The Chevrolet Volt was developed under intensely difficult conditions. Beyond the never-done-before complexities of its powertrain, the Volt had to come to market by a certain date, had to hit a certain price, and had to be as efficient as possible. Much as we like the car that resulted -- it was our 2011 Automobile of the Year -- we wondered how good it might have been had gestated a bit longer, cost a bit more, and enjoyed a bit more design freedom. With the Cadillac ELR, which debuts at the Detroit auto show and goes on sale later this year, we no longer have to wonder.
If you're looking at the pictures and feeling a sense of deja vu, Cadillac has achieved its mission. The design first surfaced at the Detroit auto show four years ago as the Converj, a concept developed within six-months at the behest of then vice-chairman Bob Lutz. Back then GM was taking heat for the fact that the 2007 Chevrolet Volt concept -- another Lutz special -- had turned into a decidedly dumpier production car. So, when people went gaga over the Converj, there was a strict mandate to bring it to production with as few changes as possible. A close comparison reveals that the creases have softened a bit, but practically everything else is amazingly faithful. Heck, even the wheels look the same. That's not to say it was an easy translation. Exterior designer Tim Kozub and chief engineer Chris Thomason spent hours in the wind tunnel massaging each panel to try and balance aerodynamics and style. Still, style clearly won out. Despite its sleek wedge shape, the ELR has a higher coefficient of drag than the Volt -- 0.31 versus 0.28. We'd say it's worth it. The ELR radiates a sense a drama rare for any production car, let alone an environmentally friendly one.
The ELR also goes beyond the call of duty in redressing the Volt's shortcomings in interior quality. We're talking trim comprised of two kinds of real wood and real carbon fiber. The steering wheel center alone features leather stitched on top of a suede-like material. All of that will be standard, which is probably fair since the starting price will likely come close to $70,000. Twenty-way adjustable seats wrapped in brown Aniline leather is one of the few options. Cadillac will also offer a cashmere color scheme.
The most amazing or disappointing aspect of the ELR, depending on your point of view, is that it's "just" a Volt underneath the skin. The electric motor, 1.4-liter gas engine, and lithium-ion battery pack are essentially identical to what's in the Chevy. Output rises to 207 hp and an impressive 400 lb-ft of torque, compared to 149-hp and 365 lb-ft in the Volt, but the ELR also carries more weight. Cadillac says it should accelerate to 60 mph in about 8-seconds. It will feel faster than that number suggests thanks to the instant torque delivery. Of course, the raison d'etre for an electric vehicle remains efficiency. By dipping further into the battery charge, the heavier, more powerful ELR should maintain most of the Volt's electric range. Cadillac isn't ready to announce numbers (which, in any event, vary wildly in the real world) but it should be about 35 miles. With a full charge and a topped-off gas tank, Cadillac expects the ELR will travel more than 300 miles, versus 380 miles in the Volt.
The Volt's front-wheel-drive chassis, itself an adaptation of GM's global compact architecture, also carries over with some changes. The ELR wears twenty-inch wheels versus the Volt's seventeens, which necessitated larger front brakes. So-called Hyperstruts in front, which we've seen before in high-power applications like the Buick Regal GS, should improve steering feel. There's also an underbody brace. Active dampers (not to be confused with magnetorheological dampers found on other Cadillacs) will offer multiple ride settings, including a sport mode. That setting will also adjust throttle mapping and steering effort.
There will no doubt be some who are offended by the notion of paying $70,000 for a better looking and better appointed Chevrolet Volt, which is silly. Cadillac has no trouble commanding that much for an Escalade, a better-looking, better-appointed Chevrolet Tahoe. The only difference is that the Volt's hardware is much more exotic and expensive than that of a full-size SUV. In fact, it's fair to wonder if GM would have been better off offering this technology as a Cadillac from the beginning. Regardless, we're happy the Volt we've always wanted is finally here.