-nudge.
I love it when a car suggests to you ways to drive more safely. The XTS lets you know if there's another car lurking in your blind spot, or cross-traffic in the street into which you're about to back up. There are two even more-advanced features in the Driver Assist Package (a $2,395 option) that Cadillac rolled out but didn't include in this review car.
The Adaptive Cruise Control uses radar and cameras to help control acceleration or braking, keeping up with the vehicle in front of you. Also included in that package is Automatic Collision Preparation, which senses when an accident is about to happen, and slowly applies the brakes to lessen the impact.
Cadillacs have traditionally been a showcase for the latest car tech, and this XTS is no exception. There are some features in this car I think should be installed in every car on the road, because they can make driving safer and save lives. For instance, all cars should have that Lane Departure Warning that could wake up a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.
The heads-up display is eminently useful -- it's a lot safer than lowering your eyes to look at a speedometer, navigation prompt or radio station.
Features that I found useful and wished I had in my car are keyless ignition, as well as the heated seat and steering wheel, favorites of those of us who live on the frozen tundra. And using iPhone apps is definitely welcome, especially if there were more from which to choose. But all of this gee-whiz tech is expensive, so it might be a few years before we see all these niceties as standard equipment in cars driven by the rest of us.
After testing the 2013 Cadillac XTS for a week, I can say that its brawny power, lovely and leathery interior and high-tech features have seduced me. Its sure grip with its all-wheel drive on icy roads, as well as its driver awareness technology certainly makes driving safer. Its awkward CUE interface could use some work, but the tech-minded can learn how to use it efficiently with a bit of study.
The best news is, the most advanced features in this Cadillac will be trickling down to ordinary cars soon. That will be good for everyone.
Photos by Mashable/Charlie White
This story originally published on Mashable here.