First Drive: 2014 Cadillac ELR

In terms of refinement, eco-friendliness, and styling, the ‘range-extended electric’ Cadillac ELR is completely unique on the road today.

For me, the past few days have been a lesson in contrast.

As I sit here, snowed into midtown Atlanta (aka’ Hothlanta’ aka ‘Atlantarctica’), I’m glad to be home. At the same time, however, I’m left longing for the 80-degree afternoons I experienced in Palm Springs just before Winter Storm Leon clasped my city with his icy grip.

However, this particular lesson began in California, on a trip sponsored by Cadillac to drive its new 2014 ELR range-extended hybrid. This car would also leave me with mixed emotions about what I was driving, what I wasn’t driving, and whether or not I’d even want the alternatives for the same coin.

Harsh angles, perfectly proportioned

You can tell for yourself that the ELR – albeit angular – is a handsome car. Just take a look at our photo gallery. What you may not be able to tell simply by looking at it, though, is that this car essentially went from design concept to production with few tweaks.

The ELR initially debuted back in 2009 at the Detroit Auto Show as the Cadillac Converj Concept, and, even then, it was an extreme representation of the brand’s “Art and Science” design language.

CUE remains a great, very attractive idea, but one that just isn’t that easy to use.

To bring the car to the streets, Caddy gave it proper mirrors and headlights, and sent it to the stamping press. Even the wheels remained unchanged during the transformation from Converj concept to production 2014 ELR.

The ELR comes with standard full-LED headlamps and tail lamps. Personally, I really appreciated the “Cadillac” etching under the surface of the lenses.

Buyers will find themselves riding on 20-inch wheels, and low profile, low rolling-resistance tires that still manage to have a little bit of grip to them. And, for those Cadillac fanatics out there, the ELR is also the very last new car Cadillac will produce with the wreathed logo. Starting with the ATS Coupe and Escalade SUV, the brand is switching things up with its crest.

Inside, the Cadillac User Experience (CUE) is prominently displayed in the center stack, and it’s just as beautiful and buggy as ever. That’s one department we’re excited to see the brand improve upon. CUE remains a great, very attractive idea, but one that just isn’t that easy to use, and isn’t terribly responsive when you begin to poke at the screen.

With that exception, the ELR’s interior is warm, inviting, and well built. Many of the materials are crafted by hand, including the leather on the seats and dash. Those pieces of hide are cut by laser and sewn by hand, and they’re layered against open-pore wood and carbon fiber.

It’s an interesting mix of materials all in one place, but it works well to create a space that feels a little classy, a little sporty, and genuinely luxurious. Buyers will also find driver’s aides and comfort features like collision avoiding tech, lane departure warnings, heated seats and steering wheel, and even paddles on the wheel that allow you to manually trigger the regenerative brakes.

The machine beneath

The drivetrain that powers the ELR will be a success or a failure, contingent on your expectations. Unlike most of the other Cadillacs on the road, save the XTS, the ELR coupe is a front-wheel-drive vehicle that that focuses more on driver comfort than driver engagement. That’s not to say that it’s dull to drive, but you shouldn’t hold your breath if you’re expecting something like the old CTS-V either.

The gasoline engine produces only 84 horsepower, but the car feels much quicker than that.

Instead, the ELR shares the majority of its mechanical components with the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. GM suggests that both cars should be considered range-extended electric vehicles, like the BMW i3. However, we think it’s more accurate to liken them to, say, the Toyota Prius Plug-in, since the little engine under the hood syncs up to the front wheels at highway speeds.

Even so, that means that you’ll find yourself with 37 miles of pure electric range after a full charge, and around 300 additional miles after the engine kicks in to fuel the battery.

The gasoline engine produces only 84 horsepower, but the car feels much quicker than that, thanks to having all 295 lb-ft of torque on tap at a standstill. For a car with Smart ForTwo power, it feels a little more like a BMW 4 Series – at least up to 40 mph. The EPA hasn’t yet rated the ELR’s fuel economy, but the Chevy Volt’s 98 MPGe is likely a solid indicator.

Canyons

In the ELR, Cadillac sent us journalists into the mountains above Palm Springs and back down again, finishing with a stretch of open highway. Having already driven the Volt, my expectations for the ELR on mountain roads weren’t especially high. I knew we’d exhaust the existing charge quickly. And I was right; the engine kicked in only 20 minutes after we began our journey.

2014 Cadillac ELR steering wheel full

What I didn’t expect, however, was how engaged with the ELR I would feel on twisting roads. The ELR’s active suspension adjusts itself quickly, and the tires were just wide enough to grip the road without too much chirping. There are four driving modes that adjust the throttle, suspension, and steering. I left the car in ‘Sport’ for the majority of the drive up the hill.

Surprisingly and delightfully, the ELR can be a lot of fun. You can also select ‘Mountain’ if you truly feel underpowered on inclines, but we never got the point where the ELR’s performance felt underwhelming.

If I’m willing to overlook the inherit lack of power in the coupe, my only other complaint would be about the engine drone when the car is under duress. The engine is small and the cabin is otherwise silent, so it’s especially noticeable when it’s forced to rev to keep the battery afloat.

2014 Cadillac ELR engine

After a brief snack at the top of the mountain, I set the mode back to “Tour” for a leisurely drive back down to the city. It was at that point where the paddles came into use, where I reclaimed miles-worth of battery power, just by triggering the regenerative brakes down the hill.

Over the course of mixed-use 110 miles, we averaged 68 MPG, and it’s hard to argue with those numbers. For drivers with short commutes and easy access to at-home or office charging stations, it’s likely that they’ll see significantly higher mileage than that.

Totally distinctive, yet not at all

It’s at this point that pricing should become a consideration with the ELR.

Before government tax incentives, the base price starts at $75,000 and climbs to just over $82,000 with all the options. That’s a lot of money for any Cadillac, short of an Escalade or V-Series car. The technology under the hood and interior quality, though, might justify the price. Sticker prices like that put the ELR squarely in the sites of a few competitors, depending whether you’re looking for a luxury coupe or an eco-conscious premium car.

Surprisingly and delightfully, the ELR can be a lot of fun.

For $75-86k, if you’re looking for a coupe, you’ll find the 400-hp Mercedes-Benz E550 and BMW 640i. Both are relative performers with legitimate brand cachet, but neither offers anything close to the ELR’s anticipated fuel economy.

If a luxury green car is more your style, you’ll find the Tesla Model S for similar coin. It’s definitely capable of going the distance on a single charge, but the Tesla doesn’t have the looks or the cross-country versatility you’ll find in the ELR.

You’ll likely have to make a compromise no matter how you shop for an ELR, unless your interests are niche enough to drive you into a mild-mannered, eco-friendly luxury coupe.

For me, there’s a disconnect between the ELR’s styling, price, and performance. The ELR simply doesn’t offer the kind of power I’d expect from a car that looks like that and costs that much.

Having said that, I realize I’m probably not in the target market for the ELR.

2014 Cadillac ELR right side close

In terms of the value proposition it offers, the Cadillac ELR is completely unique on the road today, but there are also several other cars that a luxury buyer might consider while shopping.

The ELR, then, is a statement in contrast: sports car styling meets luxury car appointments meets next-generation fuel economy. And the ELR is the kind of car that I’d be glad to have, but I might occasionally long for its competitors, too.

Highs

  • Concept car styling
  • Green, but not inconvenient
  • Sportier than you’d expect
  • Well-crafted interior

Lows

  • Occasional engine drone
  • CUE doesn’t make friends easily
  • Expensive for a Cadillac
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