Cadillac's new SUV is tuned to European tastes

He was sceptical. He isn't a rap star, and who else, he thought, would want one of these? But after a few minutes' driving Cadillac's European SUV, John Simister became a believer

Price: £39,850 (range starts at £29,850)
Engine: 4,565cc, V8 cylinders, 32 valves, 325bhp at 6,500rpm, 315lb ft at 4,400rpm
Transmission: five-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 139mph, 0 to 60mph in 7.2 seconds, 20.2mpg official average
CO2: 331g/km

Have you seen any of the current Cadillac range on the road here yet? No? That's because there's only one model available which is any good and available in right-hand drive. That is the CTS - it means Compact Touring Sedan - which would compete with a BMW 4-series or an Audi A5 if such cars existed.

This, though, is going to change, and as that change happens Cadillacs will become easier to buy as more sales outlets open. They're in only a handful of major conurbations, albeit with collection and delivery facilities for servicing if you happen not to live nearby.

The major change will be the BLS (B-series Luxury Sedan), a saloon compact in European terms (and American ones) that will be built at Saab's Swedish factory on the underpinnings of a Saab 9-3. It will look like a baby CTS but won't be sold in the US. It's that odd concept, a Cadillac for Europe. We drive it in March.

Meanwhile, though, there's also the car you see here. It's available in left-hand drive form now, in right-hand drive at the end of the year. Cadillac thinks the SRX can do well over here. But it's an American SUV, I hear you say, and who in their right mind would want one of those beyond the odd rap star?

This time the confusing initials stand for S-series Reconfigurable X-over, or crossover. Got that? Do not confuse this SRX with that other, better-known Cadillac 4x4, though, which is bigger, yet squarer and called the Escalade (or 'Sclade to those in the urban groove).

The Escalade unintentionally but very usefully reinvented Cadillac as a maker of cool wheels, as seen from a US perspective, and has helped to bring the age profile of Cadillac buyers down to somewhere below retirement age.

Escalades, visually refreshed for this new model year, will be sold in some European countries but probably not here, and we should probably be thankful. The SRX, though, is a different matter. It's big, but not a leviathan; it has a style lacking in the brash 'Sclade, and it's based on the underpinnings of the CTS, so it has proper independent suspension and a rigid, not excessively heavy, unitary structure. Two engines are available, a 3.6-litre V6 with 258bhp and a 4.6-litre V8 with 315bhp.

The transmission has full-time four-wheel drive, nominally split 50-50 front-rear, but able to divert power to whichever end needs it more. That doesn't make it a proper off-roader, because it lacks the ground clearance and extra-low gear ratios needed for proper rock-climbing and mud-bathing. It's at the BMW X5's off-road level rather than a Range Rover's, but will pull boats and horseboxes on beaches and fields happily.

Do we like its looks? Cadillac describes its design theme as arts and science, taut instead of full-bodied, geometric rather than graceful, trend-setting instead of evolutionary, more masculine than feminine.

On all counts the idea is to occupy one end of a continuum that has Jaguar at its other. So new Cadillacs are blocky, wedgy, edgy, with vertical lights and no danger of confusing the brand with any other. If Cadillac was to be relaunched, this was a good way to do it.

The SRX is claimed to have developed from a concept car called Vizon, but the production version is taller and less radical. It's still a striking-looking object, mainly because it sits lower than comparable-size SUVs and so looks more dynamic. Nevertheless, it's with a degree of cynicism that I climb aboard an SRX 4.6 Sports Luxury (the top version) for a proper test drive on UK roads.

First impressions confirm my predictions. Intensely irritating boings telling me I haven't shut a door or I haven't put my seatbelt on yet. Low-grade graphics on the information screen, displayed against a marbled background. Nasty. The cabin design is interestingly angular, though, and there are plenty of soft-touch surfaces, which marks a major effort on the part of the cost accountants because American autos don't usually do soft. More's the pity, then, that even the soft surfaces look hard.

Into Drive - it's a five-speed automatic - foot down and go. Wow, that was a keen step-off. Up a gear, then another... this is the best automatic gearbox I've tried for a very long time. It shifts up with no pause, no jerk, just continuous acceleration with a drop in the engine note the only evidence of a new ratio. If you've driven a Volkswagen Group car with the DSG sequential transmission, and experienced the smoothness and continuity of its manual upshifts, this is the same thing in automatic.

Downshifts are quick and smooth, perfectly matched to an engine that pulls vigorously from low speeds and spins to high revs with no vibration and just a distant sound of V8 throbby potency. This is terrific; more power than a V8 M-class Mercedes and £10,000 less.

And there's more. The SRX rides smoothly and quietly, helped by electronically adaptive dampers whose fluid alters its viscosity with a change in a controlling magnetic field.

But it's not a squashy, wallowy softness. Steering is quick and precise, and the SRX feels keen and agile in a way I would never have believed. Why have a lumpily riding Range Rover Sport when you can have one of these and be spared the jitters? I am not a fan of the big SUV idea; but the SRX gave me the most SUV-driving fun I've had in ages.

It has other attributes, such as adjustable pedals and lots of passenger space. There is the option of an "Ultra View" giant glass power sunroof over the first two rows of seats (£1,500) or an "Ultra View Plus" over all three rows (£1,850). And, get this, possibly the world's first electrically powered automatic rear seat-fold mechanism. Press a button and watch those rear chairs disappear into the floor.

SUVs, even these more car-like "crossover" ones, are not what most of us need. But if you have to have one, and enjoy driving, the SRX is the one to have. Who would ever have thought one of the best SUVs would wear a Cadillac badge?

The rivals

BMW X5 4.4i SE, £48,610

The Cadillac SRX makes the BMW X5 (and a number of its other rivals) seem rather expensive by comparison, and the Cadillac is a sweeter drive overall. Having said this, the BMW has tactile quality and sophistication on its side, though.

MERCEDES-BENZ ML 500, £49,925

The Mercedes-Benz ML500 has less power than the SRX despite its high price, but is a good-looking, quality object. An alternative would be to save £10,000 and have the V6 or the same- price, but much better, diesel version.

RANGE ROVER SPORT 4.4 SE, £45,000

At one time, Land-Rover thought it wouldn't be able to sell many of this cheapest, non-supercharged V8 Sport, and the car's weight admittedly blunts its pace. On the plus side it looks aggressive, but unfortunately it feels too firm.

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