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2004 Cadillac XLR Photo
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It may be the site of the world’s most famous classic car show, but General Motors came to Pebble Beach hoping to put a face for the future on its long-struggling Cadillac division.

With a gentle mist descending on the 19th green, Caddy General Manager Mark LaNeve introduced the all-new XLR, the production version of the popular Evoq concept vehicle. A two-seat roadster with a retractable hardtop, XLR is the newest in the so-called Art & Science series, an edgy look designed to differentiate Cadillac from an increasingly crowded field of domestic and import luxury competitors.

“Cadillac is battling back,” LaNeve proclaimed, but company officials admit the automaker has a long way to go before it can rightly regain its long-time position as the standard of the world.

The XLR will be going up against some of the best products in the automotive world, including both the newly updated Jaguar XK8 and the Mercedes-Benz SL series. So the roll-out of the new Caddy will be slow and extremely methodical, aimed at preventing any unexpected quality snags. While preliminary production will begin next January, the first few months worth of vehicles will go to inside fleets. Only next spring will products begin shipping to dealers.

“We will not roll out any unless they are absolutely perfect,” declared GM “car czar” Bob Lutz. Lutz suggested the biggest challenge will be ensuring the accuracy of fits and finishes with the XLR’s fiberglass body.

The XLR has the most in common with—and is likely to be compared most directly to—the Benz SL, which was completely redesigned less than a year ago. Like its German rival, the Cadillac is a two-seat roadster with a trick hardtop designed to fold down and store in the trunk. With the XLR, that process takes 29 seconds. The SL needs just 17.

Northstar power

The XLR is powered by a modified version of Caddy’s popular Northstar engine, though this is the first time the big V-8 has been used in a longitudinal, or “north/south,” application. For the roadster, the Northstar has gained cam phasers and the cylinder walls have been stiffened. Mated to a five-speed automatic with manual override, it is expected to put out somewhere between 300 and 350 horsepower, a bit more than the SL500’s 302 hp. The difference could be even more dramatic due to the fact that the XLR, at 3500 pounds, is about 10 percent lighter than the big Benz.

The new Cadillac will be built at the same Bowling Green, Ky., plant that has long produced the Corvette, and they share a number of features, including the use of fiberglass bodies. The basic shell of the XLR has much in common with that of the Vette, as does the new roadster’s platform, which is a modified version of the next-generation Corvette, or C6, according to Cadillac’s LaNeve.

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR

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The interior may be the best and most lavish ever to appear on a General Motors product. It features a mix of high-tech aluminum and light-colored eucalyptus wood. There’s a full-color video screen with built-in navigation, and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Small buttons replace the traditional door handles inside. And from the outside, a hidden, electrically-operated pad operates the door.

Cadillac has generated a lot of buzz in the marketplace since it adopted the Art & Science design theme. The most obvious example of the new look is the 2002 CTS, a four-door sedan about the size of the BMW 5-Series. With the factory barely able to keep up with demand, Caddy sales have surged 22 percent this year compared to the first seven months of 2001.

A whole series of new products will markedly expand the Cadillac lineup over the next couple years. In 2003, the U.S. luxury marque will launch its new SRX, a wagon/SUV crossover aimed at the likes of the BMW X5 and the Lexus RX300. Also on tap is a high-performance version of the CTS, dubbed CTSv.

The new V-Series is modeled after Mercedes’ AMG “brand-within-a-brand,” and like its Teutonic competitor, Cadillac intends to offer a V version of almost every model in its lineup.

The XLRv “we’ll do will follow one to two years after the regular car,” noted LaNeve. He declined to discuss any details of the performance roadster, but several well-placed sources told TheCarConnection GM is still debating the powertrain options for the XLR.

One approach would echo that used for the original Evoq show car and turn to a supercharged version of the Northstar V-8. But there’s strong support for the V-12 currently under development at GM. The big engine would require stretching the nose of the XLR, but that would be in keeping with the Evoq show car, which was almost eight inches longer, up front, than the XLR. A third option would be to adapt another GM V-8, such as the Corvette-based LS6 going into the first V-Series model, the CTSv.

One thing that’s not under debate is the importance of the XLR to the Cadillac lineup. Until the late 1990s, the GM division was America’s best-selling luxury brand. But it has since been eclipsed by a number of import nameplates, including Lexus, BMW and Mercedes. Cadillac has also failed in recent bids to expand its presence overseas. The new XLR was designed to provide a halo to the brand, both in the U.S. and abroad.

“We’ll never again (aim) at being the best-selling luxury brand,” said Lutz, stressing that by targeting sales leadership over quality and distinctiveness, Cadillac sowed the seeds of its own decline. But the American luxury carmaker certainly wants to be back in the running again, and XLR is meant to provide a platform for Cadillac’s hoped-for revival.

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