The most attention that Cadillac has so far received for its first electric range-extended luxury vehicle is an uproar over its price. The 2014 ELR plug-in-hybrid sports coupe starts at $76,990 – almost $4,000 more than an entry-level Tesla Model S, and more than double the price of the Chevrolet Volt, the groundbreaking car that proved General Motors' series hybrid powertrain.
The hullabaloo has only served to highlight the question every potential buyer asks of any car: Is it worth the money?
Yes and no. The ELR is the most premium Cadillac on the market, including far more upscale features as standard equipment than any other Cadillac to date, including LED lights, an 8-inch full-color LCD infotainment screen and 20-inch wheels. The leather, carbon fiber and wood that make up the interior are hand-crafted. And the driving experience is performance-oriented, having the instant torque of an electric motor and direct drive that negates the need for shifting.
So if the buyer's intention is to have the most deluxe, easy-to-drive, fuel-efficient Cadillac on the market, the ELR would certainly be it.
But if the buyer is more eco-oriented and seeking any kind of return on investment for fuel savings, there are better options. For the kind of money Cadillac is charging, a buyer could have two of GM's most esteemed vehicles – the $46,025 gas-powered CTS sport sedan and a fuel-sipping Volt for the kids. (The Volt costs $34,815, but its price is reduced after applying a $7,500 federal tax credit.)
The ELR's true value is its all-around uniqueness.
In development for 28 months, the ELR is the production version of the aggressively contoured Converj Concept Cadillac unveiled to endless oohs and aahs at the Detroit Auto Show in 2009. Indeed, the ELR was sculpted in clay right next to the come-hither Converj at GM HQ to ensure its similarity, with tweaks to its proportions.
The 22-inch wheels of the concept were downsized to still-impressive 20s, like the XTS, to enable the use of a hyperstrut suspension and active damping for better driver control and less susceptibility to high-speed shakes, an imperative for a car with a higher top speed than most electrics – 106 mph.
The ELR is a plug-in-electric hybrid, or battery-range-extended vehicle, that uses the same propulsion system as the Volt. That means it can run as a pure electric vehicle for about 35 miles using the electricity pulled from the grid and packed into its lithium-ion battery, or as a series hybrid that employs a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine as a generator to charge the batteries that drive the electric motor that powers the car. Combined, the ELR can travel 330 miles on a full tank of gas and a full charge.
When I entered the car for a morning drive last month, it wasn't charged to capacity. My dashboard said I had 200 miles of fuel range and 30 miles of projected EV range. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway and into the serpentine curves of Malibu's prodigious canyons, I traveled slightly less than the car predicted in pure EV mode – 26.6 miles – before it seamlessly transitioned to the gas generator. The only indication that the car was powering its batteries with gasoline was the engine sound, which, because of its hybrid setup, doesn't change pitch with speed.
The ELR is equipped with four drive modes, the default being the most fuel-efficient "touring," which I found adequately responsive and smooth. "Mountain" maintains energy for long treks uphill; "hold" preserves battery charge by activating the gas-powered generator. "Sport" was most satisfying, ratcheting up the torque response and stiffening the steering and suspension.
Laterally, the suspension seemed more effective than vertically. Even with continuous damping control, the ride, at times, felt more bouncy than I would have expected for a car at this price point, even one that comes with a hefty price premium for being a luxury hybrid. Delightfully, the ELR lacked discernible slop in the corners, and the electric, variable-assist steering felt firm without requiring too much effort.
But my favorite feature of the ELR was its Regen on Demand. The patented system making its debut on Cadillac's latest uses steering-wheel-mounted paddles to brake and replenish power to the battery. Similar in operation to paddle shifters, clicking the paddle replicates the feel of engine braking and instantly decelerates the car, though for hard stops, the brake pedal is still needed.
My average fuel economy for my 72.6-mile trip: 52 mpg. Of those miles, 31.4 were driven as an EV; 41.2 were run on gas. According to the car, I had used 1.39 gallons of gas and 13.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity. That's impressive, especially since the Cadillac is swaddled in luxury instead of skimping to eke more miles from its fuel.
Overall, the design mandate for the ELR seemed to be one of understated elegance. Unlike many electric vehicles, which proudly declare their low-emissions cred with circuit-board graphics or clean-breathing blue badges or simply an "E" on the back bumper, the ELR lets subtler design cues indicate its eco pedigree, such as a dramatic flush-mount grille topped with LED headlights shaped like princess-cut diamonds. Instead of bragging it's a Cadillac with a name plate, the brand is written in characteristic cursive inside the headlamp housing. Lights ringing the mirror indicate when the car is plugged in and charging.
Inside, the ELR's cockpit mimics the angled V of its posterior. The leather dashboard is sculpted to a point, as is the center console that controls its CUE infotainment and navigation and Bose 10-speaker audio systems.
The ELR is finished in soft, luxurious leather. Its seats are comfortable but will be most enjoyable for its front passengers. It seats four, but those seated in back who have even reasonably long torsos are likely to skim their hairdos on the microsuede headliner. The ELR's T-shaped battery runs the length of the car, and effectively splits the rear seat in two.
There is only one version of the ELR that can be had with two interior colors (ebony and cashmere) and four options – a $1,695 luxury package that gives the wheels a silver finish and adds half a dozen safety features, such as rear cross traffic alert; $1,995 adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains the car's following distance; $2,450 for semi-aniline leather seats; and $995 for a crystal red tint coat. That's it.
The question now is how many people will buy in to the ELR's alluring, if steeply priced, premise. The ELR goes on sale in January.
2014 CADILLAC ELR:
–Powertrain: 1.4-liter, four-cylinder gasoline-powered electric generator; 16.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery; direct drive with multiple drive modes and adjustable regenerative braking
–Torque: 295 pound-feet
–Top all-electric speed: 106 mph
–Estimated range: 35 miles (EV), 295 miles (extended range EV drive system), 330 miles (combined)
–Charge time: 4.5 hours (240-volt, level 2 charger), 12 hours (120-volt, level 1 charger)
–Wheelbase: 106.1 inches
–Overall length: 186 inches
–Curb weight: 4,070 pounds
–Real-world fuel economy (based on 72.6 miles of driving): 52 mpg
–Base price: $75,995
–Price as tested: $76,990
Prices include destination charge.
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