Second: Cadillac XLR
When you get down to it, the Jag-versus-Maserati fight is just the opener for the main event here, pitting the XLR against the SL. How does the XLR stand up? Better than you might think but not well enough to dethrone the heavyweight champion.
The XLR immediately scores points for its not-even-slightly-retro, stealth-fighter styling inside and out. Online editor Greg Anderson thought it looked like a DeVille that had had a piano dropped on it, but others disagreed and thought the design did just what it set out to do. The XLR has real on-road presence; with its wide stance and narrow greenhouse, it looks particularly good from the rear. The angular lines somehow keep it from looking fat-assed, unlike the more rounded Corvette. GM has contrived to deliver a plastic surface better than a Corvette's for the XLR, which is assembled in the same Bowling Green, Kentucky, plant as the Vette, on a separate final-assembly line. Fit and finish are first-rate, although the occasional smell of fiberglass resin warming in the California sun was disconcerting.
The XLR's cabin really shines. Nothing about its interior is cheesy, with the possible exception of the Bulgari-designed gauges, which look as if they came out of a Chevette. Ditto the Bulgari-designed keyless entry and touch-start key chain, which has the fit, finish, and class of a child's toy. Hey, Nicola, phone home. Whatever Cadillac paid you for them was too much. Fortunately, the rest of the car is just plain classy-eucalyptus wood, real aluminum, handsome instrument and door panels. It is so un-Corvette-a car that wears its cheapness most conspicuously in its interior, a necessary condition of its great-performance-bargain status. The XLR operates under no such constraints. Spend even some small fraction of the extra $25,000 you're charged for an XLR replacing the Corvette interior, and the results get pretty impressive.
Impressive, too, is all the Buck Rogers electronic hoo-ha in the XLR. It's the sort of thing Cadillac used to be famous for: electrically unlatching doors (with hidden mechanical solutions in case the battery fails), keyless ignition, heated and cooled seats, power opening and closing trunk lid, retractable hard top, head-up display, DVD navigation system-all standard-and, of course, OnStar, which had an advisor standing by, ready to direct us to our choice of bad Mexican restaurants near Fontana. With all the technology, the XLR represents a vision of what Cadillac once was and should be again: the car of the future.
In order to build the XLR, Cadillac had to reengineer 85 percent of the Northstar V-8 for north-south installation and in the process picked up 20 horsepower, for a new total of 320 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. These permit credible 6.5-second 0-to-60-mph times, matching the SL500's performance exactly but going on to beat it to the quarter-mile by 0.2 second, at 14.8 seconds and 99 mph (versus 15.0 seconds and 97 mph).
Upon viewing a bare XLR chassis in Palm Springs, it was clear that one key to the Cadillac's excellence was a massive and solid structure, with considerably modified rear architecture added to deal with the space-eating folding roof and providing further stiffness. The Magnetic Ride Control dampers are a revelation, allowing us to swallow sure bottom-outs with ease. That leaves the Northstar V-8-along with GM's LS1, one of the great American engines of our time-to shine. Granted, at low speeds, the powertrain in our test car had a pre-production sound and feel, and there was that noxious resin smell to contend with, but the thing will get out of its own way, its five-speed manu-matic being pleasant and easy to use.
Inside, there's plenty of room (for people, if not their stuff) and good visibility-just as in the Mercedes, a bonus of the retractable hard top. The driving position is comfortable and pleasantly free of idiosyncrasies. But, despite its pleasing appearance and abilities, this car ultimately doesn't feel as vaultlike as the Mercedes. On the other hand, it's much cheaper. We think a lot of people will buy it instead of the SL500, because it is an entirely creditable alternative, quite an achievement for Cadillac, which hopes to sell between 3000 and 8000 per year, an even more exclusive number than Mercedes vends.