A few months ago I had the opportunity to step on to the canvas with Paul Spadafora and hit him up with the best combinations I could muster. Fortunately for me, the Paul Spadafora I was sparring with was the chief engineer of the new Cadillac XT5 rather than his namesake Paul ‘The Pittsburgh Kid’ Spadafora — former IBF Lightweight Champion of the World — and the sparring was exclusively of the verbal nature. Otherwise, I would be sitting here today with cabbage ears and no teeth.

Instead of getting my face caved in by a professional boxer — who also has a ‘slight’ penchant for violence outside the ring — I had a brief and friendly chat about the upcoming new XT5 with a very personable automotive engineer who, despite a fair bit of ducking and weaving of my questions, didn’t pull his punches when emphasising how important this new crossover from Cadillac would be. However, at the time, I don’t think I fully comprehended the true extent of its importance to the marque. I mean, it was just going to be Cadillac’s latest mid-size luxury crossover in an overpopulated sea of SUVs, right?

The world, however, has gone a bit topsy-turvy and the rise in popularity of the SUV cannot be ignored. This new XT5 is the direct replacement for Cadillac’s SRX, which was the brand’s bestselling model in the US last year. Shifting nearly 70,000 units, the SRX outsold the competition from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and was arguably solely responsible for Cadillac’s growth in its home market. But in the words of Johan de Nysschen himself — president of Cadillac — “We are writing the next chapter in the history of this 113-year-old brand, and when you do that you have to focus on much more than just the sales scoreboard.”

You see, Cadillac is going global with a $12b (Dh44b) investment over five years. Taking the brand global is de Nysschen’s primary focus, and his first move was shifting Cadillac out of Detroit and relocating the company headquarters to New York. Last year, global growth sat at a ‘healthy’ 7.5 per cent mainly due to Cadillac becoming the fastest-growing luxury brand in China, and in my chat with Spadafora he was very open about the influence China had on the development of the XT5 in combination with North American market considerations. Cadillac has even invested in a new plant in Shanghai, which will be building the XT5 for the Chinese market, while North American models will be assembled in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

Cadillac already has further SUVs in the pipeline that will be based on this platform. So, the XT5 really has to be good or there is going to be more than red faces in Detroit...

With the CT6 having already been in development when de Nysschen took over in 2014, the XT5 is therefore the first car from ‘New Global Cadillac’ and its importance to the marque should not be understated. It’s the first usage of GM’s new C1XX (pronounced “Chi”) architecture designed to underpin mid-size and full-size crossovers, and Cadillac already has further SUVs in the pipeline that will be based on this platform. So, the XT5 really has to be good (on a global scale) or there is going to be more than red faces in Detroit. Sorry, I mean New York.

On our first drive experience of the new Cadillac XT5 we’ve been invited to Berlin. Launching a new car in the heart of the Fatherland and taking the fight directly to ze Germans on their home turf is yet another clear indication of Cadillac’s global offensive. But while Cadillac has always offered exceptional bang for your buck, it’s never really been able to match the sophistication and refinement offered by its Germanic adversaries. And that’s a big hurdle to overcome when you’re hunting for a slice of global sales.

First impressions are that the XT5’s exterior styling is more an evolution of the SRX rather than a revolutionary design departure, so there is still a little bit of ‘playing it safe’ with the exterior design. The SRX’s jutting jaw has been drawn back and the new corporate face — previewed on the CT6 — has been slapped on but the design still harks back to the ‘Art and Science’ philosophy Cadillac introduced about 15 years ago. Cadillac’s keywords are now ‘Beautiful and Aggressive’ — neither of which I think truly apply here — but there are some nice touches including the boomerang-style taillights, which, raised slightly, are possibly a nod to when Cadillacs had cool names like ‘Coupe De Ville’ and sprouted space-age tail-fins.

We’ve been provided with the top-level Platinum-spec XT5 with brighter grille-work and 20in wheels, and the overall look is that of an updated and slightly more refined SRX. Cadillac obviously doesn’t want to lose the loyal Caddy-fans with a radical redesign in its pursuit of global sales and, anyway, exterior design is always subjective. Some folk gonna love it, some folk gonna hate it. But we all know that beauty is skin deep and what really counts is on the inside, right?

Cadillac has taken that age-old adage very seriously indeed and the interior of the XT5 is nothing short of impressive. The old vertical centre console stack from the SRX has been ditched, replaced by a new dashboard, which spans the complete width of the car unbroken, and instantly makes the cabin feel much more spacious and airy. It’s all less cluttered in here and much more sophisticated; simplification of design and using genuine materials combine to create an aura of calm maturity rather than the plasticky, sci-fi ‘movie set’ vibe that used to emanate from some previous Caddy interiors.

There’s also a real feeling that Cadillac is finally ‘getting it’ when it comes to material choices in this segment. The interior of our top-of-the-range Platinum model has soft-touch materials exactly where they should be around the integrated navigation screen and storage compartments. There is also a company drive to “use a greater variety of authentic materials” and carbon fibre is now actual carbon fibre, aluminium is now genuine aluminium and wood trim is now the real deal hewn from an actual tree and shaped by a Cadillac carpenter.

Despite being a smidgen shorter than the outgoing SRX, the XT5 has more interior space thanks to a longer wheelbase and wider track, which is mainly noticeable in the back row. Rear legroom has been extended and can comfortably sit full-sized people with seats that do that tilt and slide thing, and feature 40/20/40 split-folding for adaptive luggage haulage.

Cadillac has also packed more tech into the interior of the XT5 than all of the Apollo missions combined. It also has a lot more up-to-date technology than the Apollo missions (although it probably won’t actually get you to the moon and back) and features an integrated wireless charger for mobile devices, 4G connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and way too much other tech gubbins to list here. All these features are naturally an attractive draw to potential SUV buyers but ‘what comes as standard’ on the XT5 is dependent on which trim model you purchase. So I’m going to wriggle out of this one by saying ‘please consult your dealer’.

The roads around Berlin are a great testing ground to subject the XT5 to different driving conditions. City driving and cobbled streets, little villages and twisty narrow country roads, dual carriageway and, well, pretty much every road terrain to form an opinion of its capabilities. Sticking with the interior, the Captain’s Chair is supportive, comfortable and easy to configure a perfect position thanks to the combination of seat and steering-wheel adjustability. And the ride quality is surprisingly smooth even over bumpy cobbles. However, this is an SUV and attacking a corner with a bit too much gusto will provoke a Leaning Tower of Pisa viewpoint of the world. Things firm and tighten up a little in Sport mode with the AWD engaged but, yeah, its core DNA is not that of a sportscar.

Somehow, though, I think that owners and passengers will be more concerned with interior comforts and a smooth ride rather than Nürburgring lap times in the XT5. And man, it is so quiet in here. And I mean really quiet. Cadillac engineers have obviously been working late shifts to keep the cabin noise down to a minimum, but that is only half the story. Even when the Bose stereo system is switched off, it is still working on active noise cancellation in conjunction with several microphones placed around the chassis. It feels like witchcraft, but there is a downside…

All XT5s are currently powered by a new naturally aspirated 3.6-litre V6 engine through an eight-speed automatic transmission, although a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo unit will be offered in some markets. With 310 horsepower it’s a sufficient unit, but I can’t help but feel it could do with a few more torques than the 367Nm provided. Combined with the near zero decibel reading inside the cabin, even pushing hard in the XT5 falls short of providing any zest in motion. It’s certainly a refined unit, but I would personally sacrifice a little of that refinement for the addition of a pair of spooling turbos strapped on to the V6. Obviously, Cadillac people would neither confirm nor deny if that is going to happen at some stage in the future. Naturally, SUV people can neither confirm nor deny if that is what they would actually want.

One exterior design change I hadn’t actually noticed until I jumped into the XT5 was the relocation of the wing mirrors. Dropping them down on to the door and filling that triangular void with glass has dramatically improved visibility, which has always been a key selling point in SUVs. Again, the XT5 triumphs in this department and also has the addition of the new Rear Camera Mirror system. With the flick of a switch under the rear-view mirror, it transforms to a video display enhancing “driver’s rear vision by 300 per cent”. Seeing the road behind on an LCD screen without headrests and rear pillars is initially a bit odd and vehicles do appear smaller than in a traditional rear-view. It does, however, eradicate the dreaded blind spot and, in an SUV, that is no bad thing.

Despite the slightly less-than-eager engine and the not-quite-sporty handling it’s difficult not to see the XT5 as a major triumph by Cadillac. I am not even sure if either of those considerations would deter potential buyers in this segment. On offer is an SUV packed full of technology and safety features, a pleasant and spacious interior utilising quality materials, and in addition the XT5 offers a quiet and comfortable ride. At the very worst, it is a much more sophisticated and competent vehicle than the SRX, and a worthy replacement of Cadillac’s bestselling model. At best, this may be a turning point in the marque’s history and a defining moment for Cadillac.