2004 Cadillac XLR Review

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TCC Team TCC Team
May 23, 2003
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DAILY EDITION: May 23, 2003 by TCC Team (5/22/2003)
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It was designed to evoke a very different era – a time when Cadillac truly set the standard of the world of luxury cars. Now, after a seemingly interminable wait, the Evoq concept car is ready to hit the road, albeit in renamed form as the Caddy XLR.

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Largely based on the Corvette chassis and powered by an updated version of the highly-regarded Northstar V-8, XLR has some credible credentials. But it’s also going up against some of the world’s best and most desirable products, such as the striking Mercedes-Benz SL roadster and the quirky but popular Lexus SC430. To see if Caddy’s new roadster can compete, TheCarConnection took a jaunt to Phoenix, where temperatures hovered well over 100 degrees – hot enough to fry a chicken, never mind the egg, on the pavement.

Unloved Allanté

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR

Enlarge Photo
The XLR is Cadillac’s first roadster since the demise of the largely unloved Allanté, an ill-conceived and poorly executed ragtop that said a lot about the overall problems long plaguing General Motors’ flagship division. When Allanté debuted, back in 1987, it suffered from a wide range of problems, including a Rube Goldberg-style top that took almost a half hour to raise and lower. Yet overconfident managers decided, at the last minute, to tack on almost $20,000 to the originally planned price tag, feeling they could command the same as a Mercedes SL. The results were catastrophic, and Allanté eventually faded from the line-up.

2004 Cadillac XLR

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When the Evoq show car debuted during the 1999 Detroit auto show, it created an instant sensation, leading GM to give the roadster a green light for production.  But Cadillac officials wisely realized the dangers they faced if they were to repeat the failures of the previous roadster.

Complicating matters, GM has been notorious for taking popular concept cars and, by the time they hit market, saddling them with all sorts of design and engineering compromises, effectively turning them into automotive camels.

So bringing the new two-seater to market hasn’t been easy. Engineers had to develop a suitable platform for XLR, borrowing much of its basics from the current-generation, or C5 Corvette, along with many of the suspension components of the next-generation C6 ‘Vette. An all-new version of the Northstar had to be developed, the first rear-drive application of the powerful Cadillac V-8.

Hardtop challenge

Simply keeping up with the competition posed serious challenges. Both the Mercedes and Lexus roadsters boast retractable hardtops, and Cadillac officials decreed that their new two-seater had to offer one, as well.

With the sun blaring down, that was the first thing TCC decided to test. With the touch of a button, the roof lifted, folded up like an oversized bit or origami and neatly tucked into the trunk. If numbers matter, XLR doesn’t quite match up, taking 29 seconds to retract, compared to 17 for the SL, but that’s not likely to matter to many potential buyers, and there’s no question the XLR’s operation qualifies for the “slick” category. The number of panels shifting places and motors propelling them is simply awesome to watch, much less to engineer. More significant is the fact that the Caddy offers less than half the trunk space, though there’s still enough for a frugal weekend.

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR

Enlarge Photo
As you’d expect, the XLR is Cadillac’s technical showpiece. This is the first GM application of keyless technology. Simply have the XLR’s keyfob in your pocket, purse or briefcase, and it will automatically recognize you. There are no door handles, just push buttons. Slip inside and you just have to press the Start button, shift into gear and get going. With the top stowed, we pressed headed for the red cliffs of Sedona, several hours north of Phoenix, hoping to generate enough wind to beat back the oppressive heat.

2004 Cadillac XLR

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The big Northstar has earned a solid following and justifiably so. It’s a powerful and responsive powertrain, well suited to the new roadster. Step into the throttle and you’re greeted by a satisfying, resonant roar. At 320 horsepower, it’s not quite up to the Corvette, though it’s more than a match for the competition, especially considering the fact that the XLR weighs in about 400 pounds under the SL. (It is about 400 pounds heavier than the ‘Vette, however, much of that due to the added weight of the retractable metal roof.)

We’d like to see a six-speed transmission in the new car – a competent five-speed automatic is all that’s available, though a six is under development.

‘Vette position

When the XLR project was launched, GM management debated how to position the car against the Corvette. It was ultimately decided that Chevrolet would continue to own the corporation’s fastest and best-handling car – though XLR owners won’t have to take a backseat to many others.

The new roadster is both a bit slower, and also slightly less nimble. But that’s probably not a bad trade-off. Luxury buyers are likely a trade off that doesn’t compromise much yet yields a much more comfortable ride, thanks to the outstanding MagneRide system.

Explaining how it works would require an entire story of its own. Suffice it to say, this computer-controlled suspension can read the road – and the driver’s input – so rapidly that it can change settings in about the time it takes for the XLR to roll three inches at 60 miles per hour.

One of our few complaints about the car is the lack of a programmable dial that would let the driver choose the firmness of the MR suspension. That’s offered on the Corvette, but Cadillac’s operative philosophy is that its owners don’t want to have to decide such things. Perhaps their current owner body, but we’d bet the ability to change settings is something that will be desirable to the younger, better-educated import-oriented customers XLR should attract.

2004 Cadillac XLR

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Steering is another minor complaint. The XLR has a very good on-center feel, and going into corners at speed, it requires just the right amount of effort. But there’s a bit of a numb zone when you’re pointed straight, a complaint Caddy engineers admit they’ve heard before and hope to resolve before the roadster goes into production later this year.

Overall, XLR’s road manners easily exceeded our initial expectation, even with the top down.

Firsts and lasts

So did the car’s level of fit, finish and interior refinement. Cadillac’s edgy Art & Science design theme has been controversial but generally well received. It’s generated a good bit more criticism for the interiors of new vehicles, such as the CTS sedan, which just aren’t up to European and Asian luxury standards. The XLR may not be quite all the way there, especially when compared to the outstanding SC, but it’s at least batting a triple. The cockpit is well laid out, with gauges easy to read, controls each to reach, and a tasteful blend of aluminum, leather and real wood.

The new car boast a number of firsts – at least for Cadillac – including active, radar-guided cruise control, which automatically maintains a safe distance from the traffic ahead. There’s a large screen for the navigation system and the Heads-up Display, or HUD system, proves particularly useful since it shows a number of key function, including active cruise.

If it’s any measure of the new roadster, we longed to get more time behind the wheel than Cadillac could accommodate during our brief trip out West. But we had more than enough time to recognize that XLR exceeds our admittedly modest expectations.

Cadillac General Manager Mark LaNeve is the first to acknowledge that the division has, over the last few decades, slipped into the second tour of automotive luxury. Climbing back to become the recognized standard won’t be easy, especially considering the competition. But the XLR will go a long way towards putting the U.S. maker back on the shopping list, especially if, as we expect, it will be introduced at a sizable discount to the likes of the Lexus SC and Mercedes SL.

The XLR suggests that Cadillac is asking the right questions and coming up with a lot of the right answers.

2004 Cadillac XLR
Base price: $76,200
Engine: 4.6-liter, DOHC V-8 with four-cam variable-valve timing; 320 hp/310 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission with sport and manual modes, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (in): 177.7 x 72.3 x 50.4
Wheelbase: 105.7 in
Curb weight: 3647 lb
Fuel economy (EPA cty/hwy): 17/25 mpg (est)
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control
Major standard equipment: Power retractable hardtop, AM/FM/CD player, power windows/locks/mirrors, leather seats and eucalyptus wood trim
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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