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New Cadillac XTS is a Tech Victory But a Lost Opportunity

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Cadillac has been advertising itself as "Standard of the World." But while sales of luxury brands like BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus have been climbing this year, sales of Cadillacs have been trending downward, off 24 percent.

So, just who is believing the ad slogan? The company hopes that two new models this year, the XTS and ATS sedans, will boost sales and, more important, its reputation to impress a new batch of Caddy buyers. It will not be easy.

This is a big deal. While GM pitches Buick these days as "luxury," Cadillac is the only true luxury business the automaker has going forward in its recovery. Given that the rich, luxury car-buying Wall Street 1-percenters are the chief judges of how well GM's recovery is going as they decide how much the stock is worth, having a truly viable luxury brand they respect is important.

To be fair in judging the recent sales performance, Cadillac has been in a drought of new models. The last all-new model the company brought out was the SRX crossover when it debuted in 2009 as a 2010 model.

So before we get into whether the first of these new models, the XTS, offers much redemption, let's pick apart Cadillac's sales problem. Last year, Cadillac discontinued its STS and DTS sedans, accounting for about 1,000 sales a month. And it isn't until next month that dealers will be selling the replacement for those sedans, the XTS. But age is the enemy of car sales. And the CTS and SRX are the oldest models in their categories. "I never want to go through something like this again where we go so long without new product," says Cadillac brand chief Don Butler.

How does the XTS, which I recently drove around Los Angeles, help Cadillac's cause?

Driving the new XTS around the city and the canyons that surround L.A., where you'll pass more discarded mattresses on Rte. 405 than running Cadillacs, you get the full picture of how difficult it's going to be for Caddy to convince owners of Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Lexus sedans to even test drive this new car.

It is a handsome car to be sure. Sleek and well-tailored, with sharp creases defining the sides, hood and trunk. The car does, indeed, dress out nicely at curbside. I found myself liking the bright red color of my sedan, even though it is not a common color for luxury cars. The Cadillacs of the last decade -- the CTS, CTS Coupe, CTS Wagon and SRX -- have been sharply styled according to a futuristic "Art and Science" theme General Motors established to modernize the brand's look. This new XTS, and the forthcoming ATS, are less moon-shot and more Saville Row.

The XTS, mechanically speaking, is built on a long-wheelbase variant of GM's Epsilon II platform, shared with the Buick Lacrosse and the upcoming 2014 Chevy Impala. This is no knock on the Caddy, as this is a terrific engineering platform to build any car on. And Audi certainly shares platforms and parts with its Volkswagen sibling.

I want to give the XTS the fairest shake I can. But I feel my first impression is telling. I honestly don't think that I would choose it, weighing it against the world-class sedans it's competing against: Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E Class, Lexus GS or even the Infiniti M45.

The instrument cluster will be seen as cool to some, and seen as "WTH" (what the hell?) to others. It's a digital flat-screen display that will shows most of the controls and gauges available, including an analog speedometer and even the album-cover art of the song the driver is playing from the Pandora music app. Lest the old DTS/STS owners have an anxiety attack over the choices, Cadillac wisely offers one no-frills, traditional-looking instrument cluster that a salesman can pretty much lock in for the luddite buyer.

In the all-new 2013 XTS, Cadillac has created not so much a 21st century world- class luxury sedan, but rather the best Cadillac big sedan in a generation. It is as if the company studied and benchmarked its own vehicles rather than the competition's.

Let's start out with the hardware: The XTS is powered by a 3.6-liter V6 engine cranking out 304 horsepower. There is no V8. In truth, no one needs more engine or horsepower than this, though some old-school Caddy buyers may well wail for a bigger, growlier V8. They're out of luck. Better to try the Germans, or get a pickup truck or SUV while they're still powered by V8s.

You know what else you old-school Caddy folks aren't getting? Knobs. There is no tuning of the radio volume or tuning, changing the climate control or anything else with knobs. Cadillac is putting its touch-screen controls in all of its cars. Want to increase the volume on the radio? You will have to slide the digital controller with your finger across the screen as you would on an iPhone screen. You can also do this from the steering wheel, as is the case with many cars. I know a lot of 60- and 70-something Cadillac owners who are going to hold onto their old cars rather than buy a new Cadillac for that reason alone.

General Motors, though, is prepared to lose those sales in exchange for younger, more with-it customers. Or even tech-savvy 60-somethings. Want to play a CD? You're going to have to reach over and put it in the slot in the glove box. Because most people are playing music via MP3 device, Caddy took the space in the dash usually reserved for the CD player and gave drivers a cubby hole stashed behind the controls that reveals itself when you rest your hand on the sliver bar at the bottom of the CUE system. It reminded me a bit of a motion sensing paper-towel dispenser.

The good news is that Cadillac's Cue system, which allows hands-free and voice controlled phone calling, navigation and music selection, worked just like it's supposed to for me. It's as easy a system as I've tested. But you will need to spend an hour or so in your driveway to sort it out, and then allow yourself, I would guess, a few weeks to get used to it.

Another tech advancement worth noting is the lane departure warning system. Drift out of your lane onto the lines on the road and your seat vibrates. I like the idea, but thought it was too sensitive, and I got weary of the vibrations and turned the system off.

Minuses? There is a lack of driving confidence in the car that you would find with, say, an Audi A6. The suspension, cornering, etc. just doesn't quite measure up. It would also help matters if Cadillac could mount a consistent marketing idea around its brand and cars. Cadillac should be a heroic brand in the U.S., as the last true American luxury car. Just asserting "Standard of the World," is not getting me there in my head. As lovely as the interior is, there's a padded cushion on either side of the center console so the driver's and passenger's legs are not resting on a hard surface. A good idea, but the piece looks like a stuck on after-thought, and doesn't integrate with the rest of the space. The Germans would never do this.

Pluses? The exterior styling, interior room (especially in the rear seating area), trunk space and the beautifully appointed wood, leather and metal surfaces in the cockpit. The days of cutting corners by larding up a Caddy console or dash with cheap plastic and faux wood are thankfully over.

The ride of the new XTS is firm and controlled -- not the sofa-like feel of the old DTS, STS, Devilles and Fleetwoods. That's in part due to technology called Magnetic Ride Control, which works electronically to keep the car level in the rear no matter what kind of turning the driver is doing. Standard models are fitted with 19-inch wheels (wearing 245/45R19 all-season tires), but the range-topping model is equipped with 20-inch alloy wheels. While it is steady, it is also bloodless.

The standard model, which is impressively well-equipped in our book, is just called the XTS (base price $44,995). Moving up is the Luxury Collection ($49,610) followed by the Premium Collection ($54,505). At the top of the podium is the Platinum Collection ($59,080), while a mandatory destination fee will add $920 to all prices. Major options include all-wheel drive ($2,225), the UltraView sunroof ($1,450), Driver Awareness Package ($890) and an upgraded audio package for lower trim levels with navigation ($795). Our test vehicle, priced at about $59,100 (including destination), was a Premium trim fitted with all-wheel drive and the expansive panoramic glass roof.

The bottom line is that while the XTS is pleasing, it doesn't please me to the point where I would choose it over the prevailing competition. I have higher hopes for the ATS sedan arriving in the fall, which will square off against the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Mercedes C Class and Lexus ES. Priced lower than $40K, the ATS will offer a price advantage over the German rivals. Let's hope the Wall Streeters cotton to the lower-priced Caddy more than the XTS, which is priced more closely to what those folks are shopping.

The XTS seems like a lost opportunity to impress -- especially those who doubted GM was worth bailing out three years ago.

Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.