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This article is from The Car Connection

A steel grey wall reaches up to the sky, moving so fast the snow squall takes us nearly by surprise. Such is life in Michigan’s Northern Peninsula at this time of year.

It’s not a place many would think of visiting this time of year, but this isn’t a vacation. We’ve come to the old Kinross Strategic Air Command base to check firsthand the claims being made for Cadillac’s new SRX.

Due out this coming summer, it’s Caddy’s first entry into that hard-to-define yet fast-expanding category known as the crossover vehicle. Under the skin, the SRX has a lot in common with the popular new CTS sedan. But the crossover is taller and roomier, with SUV-like “command” seating, and a small but functional third-row power-fold seat option. And while CTS is offered only in rear-wheel-drive, the ute-like SRX will provide buyers a choice of both RWD and all-wheel drive.

Cadillac has combined the AWD package with a sophisticated version of stability control, dubbed StabiliTrak, along with an assortment of other traction-enhancing features. General Motors’ flagship division is so confident about the combination it offered TheCarConnection an opportunity to drive a pair of prototypes on its winter test track in Kinross – and to compare the SRX against the performance of a variety of competitors.

Dry or wet performer

TCC had already seen the SRX do its stuff on dry pavement. Dubbed the Sigma “architecture,” the platform the crossover shares with the CTS is a world-class performer. In terms of its road manners, the CTS may be the first Cadillac in decades to play in the same league as its European competition. And this chassis provides a solid starting point for the SRX as well.

Despite the higher seating position, you never get that tipsy feeling you find when pushing most SUVs and crossovers to their limits. Like its sedan sibling, the SRX has a solid grip on dry pavement. It corners nimbly and there’s a minimum of head toss, even on the roughest pavement. A variety of factors come into play. There’s the 116.4-inch wheelbase, the longest in the crossover class. You sit about five inches higher in the SRX than the CTS sedan, but that’s still a good deal lower than the big Caddy Escalade SUV, and allows for a relatively low center of gravity. Meanwhile, under normal conditions, the SRX torque split is roughly 50/50, front to rear.

But much of the credit also goes to the crossover’s magneto-rheological ride control.

That mouthful of a word refers to a type of fluid that contains microscopic-sized metal particles. Normally, it flows like water. But put the fluid in a magnetic field and it can become as stiff as molasses in winter. StabiliTrak has a slick way of putting this to work. It measures road conditions about 1000 times a second, using the results to control electromagnets in each of the SRX’s four shock absorbers. Since they contain magneto-rheologic fluid, the system can instantaneously alter the way the suspension responds, quickly smoothing out the ride while also maximizing tire grip.

Combined with anti-lock brakes with electronic force distribution, conventional traction control technology, and a computer-controlled transmission that can delay shifts in a corner, the package also enhances the way the vehicle handles in wet and icy road conditions.

We’d have been a bit skeptical had the SRX delivered a slam-dunk against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, the BMW X5, the Lexus RX300 and the new Volvo XC90. But a day’s driving in ice and snow made it clear that at least when winter delivers its worst, the SRX is bucking for head of the class.

Icy props

The Kinross track is a torturous blend of snow and glaze ice fields, a tight circle of snow and ice, and a twisty route designed to resemble a snowed-in subdivision. Forget climbing boulder-strewn mountains. These are the sort of circumstances SUVs and crossovers are most likely to be driven in during the winter months. And they quickly reveal a vehicle’s weaknesses.

The Germans, for example, tend to believe in strict intervention. When your wheels start losing grip, the systems on the ML320 and X5 automatically start working the brakes and backing off on the throttle – not always to best advantage, as vehicles can grind nearly to a halt. The Lexus system also is quite intrusive, a situation made all the worse by a nagging buzzer warning that the electronic traction system is engaged. After a few minutes, you might be tempted to pull over and wait the storm out – or rip out the buzzer with your bare hands.

The XC90, the newest of the competitive batch, may also be the most sophisticated. A series of braps and whirs and buzzes reveal when its various mechanical and electronic controls are working to maintain stability. Even so, it reveals an unpleasant tendency to slip sideways whenever it approaches the ragged edge of road grip.

Now, a skeptic might content that the circuit was laid out by GM, and would be more likely to let the new crossover shine. Caveats aside, there was no question, no matter how we pushed the SRX to its limits, just how well-mannered the new Cadillac is.

Even on glaze ice, it proved uncannily predictable, not prone to sudden, unpleasant surprises. Should it start to slip on glaze ice, it was reasonably easy to bring back under control. To see just how subtly effective the system is, we repeated our route with the StabiliTrak system switched off. In that mode, we spent most of the loop around Kinross struggling to keep the SRX’s nose pointed straight.

Where the philosophy at Mercedes and BMW might best be described as driving intervention, Caddy’s approach is to provide a driving aid. You have the sense that when the road gets slippery, the car’s electronics start to get busy, but they assist, rather than overwhelm.

We did experience a problem during our drive with a balky control module in one SRX that would suddenly shut off the stability enhancement system. We’ll cautiously ignore that as a prototype problem that should be cured before production begins this spring. But there’s no question Cadillac will need to ensure SRX delivers bulletproof quality and reliability. If it doesn’t, it will never stand up in the increasingly crowded field of luxury SUVs and crossovers.

Packaging and design

Good winter driving manners aren’t going to be enough to win a share of this market, of course. But the SRX has, in general, a lot going for it. The third-row seat will certainly be a plus, though it’s really best suited for kids. Overall, the crossover has plenty of usable cargo space, a definite weakness with some of its competitors, such as the X5.

Cadillac has finally woken up to the idea that interior design and refinement can be a real differentiator. That’s a problem with the CTS, which uses materials that aren’t quite up to competitive snuff. The look and feel of leather and wood steering wheel suggests the carmaker has had time to work on the new crossover, and it is a good bit better, but the plastic look of the center console still needs improvement.

The exterior is likely to be a bit controversial, as with the CTS. Both cars boast Cadillac’s edgy “Art & Science” design theme, though the automaker has toned down the look, at least when compared with the 2001 Vizon concept vehicle. The SRX sits a little lower and longer than a conventional SUV, more like a tall wagon. But either way, if you like the looks of the CTS, it’s probably going to be appealing.

At 4430 pounds, the SRX isn’t light. But its 4.6-liter V-8 is one of the most powerful in the segment, pumping out a solid 315 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. So, unlike some competitors, it will boast real towing capabilities. Or, if you’re simply looking to burn some rubber, Caddy expects a 0-60 time of 6.9 seconds, second in class only to the 4.6-liter version of the BMW X5. The engine is mated to a five-speed automatic featuring quick and crisp shifts, especially in manual mode.

We’re looking forward to getting the SRX out for some longer seat time. But from our initial experience, we’re certainly impressed. It has the best features of a truck, like all-wheel-drive and command seating, but without the bloat of the big Escalade. The new crossover proves unexpectedly nimble, more in line with the CTS. And the combination could prove quite appealing once SRX hits the road.

2004 Cadillac SRX
Base price:$32,500 (est.)
Engine: 4.6-liter, 315-hp (as tested); V-6 also available
Drivetrain: Five-speed electronically controlled automatic with manual mode; AWD (as tested) or RWD
Wheelbase: 116.4 in
Curb weight: 4430 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 17/20 mpg city/highway (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, Stabilitrak stability control system, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Digital climate control system, power windows, doors, locks, AM/FM/CD player
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
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