Cadillac surprised the world with its beautiful ELR plug-in hybrid coupe, featuring knockout styling that turns heads and novel technology that opens wallets — but then it surprised the world again by pricing it out of consideration for anyone who'd likely buy one.
Three years after the arrival of the Chevrolet Volt, the 2014 Cadillac ELR is the only other car with General Motors' extended-range electric drivetrain. It's bigger than a Volt on the outside and uses many of the Volt's chassis and powertrain components, but that's where the similarities end. The two look, feel, ride and handle differently, so referring to the ELR as Cadillac's "Coupe de Volt" isn't entirely fair.
But Cadillac has brought upon itself a serious question with one simple act of pricing: Is the ELR worth its jaw-dropping $75,000 sticker? Cadillac has tried to bring expensive luxury coupes to market in recent years (Allante in the late 1980s, XLR in the early 2000s), both of which failed for a variety of reasons, but price was a major factor; customers seem to have a hard time swallowing the idea of a super-expensive Caddy coupe. Has Cadillac set itself up for another failure, reaching too far on a product with limited appeal thanks to its plug-in hybrid nature? Or has it crafted a machine so good that people will happily pay a high price for its high tech?
Exterior & Styling
The ELR was previewed by the Cadillac Converj concept car at the 2009 Detroit auto show, and the concept that wowed crowds there has translated beautifully into a production car. The coupe is gorgeous, with a distinctive wedge profile that has definite glimmers of Lamborghini in its lines and proportions. It may look smaller than a Volt, but it's nearly 9 inches longer and 2 inches wider, riding on the same 105.7-inch wheelbase. The long LED headlights stretch back over the tops of fenders that are aptly filled by huge, turbine-like 20-inch wheels. It's obvious that the first difference between the ELR and the Volt is style; the Volt is a slave to aerodynamic efficiency, and it looks awkward and thick. The ELR isn't as concerned about that. It's sleek and powerful, with squared off haunches and a long roofline that tapers back to traditional Cadillac-style vertical LED taillights. It turns heads for sure, yet fits in perfectly with the rest of Cadillac's lineup. This is one of the most successful concept-to-production car translations to come along in years.
How It Drives
The ELR uses a similar powertrain to the Volt, in that it employs a 16.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack to power an electric motor. A 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine is also on board to supply energy to the system when battery power runs low, enabling the car to continue driving indefinitely as long as the driver keeps filling it with gas. Like the Volt, though, the point is to plug it in regularly and run mostly on electricity. As it's intended to be a luxury sport coupe rather than a four-door commuter car, Cadillac's engineers tuned it for a more aggressive driving experience — meaning the ELR is quicker, tighter and distinctly more responsive than the Volt. The electric motor in the ELR delivers more power than in the Volt; while the ELR is rated a measly 181 horsepower, it has a hefty 295 pounds-feet of torque. Acceleration is stronger than in the Volt but not quite at the level one would expect in a luxury sports coupe costing this much money, possibly because the ELR weighs more than 4,000 pounds.
What's acceptable in a commuter car becomes less so in a car like the ELR; switching into Sport mode helps move it a bit more smartly due to a remap of the accelerator input, but it's still poky compared with competitors like the Tesla Model S. Handling is sharp, thanks partly to a revised front suspension and partly to big 20-inch wheels and aggressive performance tires. Steering feel is still over-boosted and numb, but body control is an improvement over the Volt. You can drive the ELR aggressively, but it will quickly let you know it's not a sports coupe — it's too heavy for much athletic activity.
Ride quality varies. Keep it in the Touring setting and it's as comfortable as a car with low-profile tires can be over broken pavement. Put it in Sport, and the adjustable shock absorbers firm up the suspension to uncomfortably stiff levels. You'll be happiest leaving the car in Touring mode and enjoying some quiet, stylish cruising.
The biggest gripe our editors had with the ELR was the artificial feel of the brakes. Compared with other conventional vehicles, the ELR's brakes feel disconnected, artificial and not as strong as they could be, but to me they're no worse than nearly any other electric car's system. I'm alone in that sentiment, however; every other editor felt that the brakes for both the ELR and Volt were the worst of any electric vehicle we've tested. Regenerative braking, where the car uses the electric motor to slow the vehicle and turn momentum back into electricity, may play a part in that. The ELR engages regenerative braking in three ways: In normal operation, it's fairly light; slide the ELR's shifter into "L" and it engages more aggressively, happening as soon as you let off the accelerator even slightly. The third way is by using paddles behind the steering wheel to activate the regen function manually. The paddle regenerative braking is meant to act as a kind of engine braking function when driving the ELR aggressively on twisty roads, but for me it saw more use when bringing the car to a halt at a stoplight.
As with the Volt, the point of getting yourself an ELR is to maximize fuel economy, but in this case it's to do so with some style and flair. It still comes down to numbers, though, and the ELR delivers mixed results. Driven with a full charge, the ELR is rated to go an average of 37 miles before the gasoline engine kicks in to keep the party going. As with the Volt, this is an achievable range, though it's heavily dependent on driving style, terrain and weather conditions. Despite very cold weather, I was able to coax 35 miles out of the ELR before needing a recharge.
Once battery power is depleted, the ELR's gas engine is rated to get an average of 33 mpg in normal driving (on premium fuel), a figure I was also able to achieve. The car the ELR is going after, the all-electric Tesla Model S, has an EPA-estimated range of roughly 208 or 265 miles, depending on which of the Tesla's much-higher-capacity battery packs you choose, but it generally takes considerably longer than the ELR's four to eight hours to recharge, depending on the type of charger to which the car is connected.
Use hidden buttons to open the long, angular doors and slip into an interior that meets all the qualifications for a Cadillac luxury coupe. The swooping geometric design starts at the base of the steeply sloped windshield and plunges down to the center console, with materials layered atop one another to create a distinctive, attractive cockpit. There are, however, a lot of materials employed here: leather, carbon fiber, suede-like Alcantara, two kinds of metal, piano black plastic, soft-touch vinyl, strips of wood — and that's just on the dashboard. It's attractive, and given the high quality of the materials it definitely feels upscale, but it's on the verge of being over-styled.
The front seats are comfortable and can be fully covered in Kona brown leather, front and back. The rear seats are small, suitable only for children — this is a 2 + 2 coupe, not a four-seater like the Volt. Outward visibility is also compromised by the low, swoopy styling. While the big windshield affords a decent view to the front, horrible glare off the dash top was present in nearly all conditions, even from streetlights at night. Thick windshield pillars create big blind spots.The ELR is quiet inside. An enclosed trunk makes it more hushed than the hatchback Volt at highway speeds, and the transition from electric-only to gas-assisted power is fairly seamless when under way. Around town at lower speeds, the gas engine is just as noticeable when it fires up as it is on the Volt. It's not intrusive or unpleasant, but it's not the silent experience of an all-electric Tesla Model S.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The ELR uses the same touch-sensitive, flat plastic panel controls as most new Cadillacs, and they're no more enjoyable here than in the ATS, CTS, XTS or any other car we've tested from any automaker. They do create a clean look, especially when the markings disappear on power-down, but they're difficult and distracting to use when the car is in motion and provide no tactile quality feedback that says "I'm a luxury product!" Cadillac does at least have a haptic feedback system that vibrates the console when you touch a control, so that poking, say, the temperature adjustment elicits a "bump" from the console.
The gauge cluster that sits before the driver looks fantastic, including a reconfigurable 8-inch LCD that can display an array of system information or a summary of key metrics, depending on the driver's desires. It's the most advanced display General Motors has created for an EV, fancier and more complete than the Chevrolet Spark EV's or the Volt's displays, with style that is appropriate to a Cadillac.
As with most Cadillacs, the CUE entertainment system graces the center console with an 8-inch touch-screen. Our experience with it has been mixed; in some Cadillacs it works brilliantly, in others, decidedly less so. In the ELR, it refused to recognize a plugged-in Android phone (after working fine the previous day), and required several seconds to implement the simplest of voice commands for the navigation system. (Saying "cancel" and waiting eight seconds for the command to go through is unacceptable.) A premium Bose stereo is standard on the ELR, but it doesn't sound especially remarkable. As with the Volt, a smartphone app is available to monitor and control aspects of the ELR remotely, such as charging status, door lock operation and remote start.
Cargo & Storage
Being a coupe with less interior space than the Volt, the ELR doesn't have the storage versatility of its hatchback cousin. The trunk opening is decently sized, and cargo volume itself is comparable to the Volt, but the rear seats don't fold forward, limiting cargo space to just what the 10.5-cubic-foot trunk provides and whatever you can stuff into the backseat. There are cubbies and storage pockets in the doors, but not much in the center console due to the battery pack's placement. Cadillac's powered cupholder door is present, and it's just as weirdly gimmicky here as it is in the CTS where it debuted.
As befits a car in this price category, the ELR is filled with a laundry list of the latest electronic safety gear, plus an item or two exclusive to Cadillac. Forward collision alert, lane departure warning and a backup camera are all standard, as is Cadillac's exclusive safety alert seat. It ties in to the aforementioned systems and vibrates when the car is straying from its lane or when the system senses a low-speed collision is imminent, such as accidentally backing into an unseen obstacle. Adaptive cruise control with intelligent brake assist that can brake the car to a halt is available as a rather expensive ($1,995) option. The ELR has not been crash-tested, but you can see all its safety equipment here.
Value in Its Class
The 2014 ELR starts at an eye-popping $75,995 before any federal or local tax credits are taken into account. Major options include the Kona brown leather seating package for $2,450; the adaptive cruise control for $1,995; a luxury package that includes 20-inch wheels, cross traffic and blind spot alert systems, and articulated headlamps for $1,696; and the crystal red tintcoat paint my car featured for $995. Option up an ELR for yourself here. Grand total for my ELR as tested was $83,130 including the destination charge, a price that is simply a mistake on Cadillac's part. Most automotive media expected a sticker price nearly $30,000 less.
Cadillac wants the ELR to be a direct competitor to the Tesla Model S, the fully electric five-seat sedan that handily outperforms the ELR in every way except total range. The Model S starts at $70,890 and quickly climbs when you add content that comes standard on the ELR. But the Model S can match a Porsche 911 in performance and seat five people very comfortably, and it's easily as stylish as the ELR. Its main drawbacks are a very limited dealer network, long recharge times on anything other than a 480-volt DC fast charger and unproven long-term reliability. The ELR also has to compete with other expensive luxury coupes, most of which cost less than it does, such as the extremely well-done V-8-powered Mercedes-Benz E550 coupe, which starts at $59,925. Even Cadillac's own outgoing CTS-V coupe, a chiseled sledgehammer with a supercharged V-8 engine, costs less than the ELR. Compare the ELR against its competitors here.
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