By David Thomas on November 25, 2013
No matter how dazzling the new 2014 Cadillac ELR extended-range electric vehicle looks inside and out, there's still a big question about what lies beneath that pretty skin.
Is the ELR just a Chevrolet Volt in luxury clothing?
After driving it through the hills of California, the short answer is yes, but there's much more to the ELR. Is it enough to sway luxury shoppers to drop nearly $76,000 on it?That's the question Cadillac worked hard on. On the technology side, the ELR begins with Volt drivetrain technology. That means there is decent power — 295 pound-feet of torque — in all situations, but it isn't a major improvement over the Volt. In a Chevy alternative-fuel vehicle, it's more than you expect. Luxury buyers may want even more, however.
The chassis has been enhanced as well, and the terrific handling I liked so much about our long-term Volt is on display in the ELR. It carved corners on a twisty mountain drive with ease. The steering feels more precise than the Volt, and the large 20-inch tires gave excellent grip. The stability was impressive as huge gusts of wind buffeted the ELR throughout my drive.
The most notable change is to the suspension. The Volt didn't ride rough, but it certainly rocked and rattled more than you'd want in a luxury car. With a completely new front and rear suspension, the ELR goes over large road imperfections with more confidence and less feedback in the cabin.
Combine that improved ride with the exceptionally quiet cabin and in most driving situations the ELR feels like the upscale electric vehicle that Cadillac wants it to be.
When the electric range is depleted and the gas-powered generator kicks on, that quiet is disrupted by a steady revving that was surprisingly loud. I remember hearing the generator in the Volt, but it actually sounded louder in the ELR.
Granted, I didn't have the stereo on during the ELR drive; even moderate volume from the stereo might mask the generator's noise. But it was a tad disturbing and definitely sounds crude versus a standard engine of any cylinder count revving naturally through shifts.
In terms of range, I managed to travel 30 miles on pure electric power before the generator turned on. That was close to the estimated 34-mile range the ELR's computer showed before we started the drive. Even with limited use of the air conditioning, the ELR was pushed hard on the drive. I was accelerating briskly on the Pacific Coast Highway before driving the steep inclines of the California mountains just north of Santa Monica. It was near the top of my ascent that the electric range ran out. On the way down the mountains, I used Cadillac's new Regen on Demand system.
It uses steering-wheel paddles — where you'd find shift paddles on cars equipped with them — to activate braking pressure that sends power back to the lithium-ion battery pack. Heading down the mountain with little to no traffic ahead of me, I used the regenerative paddles almost exclusively to slow the ELR. It was impressive to control the speed in that manner, and it delivered relatively smooth deceleration on its own. It can't stop the vehicle entirely, but if you're approaching a red light with enough advance warning, it's how you want to decelerate in normal, non-mountain driving.
The ELR's regenerative brakes, which are controlled by the brake pedal, were grippy — much like those in the Volt, but with a bit more control.
While the driving experience had a few flaws, the interior certainly has fewer. Cadillac has wrapped the doors and dashboard in layers of leather, and there's a dash of carbon fiber and wood trim, too. It's a high level of materials that I'd put on par with the larger Cadillac XTS Platinum's interior.
It's also equipped with the new Cadillac User Experience multimedia system that seemed to react much faster than the one in the last CTS I tested a month earlier. The screen also includes a new group of displays for the powertrain system, so you can see the power-flow chart, recharge times and mileage information.
The standard 10-speaker Bose stereo was impressively powerful and sounded terrific at various volumes and with a variety of music styles. I would likely be listening at a level that would make me forget about the generator noise.
The gauge cluster mixes analog displays for gas and electric levels, while the center is all digital. It's a much smaller cluster than the one found in the rest of the Cadillac lineup but works in a similar fashion. It only has two display styles, and each one has an option that declutters the screen of EV information.
While the cabin is comfortable for the driver, the backseat is almost unusable. There's acceptable rear legroom for short drives, but I'm 5 feet 10 inches tall and my head hit the interior's ceiling.
The coupe body style also means the Volt's hatchback utility is gone with the ELR. The rear seats fold down, but there's a large center console between them that lessens utility. The trunk is relatively sizable with nicely compartmentalized under-floor storage for the wall charger unit.
The Cadillac ELR is a mixed bag. While its starting price tag of $75,995, including a $995 destination fee, can be rationalized versus the Volt's $34,995 — the ELR is fully loaded with the exception of some preventative safety equipment — it's still going to be a hard sell.
Managing Editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David