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First drive: 2020 Cadillac XT6 [Review]

Cadillac throws its hat in the large three-row ring.

No segment has been spared by the explosion of the three-row market over the course of the past decade. From the volume brands to the luxury tiers, every manufacturer has been scrambling to occupy territory in one of the most profitable niches in the automotive space.

Cadillac hasn't really had a three-row problem per se. The Escalade has stood proudly atop the luxury brand's SUV lineup for two full decades, and has in many ways been a halo model for General Motors as a company, perhaps not in terms of performance, but certainly when it comes to profile (not to mention profitability).

Still, Escalade is a bit of an elephant in the room for XT6. After all, if you need a family truckster and you're looking to drop Cadillac money, why not go for the big daddy? The short-wheelbase Escalade is only about six inches longer and taller than the XT6 (and only half that much wider).

To be fair, half a foot may be the difference between fitting into an urban garage and not, and as Cadillac continues to seek conquest purchases from European and Asian luxury brands, buyers without triple-digit acreage and cowboy boots are exactly what GM needs.

Price-wise, the XT6 slots well beneath the flagship Escalade with an all-in starting price just under $54,000 (a full Chevrolet Cruze short of the big truck's $72,000- price tag). Loaded up, you'll see some overlap (one of our test models listed for only a couple grand shy of the Escalade's starting price), but there's no ignoring that MSRP gap.

So, if you want something smaller and/or cheaper than the Escalade, the XT6 seems to fit the bill.

Nits and grits

If you'll recall, the Cadillac XT6's debut earlier this year was less than auspicious. Its Detroit introduction came on the heels of cross-town rival Lincoln's new Aviator unveiling in Los Angeles late in 2018. On its own, XT6 looks distinguished--even handsome. Compared to the Lincoln, unfortunately, it comes off just a bit... well... GM.

What does that mean? Well, take a look. XT6 is not uninteresting, but it embodies the conservative approach we've come to expect from modern General Motors. It's one thing to be understated and buttoned-up, but we can't help but think of the finned extravagance that was once the company's signature and wish for a little more flamboyance. Flash can be fancy too--confidence, sexy.

We like the XT6 best in its Sport variant. The blacked-out grille and carbon fiber interior trim make for the most attractive exterior and interior combo in the lineup. The only downside is that Sport doesn't come with the Premium Luxury model's sexy satin-finish wheels.

It's worth the trade-off, though, for the interior alone. We mentioned before that our Premium Luxury test model rang the till north of seventy grand. That model featured the Platinum package, which includes semi-aniline leather seating in all three rows, a microfiber headliner, and a generous smattering of leather trim (instrument panel, doors and console).

Since it was based on a Premium Luxury rather than a Sport model, it had wood trim rather than carbon fiber. We weren't blown away by the quality of the wood, to put it plainly, which made the Sport even more attractive.

The first row of the XT6 is quite nice. The seats are comfortable and they--along with the power-adjustable steering column--provide ample opportunity for fine-tuning. Wireless device charging is also standard, and the cradle sits forward of the center console storage area for quick and easy access.

Sliding into the second row, we liked the position and comfort of the captain's chairs (optional depending on trim) and the full-featured control console. Second-row passengers get their own HVAC controls (which is pretty standard for family crossovers) and charge points. The console also has a slide-out drawer with cup holders.

Cadillac's interior designers went to great lengths to give these features a premium feel, and the heft of the drawer conveys this even if the surface materials seem somewhat pedestrian. The second-row seats can be folded down remotely, but can only be re-deployed manually.

The rear-most seats can fit six-footers, but you probably don't want to put them there for an extended road trip (especially if you opt for the second-row bench, which will deprive your rear-most passengers of space to stretch out). Power-folding third-row seats are standard, and both sides have USB-A and USB-C charge points.

Nuts and bolts

There's extra incentive to spring for the Sport if you're interested at all in the driving experience. Unlike some automakers, Cadillac is making Sport an upmarket alternative to the base model, and it's more than just an appearance package. It's $5,000 more dear than the base model, too, so it's not just an excuse to include less content for the sake of an advertising-friendly MSRP.

At the core of the Sport model is a re-tuned chassis with "Sport Control" all-wheel-drive and an active suspension. It also gets a faster steering ratio and unique engine and transmission control system mapping with a focus on performance. No, it doesn't get a bigger engine, but it's absolutely the model you want if you care about dynamics.

We'll dive a bit more into the specifics of the all-wheel-drive system momentarily, but first let's touch on what all XT6 models have in common. The only available engine is a naturally aspirated 3.6L V6 making 310 horsepower and 271 lb-ft of torque and this is paired to a nine-speed automatic transmission.

Front-wheel-drive is standard for base and Premium Luxury models, but if you opt for all-wheel-drive, the space rear of the transaxle is where things get more interesting. Cadillac offers two different all-wheel-drive systems in the XT6. Both are part-time units (meaning they need to be selected via the drive mode button; they will not activate automatically) but are geared for different driving styles.

The basic system is a single-clutch unit, and this is the optional upgrade for Premium Luxury. The "Sport Control" unit we mentioned previously is the performance-oriented offering. This twin-clutch unit allows for splitting torque both front-to-rear and left-to-right over the rear axle.

While the dual-clutch upgrade can do a reasonable imitation of Acura's fancier Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive system, neither is a true match for a rear-wheel-drive-based system like the Aviator's. Ford's luxury subsidiary also benefits from a much higher available power ceiling as the industry's front-wheel-drive transmissions simply aren't robust enough to handle the sort of torque being produced by larger, turbocharged sixes.

Yes, we're talking about Lincoln having a potential performance advantage over Cadillac. Welcome to 2019. Things done changed.

The real world

Cadillac invited us to historic Georgetown in Washington, DC, to get a taste of the XT6. While Northwest Washington's M Street corridor is about the last place you'd want to go to evaluate the real-world performance of a three-row crossover, we did note that it was far easier to maneuver the XT6 than the larger Escalade on the tight side streets.

Our route took us out of town and into northern Virginia. While we spent the drive closely monitoring our speed, we did get to flex the XT6's muscles a bit. We spent half the day in a Premium Luxury model and the other half in a Sport.

All-wheel-drive models tip the scales in the 4,600-pound range, which is a lot of metal for a 310-horsepower V6 to tug around. This is pretty much the norm for front-drivers, as we mentioned above, but in the luxury segment, where powertrains aren't as ubiquitously mainstream, things get a bit murkier.

The XT6 scoots around well enough, with enough power in reserve for highway overtaking or a quick merge, but it's not truly quick. There's a distinct difference between the Premium Luxury and Sport models both in terms of reflexes and powertrain responsiveness. We won't go as far as to say the Sport is truly fun to drive, but it's the one we'd pick without any hesitation.

While the Sport's suspension and all-wheel-drive tuning shine on twistier roads, this is a three-row crossover. Where it really makes a difference is in narrow highway passing windows and short merge lanes. Where the Premium Luxury model takes its sweet time to respond to throttle inputs and requests for gear changes, the Sport responds with a comforting immediacy that better suits high-traffic environments.

The bigger picture

We talked about elephants before, but a different type of animal best suits the next discussion. GM being GM, there are three other ways to skin this particular cat. Chevrolet offers the Traverse. GMC has Acadia. Buick can sell you an Enclave. To the company's credit, only the Chevy and GMC really look like siblings.

We hesitate to say that GM offers four variants of the same car, but that's nearer to the truth than its engineers would like to admit. We're admitted fans of Buick's flagship Enclave (as are buyers, since it's the second-best selling Buick despite being the most-expensive), and Enclave was on our mind more than once during our time with the XT6.

Twin-clutch all-wheel-drive? A power-folding third row? Wireless charging? Adaptive suspension? All of these are available in an Enclave Avenir, which starts to price out just where the Cadillac checks in. Like the Caddy, Enclave is also visually distinct from its platform siblings. If you're wondering at this point what makes the Cadillac XT6 stand out, well, you're not alone.

MG's bottom line

The 2020 Cadillac XT6 is a fine family vehicle and all-around package, even if it lacks stand-out features and styling elements. The Cadillac of GM crossovers rides high in the lineup, but we're not sure it stands proud of other offerings in the segment.

2020 Cadillac XT6 Premium Luxury base price, $54,695; as tested, $70,290

Platinum package, $4,900; Enhanced Visibility and Technology package, $2,350; Night Vision Driver Assistance package, $2,000; Driver Assistance package, $1,300; CUE, $1,000; Second-row captain's chairs, $800; Premium headlamps, $800; Comfort and air quality package, $750; Dark Mocha Metallic paint, $625; Cargo cover, $75; Destination, $995

2020 Cadillac XT6 Sport base price, $57,095; as tested, $64,340

Enhanced Visibility and Technology package, $2,350; CUE, $1,000; Second-row captain's chairs, $800; Comfort and air quality package, $750; Smart towing, $650; Dark Mocha Metallic paint, $625; Cargo cover, $75; Destination, $995

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