Cadillac's Best-Seller Goes RX Hunting With New Ammunition

2012 Cadillac SRX

While standing in front of the newly updated 2012 Cadillac SRX, a fellow journalist asked Cadillac Communications Manager David Caldwell why the crossover wasn't based on a rear-wheel-drive chassis. The answer? "We already tried that," said Caldwell.

Those who pray to the gods of rear-wheel drive can go ahead and throw your hands in the air. Smack your forehead, toss down your napkin in disgust and walk away from the dinner table. The truth is simple: The masses like their upscale 'utes to be behave like their midsize luxury sedans. They want comfort and predictability when traipsing from the mall to school, on road trips and everything in between, albeit with a higher seating position, room for cargo out back and an air of stylish sophistication. But is that really a bad thing?

The proof is in the pudding, and today's pudding is flavored by sales figures. The previous-generation Cadillac SRX seemingly ticked all the boxes that set enthusiast's hearts aflutter – a well-engineered rear-wheel-drive chassis (GM's Sigma platform) with optional all-wheel drive, a standard high-output 3.6-liter V6 engine or an optional 320-horsepower Northstar V8, and your choice of a five- or six-speed automatic gearbox wedged between.

The automotive pressed loved the first-gen SRX. It took home Car and Driver's Best Luxury SUV award in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and was a finalist for the North American Truck of the Year award in '04. And yet it never even came close to matching its major competitors where it truly counts – the sales floor.

2012 Cadillac SRX side view2012 Cadillac SRX front view2012 Cadillac SRX rear view

And then came a new Cadillac SRX in 2010, and through the bespeckled eyes of auto journalists, everything seems backwards. A transversely mounted V6 engine displacing 3.0 liters sent 265 horses to the front wheels in its base configuration, and while all-wheel drive was still optional, the Theta Premium chassis was never intended for tail-wagging antics. There was an available 2.8-liter turbocharged V6, but it didn't make up for the missing V8, and it was canceled due to slow sales after a single year on the market.

Great wails were heard from Detroit to Los Angeles, but it wasn't the sound of exasperation some expected. Instead, we heard the unmistakable beat of high-fives at GM's Renaissance Center headquarters; the cymbals of cash registers ringing in Cadillac dealerships all over the country. In one fell swoop, the Cadillac of Crossovers vaulted itself from a languishing ninth spot in the luxury crossover segment all the way up to second. And as much as Cadillac would love to wrangle the gold medal from the Lexus RX, a solid silver signals a job well done.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Cadillac chose not to alter the formula much when it refreshed the SRX for the 2012 model year. To the casual observer, a 2012 model parked next to its predecessor doesn't impart any of the major changes found under the highly creased sheetmetal. So let's dig deeper.

2012 Cadillac SRX headlight2012 Cadillac SRX logo2012 Cadillac SRX wheel2012 Cadillac SRX taillight

First and foremost, there's a new standard 3.6-liter V6 engine that uses all the latest technology at GM's disposal to pump out a solid 308 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque on either regular-grade gasoline or E85. While that output is still well shy of the old Northstar V8, it's up 35 hp and 37 lb-ft over the old 3.0, and it leads its class in standard horsepower. Better yet, there's a wide and flat torque curve right in the meat of the powerband between 2,400 and 5,300 rpm, which is exactly what you want for a vehicle bound to move its passengers through the cut-and-thrust of daily traffic.

Although anyone familiar with GM's current lineup of vehicles knows the direct injected 3.6-liter engine sees duty in a slew of other cars and crossovers, the so-called LFX nestled behind the angular grille of the 2012 SRX has been reworked for this application. Cadillac's goal was to ditch 20 pounds off the basic 3.6 engine in order to match the weight of the discontinued 3.0, and the automaker took some unique approaches to achieve its goals.

Besides the composite (read: plastic) intake manifold – a switch that's becoming increasingly common these days – a higher grade alloy was used for the connecting rods. But the most interesting bit of engineering is the complete lack of exhaust manifolds. The engineers at Cadillac were able to route spent gases directly through the aluminum heads to a single collector feeding redesigned exhaust plumbing that eventually ends in dual chrome tips at the rear of the vehicle. General Motors tells us that it now holds a patent on this clever design.

2012 Cadillac SRX engine

Fuel mileage shouldn't suffer much for the 2012 SRX, despite the bump in engine displacement and power. The EPA rates the front-wheel-drive 2012 SRX model at 17 city and 24 highway, down one mile per gallon all the way around from 2011. Notably, though, the new SRX features an Eco Mode for the six-speed transmission that alters throttle response and shifts to a higher gear ratio whenever possible, and GM claims that Eco Mode will reclaim that missing mile per gallon. GM also asserts that its internal testing yielded generally higher fuel mileage figures from the 2012 SRX over its predecessor, mostly due to an engine that isn't as stressed moving the SRX's 4,277 pounds (4,442 with AWD).

Looking past the headline-grabbing new powerplant, we're happy to report that Cadillac's engineers have reworked the SRX's suspension. Up front are new bonded bushings, redesigned upper shock mounts and revalved struts. Holding up the rear is the same independent H-arm as before, but with new twin tube shocks that are upgraded with variable damping on models equipped with the Performance or Premium collection. Bundled with the active rear damping is a speed-sensitive steering system and 20-inch wheels.

Cadillac continues to offer the same Haldex-developed all-wheel-drive system and electronic limited slip differential as before, which is fine by us – the advanced computer-controlled tech can send as much torque to the front or rear wheels as it deems necessary and can also vary its delivery from side to side, depending on which wheels have the most traction.

2012 Cadillac SRX interior2012 Cadillac SRX front seats2012 Cadillac SRX rear seats2012 Cadillac SRX rear cargo area

After sampling models equipped in all possible configurations, our favorite setup was to pair the base FE2 suspension with all-wheel drive. The hydraulic power steering felt perfect to our hands in this application, even without the variable-effort, speed-sensitive technology that comes with the FE3 suspension group. We also preferred the ride and handling of models wearing 18-inch wheels over the 20-inch versions, and found little difference between the normal twin-tube rear shocks and the higher-spec units with variable damping.

In order to get the configuration we wanted with all-wheel drive and not miss out on the most opulent cabin possible, we'd opt for the Luxury Collection over the Base model. Buyers will be rewarded with an assortment of goodies, including a power liftgate, rain-sensing windshield wipers, keyless entry, an ambient lighting package and auto-dimming mirror, adjustable pedals, rear-view monitor, heated front seats and steering wheel, UltraView sunroof (which covers 70 percent of the roof with glass) and a cool cargo management system you can see in our Short Cut video below.

Also optional on the Luxury Collection (and standard on Performance and Premium) is a 10-speaker Bose 5.1 sound system with an internal 40-gigabyte hard drive. That package also includes navigation and an improved voice recognition system, and all models sport satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity and OnStar. GM left well enough alone with its Driver Information Center, which puts a high-resolution LCD front and center that can scroll through all manner of useful data including current and average fuel mileage, distance to empty and speed. The driver can also feed the turn-by-turn navigation commands to this cluster, something we found extremely helpful.

Pricing for the 2012 Cadillac SRX starts at $36,060 (including $875 for destination), but we doubt many buyers will opt for that Base configuration. Expect well-equipped models with the Luxury Collection plus navigation and all-wheel drive to empty the buyer's bank account of $45,480. A completely loaded SRX with the Premium Collection and rear-seat DVD entertainment package will retail for $53,540. Those prices, both on the low and high end, compare very favorably with the SRX's main competition, namely the Lexus RX350, Acura MDX, Audi Q5 and BMW X3. And it's not far off the smaller Acura RDX.

2012 Cadillac SRX rear 3/4 view

The 2012 Cadillac SRX has a lot going for it, from its price to its powertrain and its crisp, clean style. It may have lost some of the edginess of the first-gen model, but it's gained what matters most to car companies interested in making money: buyers willing to sign on the dotted line. The 2012 SRX delivers everything shoppers were so enamored with before, along with an extra dose of power and an improved ride, better handling and greater overall sophistication. Is it enough to unseat the Lexus RX? Probably not, but we have no doubt that the SRX will continue to be Cadillac's global bestseller for the foreseeable future.