With a big vroom startup sound generated digitally and delivered with a splash screen, the ELR telegraphs instantly how different its Cadillac driving experience will be. It's distinct from any other Caddy before it--and it's a 180-degree turn away from the fluid, brilliant acceleration and handling of an ATS or CTS, or even the Tesla Model S.
At its core, the ELR shares the extended-range electric drivetrain of the Chevy Volt. A 16.5-kilowatt-hour battery pack stores energy from plugging in, enabling 37 miles of pure electric driving. It's backed up by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that works mostly to restore energy to the battery pack. Sometimes, the engine contributes a little of its torque to the front wheels--for example, in long uphill runs. Some slight modifications and remapping of power have cut weight and deliver a little bit more net power than in the Volt; here, it's a total of 207 horsepower, and 295 pound-feet of torque.
As a result, the ELR is one of, if not the slowest Cadillac to accelerate from zero to 60 mph, taking 7.8 seconds in extended-range mode, 8.8 seconds in electric-only mode. Top speed is 106 mph--it gives up long before even a base ATS sedan, or any of the cars named as competitors.
The extended-range electric drivetrain delivers a disconcerting amount of noise for the badge it wears. Active noise cancellation is fitted, but GM engineers have dialed it back in this application, and the result is lots of powertrain noise that doesn't suit the ELR's price or its positioning. Beyond that, the disconnect between engine noise and drivetrain performance--it can be running and charging when the driver's off the throttle--can be jarring if you've never driven a Volt, or don't understand the complex interplay of electric and gasoline power going on underhood.
Cadillac says the ELR's distinct chassis and suspension provide a better driving experience than the Volt. Beefier front struts, a wider front track, and a Watt's link that adds some composure to the rear beam axle are all different from the Volt, as are the ELR's adaptive Sachs dampers. With hydraulic bushings and another link connecting the struts, the ELR has a more refined setup than the Volt.
It's still on the low end of expectations for today's Cadillac. Its newest sedans have truly brilliant steering and a natural, nimble feel. The ELR's 4000-pound heft and its less sophisticated suspension fall short, even when the driver selects Sport mode, which weights up the steering, sharpens throttle feel and tightens up the dampers (which aren't the prime magnetically-controlled pieces found on the Corvette or CTS; those would consume too much energy, we're told). The steering isn't as neat or as clean, and the ELR's regenerative and friction brakes don't combine for the bite of braking confidence. The ELR has 20-inch wheels and tires, and tire scuffing comes early and often as mass has its way with them. The slim tire sidewalls can't absorb much abuse, so the ELR hits its jounce bumpers early and often, too.
The ELR has paddles on the steering column, but they're not for shifting: they're hand controls for a measure of regenerative braking, a clever Space Age touch that also runs counter to how we're used to using paddles. Pull one and the ELR slows, but doesn't come to a complete stop. It's not confusing, but if you've driven a paddle-shifted car, it takes some time to adapt. The ELR's regen paddles can't completely brake the car, and using them effectively means applying them far earlier than you would use paddles to shift in, say, a dual-clutch car--after you've already finished your braking.
The ELR's powertrain also has a Hold mode that reserves battery power, and Mountain mode, which blends in some engine torque for better performance. It defaults to Tour mode, where throttle response and steering feel and ride quality are tuned for maximum efficiency.