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First drive: 2019 Cadillac XT4 [Video review]

Cadillac is hoping for big sales from its small SUV.

The entire SUV segment is on fire, but the small utility segment is white hot. Sales growth for small SUVs has absolutely exploded over the last few years, particularly in the premium segment. Keenly aware of that market trend, Cadillac is looking to strike while the iron is hot with its all-new XT4 small SUV.

What is it?

The XT4 is an all-new kind of vehicle for Cadillac -- it's a small SUV that slots beneath the company's current XT5. In true Cadillac fashion, the XT4 is slightly bigger than its main rivals, but it generally competes against small luxury utilities like the Audi Q3, Lexus NX, BMW X1, Mercedes-Benz GLA and the Volvo XC40.

The XT4 rides on an all-new platform that was optimized for a small SUV, which means it can actually fit normal-sized adults in its second row. With 22.3 cubic feet behind its second-row and 48.9 cubic feet with the second row folded, cargo room in the XT4 is good but not class leading. The XT4 also has a high load floor, which can make loading heavier items a bit tricky.

The XT4 uses Cadillac's all-new 2.0 turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The new unit is 15 pounds lighter than Cadillac's previous turbo-four, and also boasts a number of new features like a variable pressure oil pump, electronic cooling pump, "tripower” valvetrain, cylinder deactivation and an electric pump for the hydraulic brake system. The result is 237 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, the latter coming in at low 1,500rpm. A nine-speed auto is the only transmission on offer.

The XT4 comes standard with front-wheel drive, but a twin-clutch all-wheel drive system is available as an optional upgrade. Initiated via the 'Mode' button in the XT4's center console, the AWD system can divvy power to each individual rear wheel based on available traction, which should make the XT4 surefooted in slippery conditions. But the system is also useful on dry roads thanks to true torque vectoring that can send more power to the vehicle's outside rear wheel to improve handling.

All XT4 models come equipped with a standard spring suspension, but an active damper system is available. In normal mode the active damper system reads the road 500 times every second to provide the smoothest ride possible. The system also has a sport function that can stiffen the dampers for a firmer ride with less body roll.

Front-wheel drive versions of the XT4 are rated at 24mpg in the city and 30mpg on the highway; AWD versions are rated at 22mpg city and 29mpg highway.

Design

The front end of the XT4 is essentially a scaled-down version of the larger XT5. The most prominent feature of the XT4 is LED daytime running lights that run atop the headlights and then dart down toward the bumper. The XT4 wears a large grille that is tastefully devoid of copious amounts of chrome. A power-dome hood gives the XT4 a dash of muscle.

In profile the XT4 is more upright and SUV-looking than a typical crossover. The XT4 does have a sloping roof and raked rear tailgate, but it's not trying to be a trendy coupe SUV.

The rear of the XT4 uses tall, vertical taillights similar to the units found on the full-size Escalade. To our eyes, they look much better than the smaller lights fitted to the rear of the XT5. An integrated ducktail spoiler and dual exhaust outlets help with the XT4's sporty demeanor.

Inside the XT4 has the same general design of the XT5. That's a bit of a disappointment given the XT4's expressive exterior design and youthful target audience.

But the XT4's XT5-derived interior layout means it's at least ergonomically designed. The XT4's infotainment screen, although on the small side, is an easy arm's reach. There's also a physical home button for the infotainment screen, which makes it easy to get your virtual bearings. HVAC controls are as easy to use as they are stylish, thanks to their toggle switch setup. We also like having physical buttons for the XT4's heated and cooled seats.

A new feature used in the XT4 is a rotary knob to control the CUE infotainment system. The knob itself is a quality item with metal construction and a weighty feel to it. However, it lacks a top-mounted touchpad like similar systems on the market, and in general we found it easier to navigate CUE via the touchscreen display. The knob is useful for quickly zooming in on a map, though.

The gauge cluster in the XT4 is a mix of LCD and analog gauges. The analog dials are simple and easy to read, but seem a little low-tech for a vehicle like the XT4; an all-LCD setup for top-spec models would be more fitting.

The materials used in the XT4's interior look better than they feel. Although pretty much everything in the XT4's interior looks leather-wrapped, it's actually all vinyl -- and it feels like it. Even the leather seats feel a bit plastic-y. That's not all that offensive given the XT4's base price of about $38,000, but fully loaded models can top a wallet-shattering $56,000.

Although leather-wrapped everything isn't included in the XT4's price, a lot of nice features are. You can load the XT4 up with things like a video rear-view mirror, color head-up display, massaging front seats and a trick 360 degree camera that can give you a drone-like view of the SUV's surroundings. Unfortunately, the XT4 lacks Cadillac's excellent SuperCruise autonomous driving system, but it does come with adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist.

Drive time

Slip behind the wheel and you'll notice that the XT4 has a higher seating position than most small crossovers. The view out the front is excellent thanks to an expansive windshield, thin A-pillars and side mirrors mounted on the doors that allow for small vent windows just in front of the side windows. However, the beltline of the XT4 is high, so you can still feel claustrophobic despite the high seating position.

The view out of the rear of the XT4 isn't as clear. Thick C-pillars create large blind spots and rearward visibility is compromised by a small back window. Those obstacles are at least somewhat mitigated by the XT4's blind spot monitoring system and camera-fed rear-view mirror.

Ride and comfort are strong points for the XT4. Despite its small stature, the XT4 feels planted and composed on the road. The XT4's standard suspension system does a good job of absorbing bumps without feeling floaty. The optional adaptive damper system provides an even more compliant ride.

Noise isolation is good, but not quite up to flagship luxury standards (the XT4 is an entry-level model after all). Engine and wind noise are kept at bay, but some road noise can penetrate the XT4's cabin, though not enough to be a nuisance.

Cadillac's new 2.0L engine is a nice pairing for the XT4's athletic driving dynamics. The twin-scroll turbocharger spools up quickly and provides nice low-down grunt for everyday driving. The 2.0L also has good top end punch, making it a breeze to overtake slower traffic on a two-lane road.

Throttle response is good and the XT4's nine-speed auto behaved much better than we were expecting. The nine-speed shifts smoothly and a quickly through the gears and, despite having so many cogs to choose from, is quick to select a lower gear when you stab the gas.

Braking, however, is a different story. The XT4's electro-hydraulic braking system is intended to deliver better braking performance, but we found it to be artificial-feeling and difficult to use smoothly. Over time you'd probably get used to the pedal feel, but you should be aware there is a learning curve.

Prices for the 2019 Cadillac XT4 start at $38,290 (including destination) for an entry-level Luxury model. Two step-up models are available -- Premium Luxury and Sport. Both models carry an identical MSRP of $42,790. Load on the options and it's possible to get an XT4 north of $56,000.

Leftlane's bottom line

With the XT4, Cadillac is going after the heart of the booming SUV market. And with a long list of available features, expressive exterior design, usable backseat and excellent drivetrain, the XT4 should do well.

However, the XT4 isn't without faults. The XT4's interior is fine, but we wish it was better -- both in terms of design and materials. And although you do get a larger vehicle for the money, the XT4 is priced at the top of the segment. But overall the XT4 is a compelling package that's hitting the market at just the right time.

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