I was nervous. I’m new to the Bay Area, so I don’t know my way around very well. And yet there I was in San Francisco, about to test-drive this very expensive, extremely tech-forward luxury car. The auto that I’m talking about, of course, is the 2013 Cadillac XTS, the maker’s first vehicle equipped with its Cadillac User Experience (CUE) infotainment system.

We first spotted this system last fall, but it’s ready for primetime now and ships standard in the XTS. For those not in the know, the CUE is a very innovative system designed to handle practically every facet of the driving experience — from music, to navigation, communication, and much, much more. The main differentiator between this system and others from the likes of BMW, Ford and others is that the design is centered around one primary concept: Shape the user interfaces and gestures around behaviors people are already familiar with, thanks to their smartphones and tablets.

From a safety standpoint, this makes a lot of sense, as it reduces the learning curve a lot… though, to be totally honest, I didn’t quite get the hang of it in the few short minutes I was behind the wheel. (Good thing there’s an iPad app, so would-be users can get acquainted, even from the living room couch.) But I could see it wouldn’t take long, as the usual suspects from smartphone-land were there, including homescreen apps, pinch-to-zoom, taps, flicks and swipes.

That’s kind of ironic, considering when I first hopped in, the center stack reminded me a very big (decidedly not capacitive-screened) BlackBerry.

Clearly Cadillac decided to keep some of the buttons, mostly for basic climate control. (Extra settings are available via touchscreen.) The reason, they say, is because some people don’t want to dig around menus just to kick up the fan speed. Good thinking. The last thing anyone wants is to flummox the person sitting behind the wheel.

As for the 8″ capacitive touchscreen (800 x 480 res), it features onboard apps — including audio, phone, nav, Pandora, weather, climate, OnStar and settings — that are large and easy on the eyes (as well as fingers), and a customizable dock bar to house up to five essential apps. The display itself also comes with a couple of extra nifty features. There’s haptic feedback when it registers a touch command. (Actually, it was more like a tiny fist-bump tapping back at your fingertip. Pretty neat.) The other bit of magic is the proximity sensor, which brings up menus and options when you reach for the screen and hides them when you don’t, to reduce distraction while driving. What users are left with is a very clean, attractive display that shows a space-optimized nav map, caller ID or music selection.

Speaking of caller ID and music, CUE is both bluetooth- and USB-connected, so smartphone users can hook their addressbook or playlists to the system however they see fit. I personally found this to be key, as legacy bluetooth profiles are my pet peeve — frankly, nothing’s worse than going through an annoying pairing dance every time you get in the car. But CUE doesn’t play that way; once paired, it auto-rediscovers your device whenever you hop in. Easy peasy.

There were a few “wow” moments during the demo, not least of which is Cadillac’s really creative take on software-driven gauge clusters. Forget old-school gauges or digital readouts; this approach puts four different layouts at your fingertips. The driver’s side 12″ screen (1280 x 480 res) is controlled via a steering wheel rocker button that’s omnidirectional — sort of like a gamer’s D-pad. The button can control things like addressbook and music, as well as change the gauge cluster layout.

Some people want all the details right in front of them — like nav maps, internal temperature and music selection, alongside their performance data — while others just want basic speed and fuel meters. You can choose a preset, and even drill down further to customize and configure exactly the data you want.

Other impressive tidbits:

  • Specs: The CUE has a triple core ARM II chipset running the Linux OS. (Not being a proprietary platform, users aren’t locked into a particular eco-system — apart from Cadillac’s, that is. But both Android and iOS phones work fine with CUE.)
  • 3D GPS maps for major metro areas. Driving maps are nothing new, so it’s interesting to see how companies can freshen up the game. Here, it seems they took another page out of the Google or Apple playbook and offered 3D maps, which will be supremely handy for navigating unfamiliar territory.
  • Favorites. Users will be able to save favorites, whether for music or navigation destinations.
  • Pandora integration. Admit it: Sometimes even you get sick of your own playlist, dontcha? Here, CUE can pump out Pandora stations (using your smartphone’s data), so you can always have a fresh set of ear candy.
  • Closable cubby hole to hide your smartphone (or hook it up to one of its two USB ports) in a handy spot — right under the HVAC control. (There’s even an SD card slot!)
  • Driver cut-off for certain features and functions. When the car is moving, you can’t do stuff like input a new address on the touchscreen or change the gauge cluster layout — which is great for reducing distraction. But if you absolutely have to re-map your coordinates, you can do it via voice command.
  • Voice command works quite well. Not only does the feature work with a slew of functions — including phone dialing, navigation, music/audio control, OnStar and weather — but it works rather effectively. The credit goes to Nuance, which developed the on-board software to make it happen — yes, that’s on-board. In other words, it processes speech locally, unlike the Dragon mobile app or iOS’ Siri. To handle that beastly task, two out of CUE’s three cores are dedicated to voice processing. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen. It understands natural language commands, and can even compensate when regional or foreign accents are thrown into the mix.

Those are the pros. As for the cons:

  • The center stack is positioned optimally for people with longish arms. My short little ones couldn’t make it over to the far right side, though the demo rep had no problem with his reach.
  • Non technophiles could find this system intimidating. While the gestures and inputs feel familiar, and a lot of care was made to make sure the settings aren’t more than two or three menus deep, that’s still two or three moves too far for some folks.
  • Lag. The touchscreen elements offered decent haptic response — when you hit an item, you got an immediate fist-bump (er, finger-bump) — but some commands took another moment or two to actually execute.
  • No clear app development path (though the company’s exploring the possibility of some sort of app store, so it can certify applications for safety, etc).
  • No way to force-quit apps or change fonts. If Pandora throws some errors out, it would be handy to be able to shut it down — especially if you need to quickly switch to, say, navigation. And although the fonts were selected with aesthetics and legibility in mind, everyone has different taste (and eyesight).
  • Voice command does not transcribe and send text messages. This can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view and usage (not to mention state laws). While the technology is there, the big hold-up is obviously safety. GM is exploring the matter, to see how viable it is to implement safely.
  • Customer won’t be able to swap out the computer for newer hardware down the road. The hardware is considered part of the car, not necessarily an upgradeable component or extra. As such, once you buy it, it’s intended to remain with the life of the car. (That being said, Cadillac dealerships will be equipped with their very own Geek squads, for any tech troubleshooting that comes up.)

So far, I’ve gone over the good and the less good aspects of my Cadillac XTS experience. To wrap things up on a positive note, I’ll now go into the really, flipping fantastic aspects of the experience:

  • Predictably, shooting a photo of the heads-up display proved challenging. But it essentially looked like this, though a little more translucent.

    Rumble seats, baby. The center display’s proximity sensor is cool, but that’s not the only proximity sensor in the car. If you come close to another vehicle or person, the driver’s seat shakes in the quadrant where the obstruction is. In other words, if there’s a car behind you at the left when you go into reverse, the seat under the left side of your butt rumbles. A woman jumps out at your front right? The area under your right thigh will thunder, refusing to let you ignore it.

  • HUD. Make no mistake, this is the future of automotive. If you’re a car geek who has never experienced a heads-up display (where data is displayed directly on the windshield at an infinity point), then you just haven’t lived yet. Given the technology has been around for eons, you have to wonder why this hasn’t become mainstream yet. The translucent readout was height-adjustable, perfectly legible, and not at all intrusive or distracting. Subjectively speaking, this was easily what I thought was the coolest feature of the day.
  • And many more things: Push-button start, keyless access, remote ignition, capless fuel tank, heated steering wheel, and two unbelievably great ideas: blindspot detection and lane departure warning system (available as options). You can see priorities in the details — things were clearly designed with the intention to make driving easier, safer and more enjoyable.

 

After the show-and-tell was over, I was expected to give this Cadillac XTS a whirl around those steep and unfamiliar streets. Now, I’m not a car journalist, and I’m not really here to review or offer impressions of the whole vehicle, but just for the record: That 3.6-liter V6 (rated at 304 horses) and 6-speed automatic transmission delivered a top-notch driving experience. The ride was smooth, the handling and acceleration were practically flawless, and even though the vehicle is rather large (at almost 17 feet), it somehow didn’t feel like driving a boat around.

Overall, I was really impressed with the whole Cadillac experience. As the only model that offers CUE — it will be joined by the 2013 Cadillac ATS, though that will not come standard with the instrument cluster or phone pairing features — it really does stand alone. CUE is one of the most advanced and successful infotainment systems on the market, and it has received praise from many of the critics. I can completely see why.

But here’s the interesting thing about the XTS: The aspects that wound up wowing me the most weren’t the smartphone touches. It was the areas most reminiscent of gaming. The HUD display knocked my socks off, the steering wheel rocker/D-pad was extremely handy, and even the feedback chair, er, proximity alert system made me wonder why this hasn’t been implemented in all cars.

Then there’s the nagging underlying concern. It’s not with CUE specifically, but with the general concept of touchscreens and apps in cars. No matter how good a system is — and like I said, this one’s a beast — I wonder if there really can be such a thing as a safe implementation. Or do they simply add to the distraction? I’m frankly torn on the issue — particularly when I imagine my mom or dad behind the wheel.

What do you think of touchscreens and app-driven infotainment systems in cars? Hit the comments section and tell us if they excite or concern you.