Santa Monica, California -- If General Motors cannot find an audience for the 2014 Cadillac ELR in Southern California, it cannot find one anywhere. As Cadillac’s first plug-in hybrid vehicle, it has to succeed in the place where the Toyota Prius is as common as the palm tree and where the Tesla Model S has quickly become part of the streetscape.
Although the ELR must seek favor in sun-kissed SoCal, it starts life back in Hamtramck, the gritty enclave on the east side of Detroit where it is built alongside the Chevrolet Volt sedan. The 2014 ELR’s powertrain is pretty much identical to the Volt — 435-pound, lithium-ion battery pack, two electric motors, and a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine. The ELR’s wheelbase also is virtually the same, although the Caddy is 9.0 inches longer overall.
Yet as we’re driving the 2014 Cadillac ELR toward Malibu, we’re feeling sun-kissed and glamorous, which is something that is pretty surprising for a sibling of the practical Chevy Volt, let alone any plug-in hybrid.
A Concept Car Comes to Life
Happily, the 2014 Cadillac ELR retains the crisp lines and chiseled profile of the 2009 Converj concept from which it is derived. It’s a particularly tidy and evocative take on Cadillac’s ongoing Art & Science design philosophy, and as such the ELR looks great out in the real world of West Los Angeles.
Cadillac will offer the 2014 ELR in only four exterior colors: red, black, gray, and silver. ELR marketing product manager Darin Gesse is riding along with us, and he predicts that black-on-black will be the most popular, but our red-on-cashmere (tan) tester looks pretty sweet, too.
Cadillac’s designers have also done a nice job with the ELR’s interior. Asymmetrical slabs of leather-upholstered dash come together artfully under the windshield, the seats are comfortable and supportive without being overstuffed, and soft-touch microfiber accents the leather. The laurel-wood trim has barely been touched with the varnish brush, so it looks and feels like wood and is expected to gain a patina over time. Carbon-fiber trim is also available.
In addition to black and tan, customers can choose special-grade leather seats in a black-and-brown scheme for an extra $2450. They include special side bolsters, thigh extenders, and 20-way electric operation rather than the standard 16-way operation.
Room for Two, Plus Two More if You Must
The 2014 Cadillac ELR coupe has plenty of front legroom and a decent amount of front headroom, and the individually folding rear seats are reasonably wide, even if they don’t provide much headroom. Cadillac officials point out that the Tesla Model S has only an additional inch of rear headroom, despite being a four-door.
Regardless, the ELR’s rear seats are for occasional use only, although they’ll hold plenty of groceries. The 10.5-cubic-foot trunk is shallow but wide enough to hold two sets of golf clubs.
Cadillac’s much-maligned CUE infotainment system is standard, and after spending a couple of days driving around L.A. in various Cadillacs, we have to say that the navigation function is superb, even if the haptic touch-screen interface can make you want to tear your hair out.
And on Your Left, the Pacific Ocean
We head north from Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway. For a 4050-pound, front-wheel-drive car, the ELR drives pretty well. It’s riding on an inherently rigid platform, and its active suspension features continuous damping control.
Even though there’s a total of 295 lb-ft of torque rushing to the front wheels, torque steer is mitigated by GM’s HiPer-strut front suspension, as pioneered by the Buick LaCrosse. Acceleration out of corners is impressive, just as it is on city streets and freeways. Even so, you most notice the seamless gush of electric propulsion in the cut-and-thrust of urban driving when cars surround you, since you can effortlessly accelerate into open slots in the traffic pattern.
Sport mode dials in higher throttle, damping, and steering responses, which are immediately discernible. The electric power steering is precise but, like so many systems, isn’t particularly communicative. (Other modes include Touring, which is the default setting; Mountain, which reserves energy for steep grades; and Hold, which allows drivers to use only the gasoline engine so that they can save the charge for pure electric driving for later, such as when they are in the city.)
Steering Wheel Paddles, but Not for Shifting
In the hills above Malibu, Gesse encourages us to use the steering-wheel-mounted paddles to engage the Regen On Demand system that recharges the battery pack. In essence, the paddles are auxiliary braking devices, because they use the electric traction motor to capture the kinetic energy of the ELR and slow it down.
You quickly learn to use the paddles to brake just the right amount as you’re diving into tight corners. Cadillac developed Regen On Demand after observing that many Chevrolet Volt owners routinely shifted their cars from D to L, which accomplishes the same thing as the ELR’s paddles but with a lot more footwork on the pedals. Cadillac figures the paddles will be less taxing on drivers and prove more intuitive.
One Trim Level, Few Options
“There is no base trim level for this car,” Gesse tells us. “You can only get the ELR as a premium car or an ultra premium car.” Even so, there are still a few options in addition to the $2450 seats previously mentioned. Adaptive cruise control is $1995; tint-coat paint is $995; and a luxury package including blind spot detection, rear cross-path detection, and automatic high-beam headlamps is $1695.
GM has done an admirable job here with the 2014 Cadillac ELR. It’s taken a practical package identified with a brand better known for mass-market commodity-style cars and taken it to finishing school. The result is a car that looks very special and drives in a way that delivers on the promise.
At the same time, Cadillac has established itself as a premium carmaker that builds premium-style rear-wheel-drive cars. And there’s still something about the 2014 ELR that reminds you that it is a front-wheel-drive car, and this makes it an odd duck in the lineup.
And it’s a very expensive fowl at that. At $75,995, the ELR has been boldly priced to compete not only with the Tesla Model S but also German coupes like the BMW 6-series and the Mercedes-Benz E- and CLS-classes. As stylish as the 2014 Cadillac ELR is both inside and out, it’s keeping very tough company.