Payne: Three-row Cadillac XT6 is the anti-Escalade
For all you Cadillac fans who yearn for a three-row SUV but couldn’t afford the tugboat to dock the Escalade tanker in your driveway, there is good news.
The Cadillac XT6 is here.
Built on a stretched version of the compact unibody chassis that undergirds the two-row XT5, the XT6 feels as you’d expect it would — like an athletic, upsized version of the popular XT5. That will be especially good news to parents who always wanted a three-row Cadillac but thought the truck-based, blingtastic Escalade was more suited for Gronk to take his New England Patriots mates to practice than their kids’ soccer team to a game.
Where the Escalade intimidates, the XT6 invites.
Say hello to the handsome face, a direct descendant of Cadillac's Escala concept car. With thin headlights complementing a taut grille, XT6 is a nice cut of filet mignon next to the Escalade’s Flintstones rack of brontosaurus.
It’s inside where you will really get comfortable. Last-generation Cadillacs intimidated with their maddening button-free, haptic-touch Cadillac User Experience (CUE) infotainment system. My friend Dicran ran screaming from his XTS, never to return until the brand reformed CUE.
The XT6 is reformed. Indeed, it has one of the best systems in luxedom. Drivers choose how to interact with the console screen: by touch, console buttons, voice commands or a remote rotary controller located at the driver’s elbow.
It’s the same system found in the wee Cadillac XT4 introduced last year (enticing Dicran back into the Caddy fold), but better: the rotary knob now toggles like a BMW (long the rotary innovator). The screen is buried in a generous helping of carbon fiber or real wood depending on your trim, with a big side of stitched leather. Simple and elegant — just like outside — it’s Caddy’s best interior yet.
Women will cheer the console basement storage for their purses — a hidden space made possible by the electronic monostable shifter.
Determined to separate the XT6 from the Escalade but still offer the latter’s living space, veteran Caddy engineer John Plonka and his team chose the smaller XT5 platform over the long-wheelbase C1XX platform that the Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia share.
Then they apparently used huge scallop knives to carve out interior space. The second and third row seats are remarkably spacious for 6-foot-5 giraffes like me. And with a lower rear seat floor than Escalade thanks to the unibody, I’m not gnawing on my knees.
On par with the industry’s best, the XT6’s second-row captain chairs (bench seats are standard) can be collapsed with the simple pull of a button. The seats can be adjusted forward-and-back, too. On a cool Washington, D.C., evening, I lounged comfortably under the standard, panoramic moonroof while adjusting my second-row seat heat and climate controls.
But the three-row segment is not a comfortable place for luxury manufacturers these days. While families will welcome the more affordable XT6 positioned under the Escalade, the new ute is squeezed by mainstream makers below.
The Kia Telluride, Ford Explorer and Mazda CX-9 are elegant, three-row SUVs priced $10,000-$20,000 below the XT6 while sporting standard electronic features once exclusive to luxury.
Like the Audi Q7, the XT6 stands out in segment for its bold styling next to curvier BMWs and Merc. With its chiseled edges and rich, vertical LED-taillight piping, the Cadillac deserves a spot in Cranbrook’s sculpture garden.
But mainstreamers are cracking the style code.
At $49,000 the Mazda CX-9 Signature may be the best-looking three-row ute, period. And the Kia Telluride has gone and lifted Cadillac's design cues — LED-infused vertical lights, sculpted face, headlights pushed to the corners. Then Kia really gets cheeky.
With a leather interior right out of Ethan Allen, the all-wheel drive Kia Sport trim options the same standard sunroof and safety-assist systems as my favorite XT6 Sport trim for $20,000 less. Ouch.
What’s more, the Kia also standardizes adaptive cruise-control, a must-have safety-assist feature (just ask Mrs. Payne, who won’t go near a car without adaptive cruise-control and all-wheel drive) for which the Caddy curiously charges extra.
This from a brand that boasts autodom’s best autonomous drive system, Super Cruise. Adaptive cruise-control is the stepping stone to Level 2 autonomy with its ability to gap traffic on tiring highways trips — a welcome buffer for distracted family drivers.
Elsewhere, the XT6 polishes details you expect from luxury models — like a hydrophobic coating that keeps the rear camera free of mud and spotting. Or a single-button-push self-park system that enables the big ute to squeeze itself into tight downtown, parallel spots. Though once again, Ford’s Explorer turns similar tricks. It’s not easy justifying three-row luxe.
What is easy is going fast in the XT6 Sport, my favorite trim.
Echoing its exterior and interior simplicity (there’s a pattern here), Cadillac also makes it easy to shop using its so-called “Y strategy.” Take the fork in the road and you get chromed front-wheel drive Premium Luxury (all-wheel drive is optional) starting at $53,000 or an all-wheel drive black-mascara Sport for $57,000. Add tech packs for adaptive cruise-control and self-park.
The Sport option oozes talent to go with its looks. While the workhorse 310-horsepower V-6 is standard, the Sport gets adaptive dampers and rear twin-clutch pack for handling. Cadillac is keenly aware that — without a rear-drive platform in its lineup like BMW, Audi, Lincoln — it needs to up its athletic game.
With the ability to throw 100% of torque from one rear wheel to the other, the Cadillac rotates nicely through corners. Quick linebackers like the Dodge Durango SRT and Ford Explorer Sport have sold me on the idea of sporty utes. The XT6 is worthy.
When roads turn icy, the twin-clutch feature will continue to reward. Drop a wheel into a snow rut? The XT6 throws torque electronically to the other wheel and pulls the big ute out.
With a nod to its electric-car investments, Cadillac advertises its engine torque with a 400 alphanumeric (roughly the Newton-meter number) on the rear quarters — but you won’t find any battery-hybrids in the XT6 lineup. Cadillac leaves that to Lexus and Lincoln.
For all its fine-art sculpting, the XT6 is an uncomplicated vehicle. Let Escalade do bling. The new three-row is humbly aimed at families who want reliable, roomy transportation.
There's one engine choice. Two trim choices (OK, if you want some bling you can splurge on a Platinum package), one nine-speed transmission, 11 standard features.
Cadillac's brand challenge is whether its original artwork justifies its price tag over the mainstream SUV bargain prints at the frame shop next door.
2020 Cadillac XT6
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, 7- or 8-passenger SUV
Price: Base price $53,690 including $995 destination charge ($65,940 Sport as tested)
Powerplant: 3.6-liter V-6
Power: 310 horsepower, 271 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph (NA); maximum towing, 4,000 pounds
Weight: 4,441 pounds base (4,690 Sport as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA: 17 city/24 highway/20 combined
Highs: Sculpted exterior; user-friendly infotainment
Lows: Lacks standard features of vehicles $20,000 cheaper; gets pricey
Overall: 3 stars
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.