The verdict: Cadillac’s smallest new SUV packs a well-rounded and accommodating vehicle into a tidy package, but the XT4 suffers teething pains in the form of a numb brake pedal and early transmission problems.
Versus the competition: The XT4 fits well in a subcompact class that’s mostly smaller, yet a price that rises quickly with options puts it in league with compact models that are mostly larger.
Caveat: This review is based on my driving a few XT4s, which I detail below, but I’m compelled first to issue a caveat regarding what might charitably be called teething pains for this new model: Consumer reviews of this new Cadillac on Cars.com — which typically are overwhelmingly positive — average a relatively low 3.5 stars, dragged down by low ratings accompanying claims of transmission failures. Eight Cars.com consumers from California to New York called out transmission problems as recently as April 26, including five replacements under warranty and one vehicle buyback.
Cadillac has not recalled the XT4, but it did issue a technical service bulletin (No. 18-NA-378) in December 2018 (and updated February 2019) with the subject “Surge, Chuggle, Fishbite, Shudder Feel During Driving Maneuvers” — a hilarious name, but probably not very funny to an XT4 owner. It details the possibility of a defective stack plate heat exchanger allowing coolant to contaminate the transmission fluid. If signs of contamination are found, both the transmission and the exchanger will be replaced under warranty.
What Is an XT4?
Many Cadillacs are the automotive equivalent of half sizes. The XT5, which competes pricewise with what we consider compact SUVs, is arguably in the mid-size class. Similarly, the XT4 starts (key word starts) at the top of the subcompact price range, at $35,790 including destination charges, but is likewise on the higher end of this class in terms of size and roominess, along with the BMW X1. Contrast that with the super-snug subcompact Infiniti QX30 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, which share a platform and much more (see them all side by side).
The XT4 comes in three trim levels, starting with a low-cost base version called simply Luxury. An additional $4,500 will score either a Premium Luxury or Sport trim level. I tested both versions, which totaled $55,085 and $56,835 as equipped, respectively. Visible differences are few, but you’ll know you’re looking at a Sport if you see a solid gloss-black grille without the chrome facets that appear on other trims. The Sport also has body-colored door handles and gloss-black roof rails and window surrounds, and its taillight lenses are white rather than red. The Premium Luxury has illuminated exterior door handles.
How It Drives
The XT4 has precise steering and just the right amount of road feel. The main mechanical difference between the Premium Luxury and Sport I drove was the Sport-exclusive Active Sport Suspension option ($1,200), which employs adaptive shock absorbers. Both had optional 20-inch wheels in place of the standard 18s. Overall, the Premium Luxury’s standard suspension is firm but reasonably comfortable without losing a feel for the road, and it controls body motions well in turns. Having a longer wheelbase than most models its size surely helps, and the optional 20-inch wheels didn’t seem to hurt — a good thing considering the optional Driver Assist Package, which includes adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, requires the larger wheels. That said, we don’t like seeing important safety features bundled with other items like this — especially things like larger wheels that are more susceptible to damage and, along with their larger tires, more expensive to replace.
The Active Sport Suspension manages to retain a character similar to the standard suspension’s, but it ups ride comfort a bit. Following the current trend, there’s little to no difference in ride firmness when you switch the XT4 into Sport mode so long as you’re driving straight. The value in adaptive suspensions is how they monitor conditions and adjust automatically, such as controlling body roll in turns. Though this system uses more conventional adaptive shocks rather than the magnetic system GM uses in some models, Cadillac says they can change damping 500 times a second. The difference between these two adaptive suspension types is minimal compared with a suspension equipped with neither.
Because of its effect on the drivetrain, you might want to use Sport mode all the time; it holds low gears longer and reduces steering boost. (It isn’t the default mode simply because it’s less efficient.) In models without the adaptive suspension, these are the only changes Sport mode makes. It doesn’t seem to change the accelerator pedal sensitivity — or at least does so minimally — to which I say, hallelujah. My only objection to the drive modes is that one button cycles through them, and the selection isn’t as obvious in the instrument panel or optional head-up display as it could be. An up/down rocker or separate buttons for each mode is a better approach.
The XT4 marks the debut of a new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with variable valve lift and, in limited circumstances, active fuel management (the deactivation of two cylinders). Fortunately, the tech hocus-pocus felt seamless, and the four-cylinder easily went about its job of providing 237 horsepower and a stout 258 pounds-feet of torque from 1,500 to 4,000 rpm. Cadillac says 97 percent of the car’s peak torque is on tap up to 5,000 rpm.
On the road, the XT4 is no speed demon, but it’s more than adequately powered and the experience is as positive as the torque specs suggest. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound so great, especially at high revs. Some people object to artificial augmentation of engine sound through the stereo, but this is yet another turbo four-cylinder that reminds me of that particular parlor trick’s merit.
Should Cadillac decide to build a more powerful V-Sport or full-blown V-Series version of the XT4, the vehicles I tested felt like they could handle it.
Seeing a nine-speed automatic transmission struck terror initially — even before we’d learned of the related technical service bulletin — because I associate that number with a nine-speed transmission supplied by Germany’s ZF that I’ve declared irredeemable when paired with small engines in everything from Jeeps to Land Rovers. But this transmission is GM’s, and unlike some of the problems owners have reported, it behaved fine for us — much better than the ZF, with reasonable responsiveness and minimal hunting. I can’t say it’s a favorite because it isn’t as quick as the eight-speed in the Alfa Romeo Stelvio (our most fun compact), and it freewheels too long between gears when downshifting manually with the paddles, but that isn’t likely to register with casual drivers; I’d take it over any continuously variable automatic transmission, such as that in the compact Infiniti QX50 SUV, and certainly over the ZF nine-speed.
All-Wheel Drive — or Not
Both of my test vehicles had optional all-wheel drive ($2,500), which is designed to decouple completely when Touring drive mode is selected. In that case, the XT4 reverts to front-wheel drive and stays that way even if the wheels slip. Both the AWD and Sport modes activate the system, which employs two additional clutches in the rear differential to send all available torque to one or the other rear wheel when needed. In spirited driving, the XT4 feels more balanced with AWD activated. What’s the cost of keeping it on? Engineers say as much as 1 mpg.
The EPA-estimated ratings are 24/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined for front-wheel-drive-only models and 22/29/24 mpg with all-wheel drive, both on required premium gasoline. This is decent mileage compared with subcompact luxury competitors and good compared with most compacts. Among 2019 front-drive subcompacts, the XT4 matches the BMW X1 sDrive28i (26 mpg combined) and is just behind the Infiniti QX30 and Mercedes-Benz GLA250 (27 mpg), but it falls farther behind the Buick Encore (28 mpg) and the most efficient version of the Volvo XC40: the T4 with FWD (29 mpg).
Most of the larger, compact luxury models are thirstier, but there are exceptions: The 2019 BMW X3 sDrive30i matches the XT4, and the 2019 Infiniti QX50 edges it out with 27 mpg combined.
Those Brakes …
The brakes mark the Cadillac debut of electrohydraulic by-wire power brake assist in place of the usual vacuum assist — a design that’s just beginning to proliferate in the market. Cadillac says this approach cuts down on parasitic losses and has other benefits, including consistency, extended hill holding and stronger pressure for panic-braking assist.
In practice, the braking proved merely OK. I don’t question its ability to stop the XT4 quickly, but the pedal is hard and a bit difficult to modulate smoothly. In my experience, the average driver doesn’t pay much attention to pedal feel, but I think this might be bad enough to land on the average driver’s radar. All our editors commented on it, and the best anyone said was “the pedal feel isn’t great.”
I support the move toward by-wire brakes because of all the potential advantages and because using vacuum in a car is terribly outdated. I think what we’re seeing here is exactly what we experienced with the first couple of generations of electric power steering: a worthy modernization that has the potential not merely to equal but to surpass the old way of doing things — but that isn’t ready for prime time yet.
Cue the New CUE
Fortunately, Cadillac ditched the touch-sensitive panels long associated with earlier generations of Cadillac User Experience and went with a generous selection of conventional, mechanical buttons. There’s also an 8-inch touchscreen that’s pretty well-laid-out, has quality maps, and supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
I’d like the volume knob on the dashboard better than the center console, but at least there is one. It doubles as a track-skip joystick and is accompanied by direct-access buttons for the audio, navigation and phone menus, as well as a rotary knob that lets you move around the display if you don’t want to, uh, touch the touchscreen. Given the display’s relatively low placement and the fact that it’s a touchscreen, these controls simply aren’t necessary. But, they do no harm — and if you’re finicky about fingerprints on your displays, they will mitigate that. In a class with maddening touchpad controllers and no-touch displays from the likes of Acura and Lexus, I can’t overstate what a big deal this simple touchscreen system is.
My main criticism regarding Cadillac’s approach is the touchscreen’s angle: it’s tilted away from occupants rather than facing them directly. It might look neater this way, but it results in too many reflections. I know some people object to a floating display that they say looks like it was added after the fact, so I’m guessing the form-follows-function warriors lost this battle. Some Honda touchscreens are angled back but mitigate the glare with a matte finish; Cadillac ought to look into that. It would cut down on fingerprints, as well.
Leatherette (imitation leather) is standard on the base (Luxury) and Sport trim levels, while real leather is standard on the Premium Luxury and optional on other trims in the Comfort and Convenience Package, which also adds more adjustments to the front passenger seat as well as massage and ventilation features to both front seats. I experienced only these optional seats, which were comfortable, though I wouldn’t mind a little more thigh support from the front seats; a cushion extension would be great.
Outward visibility to the rear isn’t great due to giant D-pillars, but it’s mitigated by the optional Rear Camera Mirror, which is adjustable for height and zoom. The front cupholders aren’t very large, which becomes even more frustrating once you realize the front door pockets don’t have integral bottle holders.
On the flip side, I particularly like the optional 15-watt wireless smartphone charging pad because of its placement and an adjustable bottom rest that allows you to use the phone in place by raising the armrest (when the vehicle’s not in motion, of course). Too many vehicles tuck these pads away. If you’re not wireless, you’ll find a regular USB and USB-C port both front and back, plus 12-volt outlets in the front and the cargo area.
Backseat passengers will find more space than they expect with more legroom not just than subcompact competitors, but more than compact SUVs such as the Acura RDX, Audi Q5 and BMW X3 (see them side by side). Headroom is also better than most subcompacts and even rivals the compacts; it’s a bit tight for tall people alongside the optional giant glass moonroof, and the backrest doesn’t recline. If you’re willing to make that small sacrifice, the moonroof gives the cabin an open feel, and it’s equipped with a powered shade that’s opaque and thick enough to absorb sound effectively.
A roomy backseat often makes for smaller cargo volume behind it, but with the exception of the X1, which has almost 5 cubic feet more space, the XT4 is superior to most subcompacts. With their backseats lowered, the XT4’s maximum volume is 10 cubic feet smaller than the X1’s. In most cases, compact competitors exceed the XT4’s cargo volume.
Rather than projecting a logo on the ground on either side just to show off, the XT4 uses its discreet Cadillac crest to mark where to kick your foot to operate the optional hands-free power liftgate. Neat use of the feature.
Safety and Advanced Features
As of publication, the XT4 had not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. When it is, scores will appear here or here, depending on how IIHS classifies it. In a broader sense, the XT4’s active-safety and convenience features are just barely competitive because of their limited availability across trim levels, plus it’s missing one high-value feature: The base trim level comes with rear parking sensors and a backup camera, but it isn’t eligible for the following features that are available on the Premium Luxury and Sport.
- Front parking sensors (standard)
- Blind spot warning (standard)
- Rear cross-traffic alert (standard)
- Forward and rear automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection (optional)
- Lane departure warning and prevention (optional)
- Rearview camera mirror (optional)
- 360-degree camera system (optional)
- Adaptive cruise control (optional)
- Active parking assist (optional)
One glaring omission is lane-centering steering. The optional Lane Keep Assist corrects the XT4 if it strays out of its lane, but many competitors now keep the vehicle centered in its lane — during highway driving at minimum. Though Cadillac debuted one of the most ambitious such systems, called Super Cruise, on the CT6 sedan, it won’t begin to spread to other GM vehicles until 2020.
Should You Buy the Cadillac XT4?
Even though the early transmission problems don’t inspire confidence, it seems the cause was clear, and there’s a chance this obstacle is in the XT4’s proverbial rearview mirror. If you’re considering one, I’d pay as much attention to the shortcomings that aren’t going to change, such as the brake pedal feel or anything else above that conflicted with your preferences. Otherwise, I found the XT4 to be a well-rounded and appealing choice with the potential to sell well.
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