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2013 Cadillac XTS sedan falls short of its flagship status

Cadillac's all-new flagship sedan, the XTS, is apparently a little confused about the difference between intern and interim. You and I both know that someone in an interim role will temporarily yet capably fill a vacant position. Meanwhile, interns sometimes stumble through tasks that might seem straightforward.

The 2013 XTS is an interim at the top of Cadillac's sedan lineup. What came out was closer to an intern.

General Motors' luxury marque has been without a flagship sedan since 2011, when the DTS and STS sedans reached the end of their life cycles. A long-rumored competitor against the likes of Mercedes-Benz' S-Class and BMW's 7 Series isn't due until 2015. Such a car would be a large, rear-wheel-drive chariot with exquisite design and construction that aspirants might hope to own when one's career and or bank account peak.

PHOTOS: The 2013 Cadillac XTS

Creating one from scratch is a frighteningly expensive and slow endeavor for any automaker, so Cadillac needed a stopgap to fill the void for a few years and sit above its aging CTS and the smaller, almost-available ATS.

The XTS, which starts at $44,995, is that stopgap. But because it's little more than a very handsome Buick (sharing many components with the LaCrosse), into which GM then stuffed a pile of baubles and headaches, this Cadillac just isn't up to the task of carrying the mantle of this storied nameplate.

Take the driving experience, for example. Initially the XTS comes across as underpowered, though the 304 horsepower and 264 pound-feet of torque it wrings out of a direct-injected V-6 (the only engine available) are similar figures to other luxury cars of its ilk. Only after a bit of driving do you realize it's the six-speed automatic transmission that's getting in the way of this otherwise smooth and competent engine.

The gap between when you push on the gas and get any meaningful downshift and acceleration is immense. Using the paddle shifters might seem like a good way to circumvent this, but they work only if you've already put the transmission into manual mode. Almost every other car in memory with paddle shifters will let you use them for a quick upshift or downshift, regardless of what mode the transmission is in.

Handling is no better. In base form, the XTS is front-wheel drive, though the loaded XTS Platinum I tested had all-wheel drive as a $2,225 option. But you wouldn't know it by the way this Cadillac takes curves, plowing through them like a three-legged draft horse. I didn't test a front-wheel-drive model for comparison, true, but the way the AWD model pushes hard with understeer was unsettling.

Things are better in straight-line cruising. The XTS shuttles its charges in appropriate comfort and silence during freeway jaunts and around town errands. The ride quality is nicely regulated by an advanced suspension system called Magnetic Ride Control. Borrowed from Corvettes and Cadillac's V-series cars, the system reads road conditions by the millisecond, and adapts accordingly.

The only trouble was the massive 20-inch rims and tires on my XTS Platinum added back a minute layer of harshness the suspension was working so hard to omit.

The interior is well isolated from the noises of the world outside and is a pleasant place to spend some time. Space is plentiful throughout, particularly in the back seat where this Cadillac far outpaces competitors. I'm 6-foot-2 and could cross my legs in the back seat, even if I were sitting behind someone equally as tall. The perforated leather was butter-smooth; the cabin's construction felt solid; the trunk could hold the entire cast of "Downton Abbey."

Cadillac got this stuff right. But left plenty of room for headaches.

Like Lincoln, Cadillac decided to do away with traditional buttons to control rote tasks like the climate control and stereo volume. Instead, the XTS now relies on a touch-sensitive, back-lit panel. And like Lincoln, any appreciation for its sleek design and futuristic minimalism is immediately wiped away the first time you try to use it.

Despite haptic feedback (a slight vibration each time you touch it), the system registers perhaps a quarter of your actual touches. Want to turn down the volume quickly? Try stabbing at a flat panel for 30 seconds. Worse, this panel is decorated with silver trim that looks exactly like buttons. Sweet, glorious buttons that would do what you want them to do on the first command. Alas.

Above this ineffectual portion of the dashboard, things get better. It's there that an 8-inch screen sits, the centerpiece of a system Cadillac calls CUE (Cadillac User Experience). It's a touch screen (also with haptic feedback) that integrates the navigation, stereo, climate and Pandora streaming radio systems. It's designed to be more user-friendly than other comprehensive systems, and enables users to interact with the screen as they would a tablet like Apple's iPad.

Unlike the panel below it, the CUE system responds to inputs well, though a modicum of patience and a deliberate touch is needed. One particularly neat trick is how the screen senses you reaching for it, and will display a mini menu of commands at the top only when your hand is close.

Cadillac took all this content, and then stuffed it into a rather handsome exterior shell. The hood and front overhangs don't have the elongated, romantic proportions of rear-wheel-drive cars, but given what Cadillac had to work with, this is a very bold and dramatic package. The front is dominated by a wide and proud chrome grille and headlights that sweep back onto the front quarter panels. The taillights pay homage to the fins of yesteryear by protruding from the surrounding metal of the very short trunk lid.

Yet the bearers of such baroque styling cues many decades ago were indeed flagships for Cadillac. A standard that today's XTS falls short of. It's a good-looking, overly ambitious and often ineffectual entity.

An intern indeed.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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