2015 Cadillac ELR

Cadillac wowed crowds at the Detroit Auto Show in 2009 when it unveiled the Converj concept. At a time when hybrid vehicles were boring and electric vehicles induced range anxiety, the luxury brand's exciting new concept was a plug-in, extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV) that promised sexy sheetmetal, a luxurious interior and a worry free range in excess of 300 miles. It was, as GM's Bob Lutz said at the show, the "Cadillac of electric vehicles."

Unfortunately, GM's financial turmoil at the time left little hope the Converj would ever see production. But this industry is full of surprises, and Cadillac unveiled the all-new 2014 ELR at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year - the stunning visual twin of the Converj that had everyone doing a double-take - and readied its production.

Like the concept, the Cadillac ELR is an E-REV utilizing GM's Voltec electric propulsion technology, which is a powertrain shared with the Chevy Volt. But don't think the two are on the same mission. While the utilitarian Volt boasts four doors and a reasonable base price of about $35,000, the ELR is a flagship luxury coupe that costs more than twice as much.

Rather than ponder the $40,000 delta between the mechanical twins by scrutinizing their spec sheets, I accepted Cadillac's invite to drive its all-new ELR along the coast in Malibu, California, last week.

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Face-to-face with Cadillac's newest, it is hard to not be impressed with its appearance. The coupe has a wonderful stance, excellent proportions and the full LED exterior illumination looks spectacular. Even the mirrors, which are the most obvious change from the concept, seemed perfectly sculpted and the design team has artfully integrated the turn signals into their housings (the same LED strips illuminate as charge indicators when the vehicle is plugged-in). The 20-inch alloys were a must-have carryover, explained a Cadillac executive, and they appear to have been well worth the additional headaches they may have caused during the design phase.

I would argue that the ELR's cockpit is Cadillac's most luxurious to date.

Thankfully, the cabin doesn't disappoint either. The interior is an inviting mix of beautiful high-quality leather and sueded microfiber, with bright chrome, genuine wood and carbon-fiber accents offered in a variety of packages - I would argue that the ELR's cockpit is Cadillac's most luxurious to date. The ELR and CTS share much inside, including the steering wheel design, CUE infotainment, center console and switchgear layout. The seats, with the exception of the upholstery pattern and minor functionality, also appear to share frames with those in the CTS.

While Cadillac has thoughtfully put four seats inside the ELR, only the front are fit to be occupied by an adult (the automaker acknowledges its 2+2 configuration). I found both the driver and front passenger seating position exceptionally comfortable, with plenty of leg, shoulder and head room for my six-foot two-inch frame. I climbed into the rear seats, which are comfortable buckets for the lower half of the torso, but I was unable to sit upright without my head pressing awkwardly, and uncomfortably, against the roof. Overall, the choice of materials, fit and finish seemed very good - "world class" is a well-deserved and appropriate description.

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The primary instrument cluster is a flat-panel display with a bright chrome ring in the middle for dimensional contrast. State-of-charge for the battery is a green LED-segment on the left, while the right features a blue LED-segment for the gasoline level. The center of the screen is a full-color multifunction display that is very easy to read, even through polarized sunglasses.

Cadillac's CUE infotainment system with navigation is standard. The capacitive touch and haptic feedback flat-panel display occupies all of the vertical real estate in the center stack. I have experienced CUE in the ATS, CTS and XTS - the identical system in the ELR is equally as frustrating to use as the buttons are difficult to actuate and slow to respond, while the gloss black surface quickly becomes covered in fingerprints. Immediately below the CUE is a traditional shift lever (PRNDL) with a button to select one of four driving modes.

The battery sends its juice to a 207 horsepower primary drive motor powering the front wheels, which is a nice bump in power over the Volt.

Beneath the skin, GM's Voltec powertrain technology was carried over mostly unchanged from its operation in the Volt, with the exception of a bump in power that is done purely through the software. The nucleus of the system is a T-shaped, 435-pound, 16.5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack that is mounted low and along the centerline of the vehicle. The battery sends its juice to a 154 kW (207 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque) primary drive motor powering the front wheels, which is a nice bump in power over the Volt (the same motor produces 149 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque in the Chevrolet).

When the battery is discharged, a 1.4-liter gasoline-fed internal combustion engine (GM's EcoFLEX LUU), rated at 84 horsepower, is tasked with turning an electric generator to provide the necessary energy for propulsion. The front wheels are driven through a planetary gearset, which links everything together. Technically speaking, there is a physical connection between the engine and the wheels, but the ELR is considered a series hybrid as the power is not direct - the engine revolutions are unrelated to the speed of the vehicle.

2015 Cadillac ELR

According to Cadillac, the ELR will deliver an electric vehicle (EV) range of about 35 miles, which is slightly less than the Volt's 38 miles due to the higher power output. After the battery is discharged, the combustion engine will fire up to deliver a combined estimated range of 345 miles, a figure that also falls short of the Volt's 380-mile combined range. A 120-volt travel charger will restore the ELR's battery in about 15 hours, while a 240-volt charging station will do the same task in about five hours. Cadillac estimates fuel economy at 33 miles per gallon combined, and 82 MPGe in EV mode.

The suspension offers continuously variable real-time damping with several driver-selectable modes.

With regards to the other mechanical bits, the engineering team has chosen GM's HiPer Strut for the front suspension and a simpler beam axle with Watts linkage in the rear. The suspension offers continuously variable real-time damping with several driver-selectable modes that also alter steering and powertrain response. The steering is electrically assisted rack-and-pinion, and the 20-inch alloy wheels are wrapped in 245/40R20 all-season Bridgestone tires, with a custom rubber compound.

As mentioned, the ELR offers four different driving modes: Tour, Sport, Mountain and Hold. Tour mode is the default setting, and it provides the greatest powertrain efficiently and softest damping. Sport mode improves throttle response, and improves feedback with more aggressive steering and suspension settings. Mountain mode is engineered to provide more power in mountainous environments by sustaining a sufficient state of charge in the battery so its power is always available. Lastly, Hold mode allows the driver to direct the power system to preserve the battery power for later use (e.g., the driver wants to drive in EV mode at the end of a long highway trip). Lastly, the engineers have put paddles on the back of the steering wheel for the ELR's unique "Regen on Demand" feature. Both paddles are held to activate aggressive regenerative braking, which slows the vehicle and simultaneously sends charging power back to the battery.

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With the drive mode left in its default Tour setting, the Cadillac will operate as an EV until its battery is fully discharged. The ELR has more power than the Volt, but it also lugs around an additional 300 pounds of mass. Even so, acceleration off the line is spirited, with a sprint to 60 miles per hour taking about eight seconds (one second quicker than the Volt) under battery power and slightly quicker when the combustion engine is running. Mid-range power is good too; credit goes to the electric motor's abundant reserve of torque.

Under pure battery power, the driving experience was serene, majestic and relaxing.

The ELR makes a wondrous EV. During combustion-free operation, there is no sound or even an electric whine emanating from the engine compartment. Thanks to active noise cancelling from the standard premium Bose 10-channel audio system, the only audible annoyances permeating the cabin are from the wind rushing around the mirrors and the softened patter of the tires against broken pavement. Under pure battery power, the driving experience was serene, majestic and relaxing.

My driving evaluation began with turning the Cadillac north and pointing its nose up one of Southern California's famed canyon roads. The ELR handled the sweeping corners with confidence, its wide track and low stance contributing to its stability. The steering was light, but felt stable and the tires were easy to place. Only when pushed into corners far faster than what any sane owner would attempt with a 4,000-plus-pound hybrid did the tires squeal in protest, their tread blocks rebelling with understeer.

2015 Cadillac ELR

Unfortunately, after 28 miles had passed beneath the ELR's nearly flush belly pan, the lithium-ion battery pack was exhausted and the combustion engine fired up. The ensuing racket shattered the silence.

The soundtrack from the gasoline-fed four was hurried, anxious and unrefined.

With the ELR now in Mountain mode and the battery pack showing zero range, the Cadillac climbed the road up into the Santa Monica Mountains with the 1.4-liter EcoFlex racing away on the other side of the firewall. While the power under my right foot hadn't noticeably changed, the soundtrack from the gasoline-fed four was hurried, anxious and unrefined, especially when I pushed the coupe harder up the canyon. After several minutes of an admittedly strenuous climb, the engine seemed to be holding noisily at about 4,500 rpm (there is no tachometer, so this is an estimate). The unpleasant noise flooded the passenger compartment.

The engine droned annoyingly for the next hour as I played on the famed Mulholland Highway, going up and down the windy canyons like a slot car. I put the ELR through its paces, testing the effective brakes and really enjoying the surprisingly useful Regen on Demand feature. Overall, the ELR was fun to drive, but I couldn't shake the bothersome combustion clatter. Only when the road flattened out did the engine's pace subside to a bearable level, and some tranquility was restored. I turned on the audio system, which drowned it out even more, and headed back with the flowing traffic.

2015 Cadillac ELR

In the end, the Cadillac ELR left me frustrated and disheartened.

Even though we had started on a good note, in the end, the Cadillac ELR left me frustrated and disheartened. While its sleek sheetmetal and luxurious appointments had my heart racing, its lack of innovation where eyes don't peer is inexcusable in the premium segment.

There are many impressive pure electric and hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles on the market today (the Tesla Model S and Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, for instance), and just around the corner (the Audi A3 e-tron comes immediately to mind), but the ELR isn't one of them. GM's misstep is that the company is peddling the Chevrolet Volt's five-year-old E-REV technology in its brand-new 2014 Cadillac ELR, and then asking $75,995 for the privilege. The company is clearly hoping the coupe's exquisite styling will overshadow its uninspired powertrain, but in this case, its beauty is only skin deep.