One of the most common vehicles shuttling between downtown Chicago and its two airports is the blacked-out livery vehicle, or fancy cab. These tinted-windowed SUVs from Lincoln and Cadillac carry clients who presumably want to ride in space, anonymity and a degree of luxury.
Yet, the degrees between luxury and livery haven’t been so clear for these two American brands that once defined luxury. As both Lincoln and Cadillac reintroduce redesigned midsize SUVs to market, they must transcend car-for-hire livery to airports by delivering show-off-worthy luxury to driveways.
As luxury makers introduce more entry-level products to court young buyers, and buyers turn to more and more crossovers, these compact to midsize crossovers are vital to their brands.
Of the eight new or redesigned models Cadillac is rolling out by 2020, half are crossovers.
The MKX embodies Lincoln’s “quiet luxury” approach moving forward, an antidote to the performance-minded cocktail served up by the Germans and sipped on by Cadillac. The MKX is soft and comfortable, smooth and quiet at high speeds and around town.
Cadillac is nosing into the German luxury realm, while Lincoln is going after a more modest luxury found in Asian brands.
Both expect to take a bigger slice of the premium crossover pie from the undisputed segment leader, the Lexus RX.
They’re both better looking than the RX without trying to be so painfully edgy.
Dimensions of the XT5 and MKX are nearly identical, except the MKX is an inch wider. That should translate to better legroom but it’s compromised by a wide center console.
From the rearview mirror, the XT5 looks more like an SUV, with a tall grille and vertical daytime running lights. The front skid plate in the Platinum trim gives it more of an off-road look, though it shouldn’t go there. It appears taller than the MKX, partly because of the roofline.
The MKX has a narrower face, with a sedan-styled nose that is curved like an Infiniti. The roofline is also more curved at the rear. I noticed passers-by looking at the MKX more. Maybe it was the anti-livery white coat.
Advantage: XT5 is more SUV, MKX is more car.
While the character of each model isn’t apparent from the exterior alone, the designers’ intent becomes obvious once you get behind the wheel.
The turbocharged V-6 EcoBoost engine in the Lincoln is faster, without question. There is plenty of available torque, so in highway passing maneuvers or from a dead stop, acceleration is immediate.
The EcoBoost MKX is about as good as that model is going to get. The naturally aspirated V-6 it originally had might have fit better with the overall feel of the car, but the turbo V-6 is crisp and responsive, superior to the V-6 in the XT5.
The XT5 isn’t as direct but it’s no dog either. Paddle shifters override the quick shift points of the eight-speed and let the driver dig a little deeper to the redline. The XT5 handles tighter, rides a little firmer and dips in and out of corners with more agility, so when Cadillac decides to pop a turbo in there or go V-Series crazy, the body will be able to respond appropriately. It also gets 2 mpg more on average, thanks to cylinder deactivation and start-stop technology.
The MKX feels more like a midsize SUV, higher up, more detached from the road, more body roll, despite the sporting powertrain. It’s quieter, softer and cushier, which is an attractive attribute for many crossover buyers.
Overall, the XT5 has more potential for performance. It’s a matter of character, the engineering ethos that permeates all the parts into a whole that is oftentimes hard to describe but simple to sense. Cadillac is luxury for drivers who like driving. The character of the MKX is flat. It’s more premium than luxury, more Buick than Cadillac.
The difference in character between the two is most apparent in the cabin.
Cadillac uses a gorgeous microsuede headliner extending down the pillars to the dash into a balanced blend of wood, chrome and leather. The control panels and dash design are shaped like the Cadillac crest, emphasizing that attention to detail that defines luxury.
The MKX features black cladding, with black leather reminiscent of Ford’s top-of-the-line Titanium trim.
Fortunately, both automakers are complementing their touch screens with hard buttons and toggles, as well as with redundant steering controls.
Cadillac’s CUE has improved and MyLincolnTouch hasn’t. Ford’s system still breaks down all functions into quadrants, and separating the categories carries over into the submenus. Despite small buttons, there’s plenty of functionality to it but no wholeness to it — its all parts but no whole. This divided feeling is rumored to be remedied in SYNC3, which is now available in the MKX.
Another strike against the MKX in the cabin is the wide center console.
Cadillac’s arrangement of buttons on both the center stack and steering wheel is cleaner and more intuitive; figuring out the submenu navigation on the instrument cluster comes quicker than with Lincoln’s segmented system. The wood trim on the steering wheel is a lovely touch on the XT5, and the head-up display is one of the clearest on the market.
Both have good voice recognition, though Cadillac is better. Both sound systems are excellent, but the nod goes to Lincoln’s Revel audio.
Advanced safety systems abound at these trim levels and they’re evenly matched, except the XT5 did not have the coolest new car feature in adaptive cruise control. But it did have a rearview mirror that doubles as a rear camera.
This wouldn’t get its own category if these two electronic gear selectors weren’t so goofy.
The MKX uses buttons arranged vertically on the left side of the touch screen. It keeps the design neat and symmetrical but there was no getting used to it. Pushing one button to put it into park and another button to stop the engine could be problematic.
The XT5 uses a lever in the center console, which is nice, but to move it there is a button on the side, and then to park it there is another button. To move it into sport mode requires another pull down, but then returning it to normal drive mode is a notch up that could notch it into neutral territory. It doesn’t, you’ll get used to it, but it’s still unnecessarily confusing.
Both have rear seats that can be folded down from the cargo area, but the MKX uses power buttons, while the XT5 is a manual latch. Both recline, but only the XT5 can slide forward or back for more space. The fold-down seats are more versatile in the XT5, with a 40/20/40 folding configuration, so you can fold down the narrow middle seat to make a wide armrest, store longer items such as golf clubs for your foursome, or to provide something like a table or divider for a family of four on road trips. The XT5 feels roomier. There is 37.2 cubic feet of cargo room with the seats up (68.8 cubic feet with the seats down) in the MKX, but only 30 cubic feet in the XT5 (63 cubic feet with the seats down). That means the rear seats are roomier by about 2 cubic feet in the XT5.
Both vehicles are necessary improvements and would make a garage and an owner happy. Our photographer, Tom Snitzer, who has an eye for these things, remarked that the MKX is not a vehicle you show off. It’s more like a nice rental car or livery vehicle. It delivers on this idea of quiet or modest luxury, but fails to fully distinguish itself in this crowded class and doesn’t distance itself enough from Ford. I like it better than the Lexus RX and Acura RDX.
But when people get in the XT5, they will be impressed with its distinctiveness. That should be worth the extra $6,000.
2017 Cadillac XT5 Platinum at a glance
Vehicle type: luxury compact crossover
Base price: $38,995
As tested: $62,850 (excluding $995 delivery)
EPA mpg: 18 mpg city, 26 mpg highway (automatic start/stop and cylinder deactivation)
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Transmission: eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters on AWD
Horsepower/Torque: 310/271 pound-feet
Cargo room (seats down): 63 cubic feet
Weight: 4,356 pounds
Parting shot: Luxurious interior makes up for lagging performance
2016 Lincoln MKX Reserve at a glance
Vehicle type: luxury compact crossover
Base price: $38,260
As tested: $56,785 (excluding $995 delivery)
EPA mpg: 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway (EcoBoost gives it extra 1 mpg)
Engine: 2.7-liter turbo V-6 w/direct injection
Transmission: six-speed automatic on AWD
Horsepower/Torque: 335/380 pound-feet
Cargo room (seats down): 68.8 cubic feet
Weight: 4,387 pounds
Parting shot: Nice but indistinct