Payne: Cadillac XT4 finds the sweet spot

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Small utes are all the rage. Since Buick innovated the segment with its Encore cutie in 2013, everyone jumped into the pool: BMW X1, Infiniti QX30, Mercedes GLA, Mazda CX-3, Jaguar E-Pace, Audi Q3. Everyone, it seemed, but that icon of American luxury, Cadillac. While the Encore reinvented Buick — That’s a Buick? — as an SUV brand, Cadillac focused on building an image of style and performance from a sedan foundation.

Now at last comes the 2019 Cadillac XT4 subcompact crossover, and it was worth the wait. Right out of the nest, it’s a serious contender.

Flogging the XT4 all over Seattle I found the wee ute has learned from its class peers to deliver the sweet spot in size, handling and ergonomics. To my friends who embraced Caddy’s edgy style, but then ran screaming from its knobless, slider-controlled CUE (Cadillac User Experience) infotainment system — you can come back now. The new rotary remote-and-knob controlled touchscreen is a thing of beauty.

A white, 2019 Cadillac XT4 shows off the wee ute's tasteful styling cues at a dock near Bremerton, Washington.

On its slim shoulders the entry-level XT4 carries not only the expectations of the brand’s first new SUV segment entry in 14(!) years, it also introduces buyers to a new “Y” pricing strategy.

When I first shook hands with the little ute at the New York auto show earlier this year, I wasn’t sure the XT4 was up to the task. In the shadow of celebrity debuts like the mighty turbo-V8 CT6 V-Sport, bling-tastic Ford Aviator and luscious Maserati Levante, the XT4 seemed overwhelmed.

But in its natural, road-going habitat, Cadillac’s pup has presence.

“Where can I get one of those?” a passerby asked as I emerged from the XT4 near Seattle’s downtown farmers market. The XT4 is a mature expression of Cadillac's distinctive Art & Science design — handsome, but with a dose of Motown swagger.

Cadillac has learned from the inauspicious debut of its ATS sedan — an athlete with the slashing moves of Barry Sanders but with the personality of vanilla. Despite its best-in-class handling, the ATS was a wallflower in a room of premium preeners.

The XT4 wants to be noticed. Its face features a big, grinning grille framed by LED-studded, vertical peepers that would make Elton John proud. The XT4 went into big-brother Escalade’s huge walk-in closet and pulled out the neon “tornado lights” that are the three-row SUV’s signature.

My favorite trim is the wicked Sport model in all-black with big 20-inch wheels, black grille, black suit, black rocker panels — and those white, vertical LEDs in front and white verticals in the rear. Hello, X-Man, shall we go fight some bad guys?

The Sport’s brooding intensity contrasts nicely with the other “Y” spoke in the Cadillac trim-tree — the Premium Luxury with its chrome accents, shimmering grille and red taillights.

Branching, Y-like, from the competitively priced $35,790 front-wheel drive base model, the contrasting PreLux and Sport trims both gain all-wheel drive for the same $40,290 price. Look for the Sport “branch” to sprout a V-series twig to take on BMW’s M performance badge.

The XT4’s gym-toned bod is a good foundation for such future aspirations.

Mind you, this is no rear-wheel drive based, longitudinal-engine Baryshnikov. Such SUV athletes (Jaguar F-Pace or BMW X3) are found only in the bigger, compact segment. Space is at a premium in subcompacts, so even Jaguar and BMW have succumbed to front-wheel drive platforms with transverse engines.

For all-out athleticism, the X1 leads the subcompact pack, but the XT4 is at its heels.

Over the undulating rural hills and valleys of Seattle’s Bainbridge Island, my X-tester was sure-footed and fun to drive even as the Pacific Northwest’s persistent cloud-cover slickened the roads. When the rain turns to ice and snow, Cadillac has fortified the all-wheel drive DNA of the ATS with dual rear clutch-packs.

The clutches can throw 100 percent of rear torque to either side to prevent one wheel from spinning helplessly — in a ditch, on ice or on snowpack — and get you moving again.

Acceleration from the 2.0-liter turbo four-banger is brisk as the XT4 puts down a class-competitive 258 pound-feet of torque eclipsed only by the Jaguar. That also means impressive 3,500-pound towing capacity for a segment in which some wee competitors don’t encourage towing. Go ahead, hook up a couple of ATVs for a weekend up north. Or throw two golf bags into the raked, tornado light-equipped hatch if that’s your sport of choice.

But it’s the interior’s attention to detail forward of the cargo bay that really wows.

The entry-level ATS sedan was small in the back seat. Cadillac learned from its mistake. The XT4 is roomiest in class and your basketball-playing 6-foot-5 reviewer could easily sit behind himself — and sit up straight under a full-length, optional moonroof that brings welcome light to the rear cabin.

Speaking of which, engineers nixed the rear-quarter glass to improve driver visibility with one seamless window aft of the b-pillar. More clever details? The front doors are designed to store umbrellas (shades of Rolls-Royce) for the Seattle rains. Only in standard features does the XT4 (like its Chevy and GMC kin) come up short as it fails to offer standard adaptive cruise-control or blindspot-assist that can be found on mainstream cars under $30,000.

If buyers shop up to the compact ute class and the sensational new, larger but just-as-sporty Acura RDX, they’ll notice it offers standard all-wheel drive, full moonroof and adaptive-cruise for just $38,325.

Cadillac has turned its Achilles heel, CUE, into an advantage here. Rather than reinvent the wheel (Acura chose a complicated, mouse-pad solution), Caddy’s infotainment system brings the best from the touchscreen and remote rotary-dial camps. Like Jeep’s Connect system, the screen is fast and easy to navigate when stopped — then easy to control by rotary dial when moving.

Throw in a space-saving monostable shifter and the console offers a storage cubby for your phone or fries. This slavish attention to detail reminded me of another stylish subcompact, the Volvo XC40. But ride the Swede hard and its uneven transmission and pedestrian chassis can’t keep up.

The XT4 is the total package. It offers first-class amenities for long drives with smooth power and handling for when the road gets twisty.

The roomy, user-friendly, nimble BMW X1 took two generations to become the class standard. The XT4 finally offers a no-compromise competitor — and Cadillac got it right on the first try.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Cadillac XT4

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $35,790 base ($52,285 Premium Luxury AWD and $56,835 Sport AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 237 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.0 seconds (mfr.)

Weight: 3,660 pounds (FWD, mfr. estimate)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 25 city/30 highway/27 combined

Report card

Highs: Sculpted good looks; CUE goes to head of class

Lows: Big back seat squeezes cargo room; more standard features, please 

Overall: 4 stars