It’s a cool, bright morning in the desert oasis of Palm Springs as I climb into the all-new 2014 Cadillac ELR hybrid on the day of its global launch. With the push of a start button, the sleek black coupe's electric engine whirs to life. I begin my test drive along a highway of cacti and towering palms. There are worse ways to start a day.
Since naming it our Best Electric choice at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show last January, I've been waiting for the chance to see if GM is ready to compete with the likes of Tesla and BMW in this increasingly competitive war for the electric socket in your garage.
My ELR glides out onto the asphalt. Accelerating through the gears, the vehicle remains riotously quiet. The friction from the tires is the only audible cue to the fact that I’m hitting 30 mph. I snag a red light. A $200K-plus sports car rolls up beside me. Its giddy 50-year-old driver comments on how good the ELR looks on the road.
The design is certainly there, but how does this car handle?
Picking up speed, I launch into the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, threading an obstacle course of rocks and overzealous retirees biking to the mountain’s summit. It’s clear that this Cadillac has the responsive handling chops of its predecessor. The ELR has the rough capacity for 35 miles of electric driving, perfect for getting to the office and back or as a third vehicle for the home. But don’t let the range kill you there.
The ELR is powered by a 16.5 kWh lithium-ion battery that produces an impressive 295 pound-feet of torque, easily felt throughout my trip up the mountain. Combined with an onboard 1.4-liter gas-powered electric generator (part of GM’s EREV tech that also powers Chevy’s Volt), the ELR’s total power output increases to 207 horsepower and extends the overall range to over 300 miles. This point resonates with Cadillac’s ultimate purpose for this vehicle: an electric that doesn’t compromise on luxury but also isn’t constrained by access to an electrical outlet.
I tested the “hold” mode, which force-starts the generator while there is still juice left in the battery to conserve the energy for easier terrain, as opposed to hills, mountains and colder temperatures, which tend to drain the battery more quickly. For a car that technically doesn’t have gear shifting, the ELR’s coolest feature is the steering wheel–mounted paddles, which are used to recharge the battery using gravity. This could be used, for example, when taking a spin downhill, using the paddles while braking to compound some energy back. Mine built up a couple bars on the twisting 25-mile descent.
The ELR’s exterior design features the signature Cadillac Art and Science language front and center. The lack of an open front grille is prominent, or rather the fact that it is largely sealed, as most of the air comes through the lower vent, a functional and not just aesthetic choice. In driving you want air to stay attached to the grille, so sending it down to the lower vent helps to keep the vehicle's aerodynamic integrity and therefore reduce overall drag.
The ELR body is sculpted so that the angle of declination running from front to back does not allow the airstream to tumble, continuing the emphasis on aerodynamic styling, while the large 20” wheels are a marriage of form and function, according to our chat with Pam Fletcher, the Director of Engineering on the ELR project. They provide dynamic stability but also contribute to the efficiency of the vehicle.
As in all Caddies, the distinct light signature on the ELR is of extreme importance. The A&S light blades are prominent day or night, but the classic stacked headlamps seen in the upcoming 2015 Escalade also steal some thunder. The handcrafted design elements inside (complementary leather, carbon fiber and wood) are meant to evoke the Cadillacs of old, while the combination of A&S design and new technologies takes the overall package to the next level.
Available in black, silver, gray and red, the ELR’s hues stick pretty close to home, which I think just adds to its allure as a remarkably advanced hybrid in classic Cadillac clothing. If you want to be just a little more exclusive, however, Saks on Fifth Avenue has 100 gorgeous white models for those doing a bit of Christmas window-shopping.
At the end of the day, is it a Tesla killer? No—because it’s in a different category. If Cadillac wanted to compete directly, they would have built an all-electric to conquer that audience. But at this point in time, GM has the right idea in releasing an extended-range electric first, as the market will take some time to completely abandon the pump. The ELR is an exceptional foray into this arena and I can’t wait to see where Cadillac goes with it down the road.
Available January from $75,955 (without electric subsidies). For more information visit cadillac.com/elr.