WARREN, MI – General Motors Corp. will unveil a smaller, more rugged and technically sophisticated Cadillac SRX cross/utility vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next week.

Mark McNabb, GM North America vice president-Cadillac/Premium Channel, says the ’10 SRX takes square aim at the segment-leading Lexus RX 350 from rival Toyota Motor Corp. “They’re the leader, but this car is built to go head-to-head with them.”

Ward’s data illustrates the RX 350’s leadership. In a record down market, Toyota sold 55,592 RX 350s through November, while the current-generation SRX, which is little changed since its launch in 2003, delivered a distant 14,755 units. Auto makers report year-end sales Monday.

The SRX also trailed sales of middle- and large-luxury CUV entries, such as the Lincoln MKX (26,962); Acura MDX (41,994); Mercedes-Benz M-Class (31,559) and GL (21,189); and BMW X3 (16,662) and X5 (28,986). The biggest sales year for the SRX came in 2005, when it sold 26,800 units.

The second-generation model unveiled during a recent media preview here hints the newer CUV has potential to close the gap, as it shrinks slightly in size, accommodating five passengers instead of seven with the old model, and also offers a more efficient powertrain lineup.

A pair of high-tech engine choices are new to GM and the Cadillac brand. The 3.0L direct-injected V-6 with variable-valve timing and making 260 hp and 221 lb.-ft. (330 Nm) of torque comes standard. The engine is a smaller-displacement version of the 3.6L DIG in the CTS sports sedan, a 2-time Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner.

The star, however, could be the optional 2.8L turbocharged V-6, capable of 300 hp and 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) of torque. The engine marks the first application of a turbo in a Cadillac in the U.S.

While the 3.0L DIG sips either regular gasoline or E85, the 2.8L drinks premium. And while exact fuel-economy numbers for both mills remain undetermined, GM expects “mid-20s on the highway” and promises the performance of larger-displacement engines with fewer hydrocarbon emissions.

Both engines are mated to a 6-speed transmission featuring a unique “eco-mode,” where drivers can push a button to alter the gearbox’s shift points to maximize fuel economy.

The arrival of the new V-6 engines in the SRX also signals the departure of the 4.6L V-8 available with current-generation models.

Up front, the exterior design of the new SRX carries a number of familiar Cadillac design cues, such as vertical headlamps with light pipes and a multi-piece shield grille atop a dihedral face formed by a pair of dropping lines.

“This is the swagger, the sense of attitude the Cadillac owner wants to have,” says Clay Dean, Cadillac global design director. “Just a hint of intimidation that keeps you on the back of your heels.”

GM also tinkers with the Wreath & Crest insignia set inside the grille, adding layers of detail and textures to create a more jeweled appearance. A familiar center-line crease – “as fine as the crease in a tailored suit,” Dean says – runs the length of the vehicle and culminates in the rear between a pair of vertical taillamps.

Dean says the SRX’s coupe-like profile, with its high beltline and aggressive styling, communicates a “dramatic presence,” as well as a sense of “performance and ruggedness,” capped by the “mechanical and technical elements” of its 18-in., or optional 20-in., wheels.

Inside, the SRX features cut-and-sew coverings on the instrument panel and ambient lighting details, as well as the same center-line crease and dihedral elements of the exterior, albeit used more subtlety. The instrument panel moves away from the driver to create a sense of spaciousness and openness.

“We wanted something that creates width and roominess and a sense of capability,” Dean says.

The new SRX receives much of the same technology to debut on the newest-generation CTS, such as an available pop-up navigation screen atop the center stack and an audio system with an integrated hard drive for music storage.

The SRX also receives adaptive forward lighting, where headlamps swivel with steering inputs, a technology that first appeared on the Escalade fullsize SUV.The power liftgate includes an adjustable height setting. An available dual-screen system provides rear-seat entertainment.

Other highlights include an optional all-wheel-drive system with an electronic limited-slip differential capable of distributing torque as needed from side-to-side along the rear axle, as well from the front to rear axle; a real-time damping system that makes split-second adjustments to the suspension with changes in roadway conditions; and an electronic parking brake that replaces the outdated foot brake of the previous model.

Although GM moves the SRX from the current-generation’s Sigma architecture, which also shoulders the award-winning CTS, to Theta Epsilon, company officials are quick to distance it from new platform mates such as the more frugal Saturn Vue and Chevy Equinox.

Compared with the Vue, the SRX is longer, wider, rides on a lengthier wheelbase; and GM stretches both its front and rear track. The SRX receives other special treatments, such as the use of high-strength steel in specific locations.

GM also moves production of the SRX from Cadillac’s dedicated plant in Lansing, MI, to its Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, facility that also builds the Vue.

The new SRX more logically rounds out Cadillac’s growing portfolio. Whereas GM intended the former model to communicate SUV ruggedness, McNabb admits the CUV came across to consumers as a large wagon.

The proportions of the new SRX more clearly define it as SUV-like, while the CTS wagon coming later this year represents a wagon-like CUV.

“It fits nicely; it’s a nice addition,” McNabb says of the ’10 SRX. “Cadillac now has the (CUV) market bracketed.”

Dealer deliveries of the SRX start shortly after production begins in the year’s second quarter.

jamend@wardsauto.com