Tue09162014

On The Road

Cadillac ELR: Unappreciated excellence


courtesy of Cadillac
The Cadillac ELR can go up to 40 miles on a full battery charge. After that, it switches on a gas-powered battery charger and continues driving for approximately 250 miles.

Attempting to be environmentally friendly citizens, we keep looking for the one automobile that would be fuel efficient, emissions sensitive and still meet nearly all of our transportation needs. It would be nice if it were also attractive and fun to drive.

Last month we drove a car we would place near the top of that list – the 2014 Cadillac ELR. It can go up to 40 miles on a full battery charge but then switch on its gasoline-powered battery charger and continue driving for at least another 250 miles.

Would those specifications meet our transportation needs and satisfy our environmental goals better than other automobiles now on the market? After a week with the car, we can say yes.

Realistic range for local driving

Like many professional families in Los Altos, nearly all our weekday driving is within a 10-mile radius. Drives from home to the workplace, shopping, restaurants, doctors’ offices and the like can all easily be done each day without exhausting the ELR’s batteries, which can be recharged at night in approximately four hours from a charging station installed in the garage.

On the other hand, our weekend trips often take us as far afield as Santa Barbara, Mendocino or the Sierra. For those trips, even a Tesla with its 300-mile range isn’t going to be an option until more of those supercharger stations are installed along less-trafficked routes in Northern California. On those long trips, the 1.4-liter gasoline engine can keep the batteries charged, delivering a rated 37 mpg, which is good fuel efficiency even when compared with hybrids.

Attractive all around

Beyond that, the Cadillac ELR is an attractive car inside and out. Car and Driver magazine recently declared it to be one of the 10 most beautiful cars in today’s marketplace.

Every time we slid into the driver or passenger seat, we had to pause for a moment to admire the understated but sleek elegance of the interior. We even found that the audio, navigation and climate controls of the GM CUE system, which rely on touch and motion, though not as easy to use as more traditional knobs and buttons, could be managed with a little practice.

A costly Caddy

Of course, the ELR isn’t inexpensive. It is, after all, a Cadillac. Our test car had a base price of $75,000, but the addition of optional advanced safety systems and a few cosmetic touches took the price to $82,135 with destination charges.

The ELR is available only as a coupe, but we don’t often have passengers in the back seat, and then only for short drives, so that’s not a problem. At 9 cubic feet, luggage space is sufficient for only two rollaboards and hand baggage, but that’s sufficient for weekend trips.

For those few weekends a year when we have heavy hauling to do or have family visiting, we can easily and inexpensively rent a minivan or panel truck, so we don’t worry about those requirements.

A delight to drive

The ELR is fun to drive. The 162 kwh electric motor puts out 295 pound-feet of torque, well within the track-worthy range. The motor is smooth and responsive in the city or on the highway or backroads, driving from a dead stop to well beyond legal speed limits in a nice gush of power. Handling with the ZF Servoelectric steering on the tight curves between here and the coast is satisfying as well.

Our only complaint driving was with the location of the physical warning cues that alert the driver when coming up too quickly behind another car, drifting out of one’s lane or approaching obstacles when backing up.

Unlike Mercedes-Benz, which alerts the driver with a vibration in the steering wheel, GM puts its mechanism under the driver’s seat cushions. In a week of driving, we never did get used to the unexpected joybuzzerlike feeling under our butts, which invariably caused us both to rise up out of our seats in surprise when it was triggered.

Slow sales

The surprising thing about this car is that, despite good press reviews, General Motors can’t seem to find customers for it.

Journalists and marketing experts are theorizing that the big problem is its genealogy. The powertrain is the same design as that in the Chevrolet Volt, so when the ELR was announced, even before anyone had the opportunity to spend any time with it, it was being referred to as a “Volt in a tuxedo.” Potential customers were prompted to ask why the ELR should cost more than twice as much as the Volt.

Of course, those were the same sort of questions potential Volt customers asked when it was introduced, when they learned that the Volt was being built on Chevy’s compact car chassis, with a substantial premium being charged for the electric/battery/gas-generator powertrain.

Comparing the Volt to hybrids in terms of powertrains puts it in a class by itself when considering its electric-only range and real-world fuel efficiency. Similarly, comparing the ELR to the Volt, the positive differences in the powertrain and suspension – not to mention the look and feel of the car itself – help justify that price premium.

The relevant question is not how a vehicle compares with others manufactured by the same company, but rather how it compares with other cars in its size and luxury category. When considered on the basis of combined versatility and environmental criteria, we think the ELR measures up well compared with its competition in the luxury-car category.

The good news in the disappointing sales is that customers are likely to find that GM dealers are willing to offer good lease rates and sales prices, and reportedly will even throw the installation of a charging station into the deal. And for those customers who want the same powertrain but need four doors, a hatchback and a usable rear seat, we hear that good deals are also being offered on the Chevy Volt.

Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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