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Cadillac Charges into the Electro-stratosphere

Cadillac Charges into the Electro-stratosphere

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33 years ago, GM made the mistake of taking a Chevy Cavalier, covering its seats in leather, changing the fascia, slapping on a gold crest on the trunk lid and calling it a Cadillac. Without substantial changes to the silhouette, suspension, drivetrain or any of the other major components, the Cimarron is considered to this day to be the low watermark of the Cadillac brand.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the new Cadillac ELR on a clear California morning for our test drive in the mountains around Palm Springs. Built using the same basic platform and drivetrain as the Chevy Volt, would the ELR deliver a true Cadillac experience or fall short of the brand’s reset expectations thanks to the overall excellence of both CTS and ATS products?

Platform sharing is not unique to GM. Audi and VW do it, as do Lexus and Toyota, Acura and Honda, as well as Nissan and Infiniti. Those brands have just traditionally done it more successfully.

With its increased horsepower and torque, revamped suspension, longer wheelbase, wider stance, and larger brakes, the ELR delivers a driving experience you’d expect from a luxury coupe. The exterior design and detail are dramatically different from the more pedestrian look of the Volt. And, the interior doesn’t even feel like a distant cousin of the electrified Chevy. So that part’s good.

Achieving this separation of church and state, however, will set you back about $75,000 which shifts the perspective and the comparisons. This isn’t about whether the ELR is different from and better than the Volt – it is. It’s about whether you prefer the ELR and Cadillac’s brand of luxury to other high-end performance coupes like the Jaguar XK, Mercedes E350, Audi R5, and BMW 6-Series that live in the same area code when it comes to price and size.

That’s a tougher question.

From a overall styling standpoint, the ELR provides a new perspective on Cadillac’s angular “Art & Science” design language. Approaching the car, one is struck by the low slung, wedge shape with intricate compound-curve side surfaces flowing from the front door to the rear deck. It looks sportier and more nimble than any current Cadillac product thanks in part to the 20-inch wheels and tires that are pushed way out to the corners. As you get closer you see details designed to improve aerodynamics like the recessed door handle and flush fascia with its closed grille. Those subtle cues are the only hint that this is an alternatively powered vehicle. All in all, the design is quite well done and should wear well as the model gets on in years.

Once inside, the ELR is pure Cadillac. Slightly smaller than the ATS, it offers higher quality materials, comprehensive electronics, intuitive information and entertainment systems, and thoughtful design touches that let you know this is an eco-friendly luxury car, not an econobox. In fact, there are no sacrifices made because of its power source. The interior features 12-way power adjustable, heated front seats; hand-wrapped, cut and sew instrument panel, door panels and center console with tastefully applied micro-suede accents; and for those particularly chilly mornings, even the steering wheel is heated. The ELR is a 2+2 much like the Porsche 911, so asking anyone other than a very small child to ride in the back will undoubtedly be met with howls of protest.

The only thing surprising about driving the ELR is that there are no surprises. Other than the fact that there is no roar or rumble coming from under the hood, it drives as you’d expect a car of this ilk to perform. The power comes on smoothly and progressively as you step on the accelerator. It’s no rocket ship, but with 295 lb-ft of torque and a combined 181 horsepower from twin electric drive motors, you get from 0-60 mph in about 8 seconds, quick enough for any stoplight or on-ramp. 60-80 mph acceleration was even better than I expected as the motors deliver consistent torque at any speed unlike traditional internal combustion motors.

One question people have about electrics is range. How far can you travel before having to recharge? For most all-electrics that’s about 40 miles. The outlier, of course, is the Tesla which can get you around 250 miles on a charge but for that you’ll pay 100% premium over the Cadillac. GM’s solution to the problem is to put a range extending gas generator on board. So when the batteries are drained after 40 miles, the generator kicks in providing electricity to the drive system.

The downside of this system is that you’re still burning fossil fuels in your electric car. The upside is that you can drive it like a normal car. Even when Tesla has its supercharger system in place, recharging will take 30+ minutes and the route of your longer trips will be dictated by the network they are putting in place. With the ELR, you can drive cross country just as you would any other car. There’s no need to recharge the battery until you reach a suitably convenient stopping place.

The ELR can be charged on either 120 volts in 12 to 18 hours or 240 volts in just 5 hours. Most owners will install the 240 volt charging station in their homes thus if you drive less than 40 miles a day, you’ll never tap into your extended range fuel. This system gets high marks from Volt owners. I’ve known some who have gone 6 months or more without having to put gas in the tank.

So without having to worry about the power or the range, I was just able to focus on the drive.

Our 100 mile loop took us from the parking lot at the Parker Hotel in Palm Springs south to Palm Desert then onto California 74 up the San Jacincto Mountains to 6,000 feet. The winding road with its steep uphill grade was an excellent test for the car’s performance and handling. The ELR’s electric motors pulled strongly from the base of the mountains to the top. With car set in Sport mode, the suspension and steering were unflappable while negotiating the switchbacks. The car is heavy and feels it at times, but the body roll was minimal and the low-profile tires provided confident contact with the pavement.

Due to my heavy right foot we ran the battery down after just 22 miles which was somewhat disappointing. At that point the generator kicked in with no fuss and very little noise and vibration. The ELR uses Bose active noise canceling to reduce the 1.4L gas generator’s intrusion into the experience.

After a quick mid-morning pit stop for coffee and snacks at the all-too-cutely-named but otherwise excellent Gastrognome restaurant in Idyllwild, we continued down the other side of the mountains to Banning. On the downgrade we were able to use the ELR’s innovative regenerative control system. Pulling on a paddle behind the steering wheel transforms the motors into generators. The resulting drag creates braking force from the motors while putting a little bit of juice back into the batteries.

In Banning we picked up the I-10 where we were able to engage the adaptive cruise control and see that it does effectively maintain the spacing between you and the car ahead, regardless of the traffic speed. We completed the trip back to Palm Springs where lunch was waiting for us at the Colony Palms Hotel.

In addition to driving new cars, one of the things I like about these trips is the opportunity to experience new places or new things in some of my favorite old places. Palms Springs falls into the latter category. Cadillac understands that in order to take its place among the world’s leading automotive brands its point of view must encompass more than just the spec sheet. The brand must make a statement in design, function and form. This trip hinted at where Cadillac may be headed. In addition to driving the ELR we were taken on a tour of five of the most significant California mid-century modern homes in the area, including Twin Palms, Frank Sinatra’s private getaway.

While it’s hard to draw direct comparisons between the ELR and The Chairman of the Boards’ home, it is interesting that both are luxurious, yet understated. By today’s standards, Twin Palms is small for a celebrity home, just four bedrooms and 3,500 square feet. And while the surfaces and materials from which it is made are first-class, the house stands out for its design, not its adornments. Another important aspect of the mid-century modern movement is the way it invites nature into the living space.

It’s actually a good analogy for Cadillac’s current design sensibilities. The blend of sharp angles and curved surfaces, the mix of wood, leather and modern materials like carbon fiber, and the limited use of chrome is markedly different from the Cadillacs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Maybe that’s why Cadillac’s overall design language that we see in the ELR, ATS, CTS and XTS still looks good after 15 years and will hold up well for generations to come.

So yes, the ELR is built on a modified Volt platform, but it is a very different car. While neither particularly quick nor fast, it is sporty with a first-class interior and an exterior design that draws just enough attention. And while $75,000 isn’t out of the range at all for a top of the line Cadillac, it feels a little much for this car. I realize it’s intended to sell in low volume and serve as a statement for the brand, I’m just not sure that this is the statement they need to be making right now. I’d much rather they’d skipped the ELR and moved right on to building the Elmiraj.

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