2014 Cadillac ELR Road Test Review

Tilting At Windmills

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  • Engine
    1.4L I4, 154 kW Motor
  • Power
    217 HP / 295 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    Single Speed
  • 0-60 Time
    8.2 Seconds (est.)
  • Top Speed
    107 MPH
  • Drivetrain
    Front-Wheel Drive
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    4,050 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    10.5 CU-FT
  • MPG
    31 City / 35 HWY
  • Warranty
    4 Years / 50,000 Miles
  • Base Price
  • As Tested Price
Well, this is awkward.

A few years ago, Audi Of America's boss Johan de Nysschen went on record describing the Chevrolet Volt as "a car for idiots." Fast-forward to earlier this summer, and the well-regarded executive suddenly found himself in a new office with new business cards bearing the title: President, Cadillac. That means that among other challenges, de Nysschen is now tasked with selling the ELR, a car that is, at its core, a Volt in a sportier, less utile frock wearing a price tag that's twice as expensive.

Frankly, it's not a prospect we imagine the South African executive and recent Infiniti boss relishes. Just about nobody is buying the ELRCadillac has sold but 774 examples of its plug-in hybrid coupe this year and it presently has an almost a 200-day supply according to Automotive News. What's more, those numbers actually represent big improvements over just a few months ago, before GM started heaping on the incentives. The cynic in us says that the bad news for De Nysschen is that he's got a borderline sales-proof car in his new corporate garage. The good news? Cadillac customers apparently aren't idiots.

Before we go any further, let's get back to that elephant in the room: price. There's no way to be kind here – General Motors has saddled its 2014 Cadillac ELR with a scarcely believable bottom line: $75,000. Even arithmophobes like us can work out that that means it costs as much as a base ATS Coupe and a Chevrolet Volt combined. That, in our book, is unforgivably bad math – the sort of computation logic understood only by buyers of the Aston Martin Cygnet, or perhaps those who signed off on the Allante's assembly process back in the '80s, an arrangement that involved flying uncompleted cars over the Atlantic in custom-outfitted Boeing 747s. Twice.
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That window sticker has been warding off would-be suitors like garlic wreaths and wooden stakes in Transylvania.

That $75k price is one hell of an eight ball to start this review behind, but it can't be helped – the same figure awaits potential buyers as they enter their local Cadillac showroom. For months now, that window sticker has been warding off would-be suitors like garlic wreaths and wooden stakes in Transylvania.

When it launched, Cadillac officials admitted they didn't have any sales-specific targets for the model. At the time, that statement was interpreted to mean that they weren't expecting big sales numbers. As it turns out, they may have been trying to tell us that they didn't expect to sell any at all. In recent months, some $14,000+ in incentives has apparently quietly become available (to say nothing of government tax credits) and that has helped the ELR's sales picture somewhat, but things still aren't pretty.

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The ELR is arguably the best-looking model in Cadillac's edgy, fashion-forward portfolio.

That's a particular shame, because the ELR is a stunning piece of kinetic sculpture – arguably the best-looking model in Cadillac's edgy, fashion-forward portfolio. General Motors didn't simply apply the brand's Art & Science design language to a Volt platform with a couple of doors lopped off. On the contrary, the whole of the ELR is very well proportioned, with its own height (lower), own wheelbase and length (longer) and own track width (wider). Park an ELR and a Volt next to each other, and you'd never guess there's so much as a bolt in common. In particular, that significantly longer overall length – nearly nine inches – allows for a much more steeply raked windshield and backlight, affording the ELR the same sort of racy yet compact proportions that made the 2009 Converj concept car that sired it such a sensation. In other words, in terms of aesthetics, the ELR's price tag and its looks line up just fine.

The promise of that angular, modern and expensive-looking exterior is carried over into the cabin, as well. It's a sumptuous, well-designed space for two, with seemingly everything within reach covered in leather, Alcantara, real wood veneer or metal trim. As you'd expect, those rakish good looks outside take a spatial toll inside – unless the only precious cargo you transport is named Fendi or Birkin, we wouldn't expect much use out of the tiny back seats.

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A 16.5-kWh battery array and 154-kW electric motor delivers 217 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels through a planetary gearset.

Cadillac's CUE infotainment system is reprised here, capacitive-touch warts and all. It's still a sexy and high-tech approach, but it's also occasionally slow, cumbersome to use and too often chooses flash over function. Like the startup and shutdown sound effects that accompany it, CUE feels novel and high-tech momentarily, but too often, that sensation is soon replaced by annoyance. Having said that, CUE probably wouldn't stop us from buying this car in and of itself. Probably.

The same can't be said for what's under the hood, sadly. Beneath the ELR's crisply tailored skin, GM's five-year-old E-REV powertrain technology has been carried over largely unchanged from its Volt duties. That means there's a T-shaped, 16.5-kWh battery array that weighs 435 pounds nestled low along the spine of the vehicle. Those cells power a 154-kW electric motor that delivers up to 217 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque (depending on the drive mode selected) to the front wheels through a planetary gearset. That's a fair bit more power than the 149 hp and 273 lb-ft of the Volt, with the changes all affected through keystrokes – the actual hardware is the same. Offsetting the power gain, sadly, is an increase in weight, which comes in at 4,050 pounds – about 250 pounds more than the electrified Bowtie.

2014 Cadillac ELR

Range sits at 340 miles, with about 37 miles of that figure being electric-only. That is enough for most people's commutes.

When the battery pack is depleted or the driver chooses to preserve some of its charge for later use with its clever "Hold" feature, an 84-hp, 1.4-liter range-extending engine fires up and charges the battery pack through a generator. The range-extending engine kicks on smoothly and is less intrusive in longer-distance daily driving conditions than in the Volt, but if you drain the battery completely or call upon Mountain mode to stockpile electrons in anticipation of a hilly drive, the gas engine can make quite an uncultivated racket, outshouting the ELR's standard Bose active noise control feature. Like the Volt, the ELR also requires premium fuel.

Cadillac says total range sits at 340 miles, with about 37 miles of that figure being electric-only – enough for most people's commutes. If you're plugging into a standard 110-volt wall outlet, a complete charge will take roughly 12 hours, but a 240v quick charger drops that time to a more palatable 4.5 hours. All-in, the powertrain is good for just 33 miles per gallon combined and 82 MPGe when in EV mode.

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With so much weight in batteries to tow around, this Cadillac sadly doesn't drive half as vividly as it looks. It's slow.

With so much weight in batteries to tow around, this Cadillac sadly doesn't drive half as vividly as it looks. There's no way to soft-pedal this: It's slow, with a 0-60 time of over eight seconds in the best-case scenario Extended Range mode with both the e-motor and gas engine sweating in tandem. Pure electric mode is slower still, at about nine seconds. Top speed is 107 miles per hour. To borrow a well-worn phrase from actor James Tolkan in Top Gun, the ELR's ego is writing checks its body can't cash. That sort of performance is acceptable in an economy-minded purchase like the quite-excellent Volt, but in a car of the ELR's ambition and price, it's a bitter disappointment.

Beyond that aforementioned bump in power, the ELR's chief powertrain innovation is a pair of regenerative braking paddles that the driver can tug as they would a traditional automatic transmission shift paddle. Doing so summons more aggressive regenerative braking (which shoves more electrons into the battery pack for later use), with the clever byproduct being a sensation similar to that of a downshift in a conventional gas-powered car. Making liberal use of the paddles won't greatly increase your total electric driving range, but it helps, and it's rather entertaining.

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The lack of power in all modes and engaging dynamics is frustrating for anything other than commuting or casual cruising.

Unfortunately, that's about as entertaining as the ELR gets – the Autoblog team has driven a number of models in all seasons and on various types of roads at this point, and the lack of power in all modes and engaging dynamics is frustrating for anything other than commuting or casual cruising. Speaking of driving in all seasons, we had occasion to drive the ELR last winter in a snowstorm, and it was an unexpectedly unnerving experience. As it turns out, 245/40-series tires, poor visibility and unpredictable low-speed brake pedal response thanks to regenerative circuitry doesn't make for a confidence-inspiring drive.

Motoring in the dry is obviously much better, but it's still not particularly entertaining, despite the institution of a more sophisticated suspension and steering setup than found in the Volt. Up front, GM's well-regarded HiPer strut system takes up residence (you may remember it from upper-trim Buick LaCrosse and Regal models) and out back you'll find a Watt's link and electronically controlled variable-rate dampers. The new setup ably keeps the ELR from feeling like it's fitted with 20-inch, lead-filled shoes and cornering is flat, but the ride still has occasional moments of harshness over broken pavement. Steering is realized via an electric dual-pinion, rack-mounted system, and it's light and accurate, but feel is not a strong suit.

Other niggles? At 10.5 cubic feet, the ELR's decently sized trunk is actually a shade larger than that of the Volt, but you'll have to access it through a mail slot of an opening. And while the rear seats fold down, they only do so in a 40/20/40 split, with the middle 20 staying upright thanks to the center console. We also observed an unacceptable amount of wind noise around the front passenger seat in several different test vehicles.

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We're going to content ourselves by viewing the ELR as a beautiful piece of sculpture that just so happens to move.

Overall, the ELR is a car we can't recommend. It looks sensational and has a well-appointed cabin, but a quick spin will douse any hopes of having an entertaining driving experience. And that's just one problem – there are plenty of issues to go around, including limited practicality and a confounding infotainment experience. In the end, though, the ELR's headline-grabbing foible remains its bottom line. The buying public is doing a fine enough job of telling GM that its pricing strategy is absurd by staying away, so we probably shouldn't belabor the point. However, we're not even sure if cutting its MSRP by a third would greatly improve its fortunes.

Despite disastrous sales, Cadillac isn't giving up on its electric dream buggy – word is that for the 2016 model year, the car will receive a modestly more capacious battery pack that should augment EV range slightly, perhaps to 39 or 40 miles. That can't hurt, but it's also unlikely to improve the ELR's chances significantly unless it's accompanied by both a much lower price tag and increased marketing efforts.

For the moment, we're going to content ourselves by viewing the ELR as a beautiful piece of sculpture that just so happens to move. An added bonus, if you will. We're not sure that'll help Johan de Nysschen sleep better at night, but if it doesn't, might we humbly suggest getting on the horn with MW Greentech Automotive, the team about to launch the V8-powered Fisker Karma-based Destino? A compact front-driver like the ELR doesn't need a big V8 to be excellent, but a shape as compelling as this deserves to live on – even if it has to be with a hybrid powertrain of another sort altogether.

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Cadillac ELR Information

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