Gutsy Roadster Says Cadillac Is Back
2004 Cadillac XLR Roadster

Some extravagances are worth the money. Consider this week's test car, the 2004 Cadillac XLR roadster.

It is the car as abstract art, a sculptured ode to the spirit of driving -- the speed, freedom and beauty of it. There is something timeless in its promise of unfettered movement, of going from one place to another just for the sheer joy of it, and doing it in a style that defies imitation.

It is a completely polarizing car, and that pleases me immensely. The artists, poets and musicians I love don't hold committee meetings before they create. They don't hire focus groups. They reach within themselves for the expression of an idea. They look for something different and, often as a result, see things differently. That is the case with the Cadillac XLR.

It does not have the sleek, sinewy body of a Jaguar XK-8 convertible. It eschews the luxurious roundness of a Lexus SC430. It lacks the bullet-in-flight persona of a Porsche 911 Carrera.

Instead, the XLR is a work of severely sharp angles, multiple creases and contrapuntal lines -- some stopping where they seem to begin, others starting where they would seem to stop. Its interior, highlighted by an instrument panel that reflects its exterior, is equally provocative.

The XLR does not seek transient popularity. It demands the passionate love of a relative few.

Whether that love will sustain the XLR's life in a brutally fickle automotive market remains to be seen. But that it will hold its place in the hearts of people who love cars, who admire bold design, is without question.

People who love it truly love it. There is no need to explain the car to them. They approach you at stoplights in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York and the District of Columbia. They are all ages, all ethnic groups. They simply dig the XLR's funk and audacity.

People who hate the XLR do so with a vengeance verging on vitriol. They, too, are of all ages and ethnic groups. They regard the car as an ugly, obsessively exhibitionist extravagance. Explaining the car to them is useless. I am not a member of their camp.

I love the XLR. I'm tickled by its adherence to the Middle Digit School of Design, which invites the offense of many in pursuit of memorable difference. Legends do not grow from mediocrity. There is nothing mediocre about the XLR. But there is something Corvette about it, because it shares the same rear-wheel-drive platform with the Chevrolet Corvette C6 sports car.

But the Corvette is about running fast and hard all the time. It is genuinely unhappy at cruising speeds. By comparison, the XLR, equipped with General Motors Corp.'s 4.6-liter, 32-valve, 320-horsepower Northstar V-8 engine, is about running fast only when its driver has a need or desire to do so. Otherwise, it is reasonably happy at boulevard speeds -- cruising w ith its automatically retractable hardtop roof down, gathering both crowns and frowns.

How different this is from Cadillac's endeavors in years past, when it rolled out car after car bereft of distinction, save for the Cadillac crests on their hoods and rear hatches. Those models, produced in the 1970s and 1980s, the worst of which was the inept Cadillac Cimarron, turned "luxury" into a cliche and the Cadillac motto, "The standard of excellence," into a joke.

Cadillac began putting that bad reputation behind it in the late 1990s. Successful models such as the full-size Escalade sport-utility vehicle, the swank SRX wagon/SUV, and the CTS and CTS-V sports sedans helped turn Cadillac's image -- and sales -- around. The XLR continues that revolution. But its $70,000-plus price tag and edgy styling mean it isn't likely to become a sales leader, per se. Here's betting, though, that the XLR and others of its Cadillac siblings have the stuff to become classics.

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: Tall people said they felt cramped in the XLR's tight, two-seat cabin. It felt just right to me. But I'm a short dude.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent ride -- in fact, surprisingly good for a roadster, especially on less-than-perfect roads where roadsters and similar sports cars tend to give you a beating. Excellent acceleration. Handling is excellent at highway speeds. But that grade falls to "good" in city traffic, where the XLR's weight of 3,547 pounds becomes more pronounced.

Head-turning quotient: Rarely have I been in a car that attracted as much attention, pro and con, as the XLR. It generates enough passion to start a cult.

Body style/layout: The XLR is a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-door, two-seat roadster equipped with an automatically retractable hardtop (glass rear window with defogger).

Engine/transmission: The car's 4.6-liter, 32-valve, double overhead-cam Northstar V-8 engine develops 320 horsepower at 6,400 revolutions per minute and 310 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 revolutions per minute. The engine is linked to an electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually.

Capacities: Seats two people. Carries 11.6 cubic feet of cargo with its top up, the equivalent of a couple of overnight bags. When the top is retracted, that drops to 4.4 cubic feet. Gasoline tank holds 18 gallons. Regular unleaded gasoline is okay.

Mileage: I averaged 23 miles per gallon, mostly in highway travel.

Safety: Front/rear ventilated disc brakes with anti-lock protection; standard traction and stability control; dual front air bags with head protection, side air bags.

Technical highlight: GM's "Magnetic Ride Control" active suspension system. Using sensors, it "reads" the road 1,000 times per second -- completely reading every inch of the road at a speed of 60 miles per hour -- and makes instant, multiple suspension adjustments to create a smooth ride.

Price: Base price is $75,385 with a dealer invoice price on the base model of $69,731, according to Price as tested is $76,525, including $325 for XM Satellite Radio installation and an $815 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: You can bargain. Compare with Jaguar XK-8, Lexus SC430, Mercedes-Benz SL500 and Porsche 911 Carrera. Also note that the Cadillac XLR remains virtually unchanged for 2005.