It’s 2023, and everything is now a crossover. Small hatchbacks? Crossovers. Family haulers? Crossovers. The wolf hiding in Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s bed? Pull off the mask, and you’d probably find an inoffensive high-margin front-wheel-drive crossover underneath. However, go back twenty years, and the crossover market was in a very different place. Everyone was still figuring it out, and one of the weirdest evolutionary dead-ends of the segment was the original Cadillac SRX. Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we swan dive into the soup of GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning in hopes of going for gold.
Flash back to the early aughts and it felt like everyone was launching midsized high-riders, many of which were car-based. You had the BMW X5, the Lexus RX, the Acura MDX, and the Infiniti FX, to name but a few. Not content with dressing up a Chevrolet Trailblazer or some other mass-market GM SUV, Cadillac decided to create its own rear-wheel-drive crossover on the same Sigma platform as the original CTS at great expense. After years of platform-sharing dreck, Cadillac was going back to a primarily rear-wheel-drive lineup to run with the big boys in the luxury segment.
However, unlike the original CTS, the SRX offered choice of both drive and engines. Customers could order it as a rear-wheel-drive vehicle or as an all-wheel-drive model with a rear-biased 40:60 default front-to-rear torque split. Likewise, while the base engine was GM’s 255-horsepower LY7 3.6-liter High Feature V6, shoppers looking for more gusto could pop for a 4.6-liter Northstar V8 with variable valve timing. Regardless of engine choice or wheels driven, a five-speed automatic with manumatic functionality came standard, suitable for everyday duties.
The structure was right, and so was the options list. The original SRX was available with all the toys you could possibly want, from DVD navigation to rear-seat entertainment to a fantastically panoramic Ultraview moonroof at a time when massive glass roofs were far from the norm. Plus, the SRX was available with three rows of seats. That last row was more of a gesture than a practical addition, seeing as it was both smaller and less comfortable than one of those tiny IKEA sofas for children, but you get the gist. That being said, the SRX wasn’t quite the paragon of luxury for 2004, as I’ll now illustrate. On the left is the interior from a 2004 BMW X5. On the right, the interior from a 2004 (that was the first model year) SRX. Notice anything?
Really, what is there to say about mid-aughts GM plastics that hasn’t already been said? The featureless, ludicrously cheap-feeling brain matter grey dashboard in the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu is a contributing factor in making that sedan one of the most hateful vehicles I’ve ever driven, and although Cadillac classed up the joint significantly over Chevrolet, material choice and styling at the time just couldn’t cut it against the German and Japanese competition.
However, what the SRX lacked in material quality, it made up for with driving prowess, particularly when ordered with the 320-horsepower 4.6-liter Northstar V8 engine. Short of the bionic cheetah Infiniti FX45 and some uber-fast autobahn-bred machinery from Germany, little at time could touch the V8 SRX in a straight line thanks to a Car And Driver-clocked zero-to-60 time of 6.6 seconds. Sorry, BMW X5 4.4i, you’ll simply be seeing Cadillac taillights.
Oh, and don’t think that the family-sized Caddy falls apart in the bends. Remember, this is still a CTS-based vehicle, which means its imbued with a distinctly car-like feel that was buoyed by the engineering magic of available magnetorheological dampers. In a period road test, Car And Driver wrote that the SRX “flits through corners with sports-sedan stability, the roll and pogo motions thoroughly suppressed by the stiff springs and dampers and taut anti-roll bars.” and claimed that “it still thinks it’s a CTS with a garden shed on the back.”
Speaking of practicality, the boxy form of the original Cadillac SRX paid dividends in cargo space. While a 2004 BMW X5 had a maximum cargo volume of 54.4 cu.-ft., the SRX packed a whopping 69.5 cu.-ft., perfect for moving your kids into their dorms. Sure, it may have been an expensive rig with a starting price of $38,690 in 2004 dollars, but plastics aside, that money went fairly far.
Straight out of the gate, the original Cadillac SRX was pegged as a winner. It won its first Car And Driver comparison test against a Porsche Cayenne S, an Infiniti FX45, and a Volkswagen Touareg V8. The bottom line? The SRX was “the best combination of a satisfying driving experience and utility.” High praise, and Motor Trend took it even further, claiming that “The ride quality, stance, and visibility, as well as the Northstar’s exemplary power and refinement, make the SRX America’s vanguard of daily drivers.”
At first, the Cadillac SRX was fantastic. Then everything broke. The base 3.6-liter LY7 V6 quickly garnered a reputation for eating its own timing components, as documented by several NHTSA complaints. In the words of one complainant:
WHILE DRIVING ON CALIFORNIA FREEWAY, ENGINE LOST POWER AND COULDN’T BE RESTARTED. MECHANIC SAYS THAT TIMING CHAINS BROKE CAUSING CATASTROPHIC, IRREPARABLE DAMAGE TO ENGINE AND PISTONS. APPARENTLY, CADILLAC SRX OWNERS HAVE FREQUENTLY COMPLAINED OF TIMING CHAIN ISSUES, BUT GM HAS NOT RECALLED THESE VEHICLES. LOSING ENGINE POWER ON A FREEWAY IS A VERY DANGEROUS SITUATION.
On the other hand, the Northstar V8, while substantially revised over previous Northstar engines, held a reputation and price tag that helped ensure rarity. Weirdly though, engine problems might not be the most aggravating of the SRX’s issues.
Since the 3.6-liter V6 and Northstar V8 were shared with other models, engine parts support is fairly reasonable. However, all sorts of dumb little failure-prone components just can’t be bought new anymore. For instance, the transmission pan on the 5L40-E automatic transmissions rots out in the rust belt. Two years ago, I discovered replacements were no longer available. The panoramic Ultraview sunroof is also known to be problematic and most replacement parts for that are discontinued. Oh, and then there are the water leaks that many owners report, which can lead to water pooling in the jack compartment, soaking into the under-carpet insulation, and generally causing mayhem. There’s a long thread on Cadillac Forums about this last issue, to the point where it’s stickied in a common issues post.
The first-generation Cadillac SRX was great while it worked, but also a miss for GM. It was expensive, complex, and a misjudged market move overall. While the idea of a BMW X5 fighter on a longitudinal platform sounds brilliant, Cadillac’s clientele would’ve been just as effectively served with an even more chrome-clad version of, say, the Buick Rendezvous. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that the second-generation SRX morphed into a typical front-wheel-drive crossover more in-line with its primary competition, opening it up to a wider audience and marking its predecessor as an evolutionary dead end. That being said, I don’t love the second-generation SRX. It’s not the enthusiast-geared family hauler the first one was, so warts and all, I’d take the original over the sequel.
Oh, but the first-generation Cadillac SRX story doesn’t end there. Believe it or not, the XT6 crossover was originally meant to be more in-line with the original SRX than the Chevrolet Traverse crossover. GM Authority reports that the same longitudinal Omega platform underneath the CT6 was intended to underpin three different vehicles, one of which was purportedly a three-row crossover. I can’t help but feel that more than a decade down the line, Cadillac’s second shot at a longitudinal crossover could’ve had more staying power than the original SRX. Forgotten futures of the past, am I right?
(Photo credits: Cadillac, BMW)
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