“Quite frankly, the SRX never lived up to my personal expectations,” Cadillac engineer Larry Mihalko told me from the passenger seat of the 2017 Cadillac XT5 as we surged over the winding roads of Orange County’s Ortega Highway. “This was my chance for a do-over.” The SRX, Cadillac’s lone crossover, ceased production in January after years of respectable sales, giving way to the all-new XT5. Despite the outgoing car’s popularity, there was apparently a lot to change when the automaker set out to birth a fresh crossover.

“I’m being very honest with you,” Mihalko added. “I was never happy with the brake feel on [the SRX], it had too much pedal travel and not enough effectiveness. It didn’t have a European feel. It was a heavy car and it felt heavy. The fuel economy was not very rewarding…I didn’t think the car rode well enough. It was mediocre.” The XT5, Mihalko says, has corrected all these issues. It’s 292 pounds lighter, with about 3 inches more legroom in the rear seat and a fresh 3.6-liter, 310 horsepower V6 under the hood.

It might not even be fair to compare the two — the folks at Cadillac repeatedly said the XT5 has a “ground-up architecture” — but context can’t be ignored. The SRX was one of the company’s most commercially successful vehicles. It sold 100,000 units globally last year and represents a large, loyal customer base in a fiercely popular luxury crossover segment. As its successor, the XT5 is tasked with being modern enough to attract Cadillac’s newly coveted young buyer, but palatable enough to satisfy the hordes of SRX owners. The car, along with the lightweight, modern CT6, is the latest compelling play in the automaker’s post-bailout rebrand. As Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen said, “We’ve found our energy again.” Case in point: the XT5 was first revealed to the public during New York Fashion Week, dangling below a helicopter, awash in floodlights as it hovered in front of a west-side warehouse party. Video of the stunt features plodding electro, good-looking twentysomethings and high-fashion flair. The message is clear: Cadillac is no longer the same brand that made the floaty front-wheel-drive Seville in the ’80s or the bland Catera in the ’90s.

2017 Cadillac XT5

Engine: 3.6-liter V6
Transmission: 8-speed Automatic
Horsepower: 310
Torque: 270 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 6.7 seconds (est.)
MPG: 19/27 , city/highway
MSRP: $62,500 (as tested)

The XT5 is an agile car, refined but not stale, spacious but not hulking. During our jaunt through the mountains of Orange County and into East San Diego, it was easy to forget I was piloting a car destined for grocery shopping and stroller storage. The rack-mounted electric power steering was designed using cues from the ATS and the CTS-V to deliver a nimble, responsive feel, and the automaker’s focus on stiffness and lightness shines through on the curves. The car is 650 pounds lighter than the Mercedez-Benz GLE-Class and 100 pounds lighter than the Audi Q5, despite being 7 inches longer. The AWD iteration of the car is sophisticated, delivering power in varying levels to the front, rear, right and left tires and toggling on and off with the press of a console-mounted button. Fuel management when you want it, four-wheeled traction when you want that, too.

The exterior isn’t a drastic departure from the SRX, though it does feature some modern elements, like Cadillac’s now-signature vertical LEDs and a strong side-panel crease reminiscent of the ELR. The XT5 also shaved one inch off the front end compared to its predecessor and added an updated grille. In the interior, Cadillac’s luxury mindset is on full display, offering all cut-and-sewn leather with open-pore wood, carbon fiber, and brushed-aluminum accents optional. The car also features a wireless phone-charging pad and a retooled CUE system that integrates rather neatly with iPhone or Android. The XT5 includes the option for the ingenious rearview camera-mirror (debuted in the CT6), too. With the press of a switch, the mirror will display a feed from the rear bumper-mounted camera, massively increasing visibility out of the back and eliminating the hassle of a rear passenger’s head blocking the view. The crossover uses an 8-speed electronic gear shift that takes a little getting used to, but it does free up the space under the console for bulky items the driver may want to access.

“I really want to be part of getting Cadillac back to where it was in 1907 — the standard of the world. It’s important to me. I don’t want to leave the company until that happens.”

At the CT6 launch, Cadillac seemed aware they were the underdog — an automaker vying for a seat at the table amongst other luxury sedans. The company is much more bullish on the XT5, undeniably gunning for the top spot in the luxury crossover segment after years of the SRX being #2. “For me, there are two places in a race,” Mihalko told me. “There is ‘first’ and then there is ‘not first.’ I don’t like to be anyplace but winning.” The car most notably standing in the XT5’s way is the revamped, sharp-edged Lexus RX. Its new styling is polarizing, which Mihalko says presents an opening: “When I think about this segment and what people want in this segment, it gives us a good opportunity to win.” The XT5 is expected to be Cadillac’s highest-volume crossover, though the company is already planning for vehicles that slot in above and below.

As Mihalko and I continued on the mountain roads, I put the crossover in sport mode. The suspension clamped down and steering tightened. There was a moment of silence in the car. “Through the ’70s and ’80s, we really lost our way,” Mihalko, who has been with the company for nearly 40 years, said solemnly. “I really want to be part of getting Cadillac back to where it was in 1907 — the standard of the world. It’s important to me. I don’t want to leave the company until that happens.” His audaciousness is contagious and his passion is palpable. Cadillac is rebuilding, finding their swagger, searching for something fresh. The XT5 may be it.

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