2014 Cadillac ELR Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
May 6, 2014

The 2014 ELR brings extended-range electric-car virtues to the Cadillac lineup, but its Volt-like appeal diminishes as the price balloons.

The 2014 Cadillac ELR is an entirely new kind of Cadillac. It's not only a compact luxury coupe, but the first-ever plug-in model for the luxury brand. It's a high-style, premium range-extended electric car, with a battery range of 37 miles that's extended by a gasoline for a total driving range on one tank of as much as 345 miles.

The ELR's most flattering angle comes from those numbers--when viewing it as a less practical relative of the groundbreaking Chevy Volt. Seen as a luxury sport coupe, the ELR falters. It's an uneasy fit in the Cadillac fold, and its breathtaking price gives even spendy green drivers pause.

If its stats sound suspiciously like the rather less glamorous or luxurious Chevrolet Volt, there's good reason: The two cars share powertrains, if not body styles and other running gear. Fundamentally, the ELR employs the same Extended Range Electric Vehicle (EREV) technology and hardware that’s used in the Volt, including the same 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. The electric-motor system is identical as well—as is the system’s ability to use the gasoline engine as a supplemental traction motor at high speeds to aid efficiency.

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Cadillac has managed to cut a few pounds from the 16.5-kWh battery pack, but it remains otherwise the same as in the Volt. Charging times will be the same as the Volt, too, with a complete recharge in 4.5 hours on 240-volt power. Yet through some tweaks for the software controls, the electric motor system delivers a bit more: 207 horsepower, with 295 pound-feet of instant torque.

With that net output, it also delivers a jarring amount of engine noise that's disconnected from the driver's inputs into the throttle; the car is propelled by battery power, and those batteries are recharged as needed by the engine. Regenerative braking comes via steering-wheel paddles, and they require some mental leaps, too. They can't slow the car completely, and their action subverts anything you've learned about dual-clutch paddle shifters. On the whole, the ELR's drivetrain delivers acceleration that's just mediocre by the brand's current standards.

Cadillac says the ELR electric coupe delivers a distinctly different driving experience than the Volt--one that puts it in the conversation with vehicles like the Tesla Model S and BMW 6-Series--but in our experience, the ELR isn't that refined or that dynamic. Aside from the powertrain issues, the ELR just doesn't handle any better than a mid-priced luxury coupe, despite much work to its suspension. It has beefier struts, added suspension links, adaptive dampers, and big 20-inch wheels, but its substantial mass and low-profile tires mean lots of tire scuffing.

The ELR's exterior styling wowed the crowd at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, when it was unveiled as the Cadillac Converj concept car. The wedgy, aggressive shape hasn't aged at all in the four years since, but it also bears the unmistakable aero stamp of a whole generation of electric and hybrid cars. Coming from a brand with the ATS and CTS in its showrooms, it's something of a mismatch--either a transmission from the brand's future showrooms, or a stand-offish family member that only shows up for the occasional reunion. As a statement of front-drive futurism, though, it's visually grabby, and it has a knockout interior dominated by big digitally rendered screens and handsome touches of stitched leather and carbon fiber.

The front seats are exceptionally comfortable, and adjustable 16 ways (20, optionally). Elsewhere, the ELR’s cabin is essentially that of a rakish mid-size coupe; there are two backseat positions, in small individual buckets, but full-size adults will have trouble getting in, and feeling comfortable with the very limited amount of headroom and legroom. The ELR’s wheelbase is 0.4 inches longer than the Volt, but feels quite a bit smaller inside due to that roofline.The trunk is small, too, though fold-down rear seats boost storage capacity.

The ELR's stunning pricetag of $75,995 includes destination charges and doesn't account for federal or state tax incentives against its purchase price. Even after those credits, it still compares unfavorably with formidable competitors that offer superior performance, pure green driving, or a combination of both.

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2014 Cadillac ELR

Styling

A Prius-like outline does not a Cadillac make--but the ELR's interior makes up for a lot.

The ELR's styling is a wedge issue. Cadillac says it's a design and technology statement for the brand—a halo car to replace the XLR, the former Corvette derivative delivered with Art & Science flanks.

True, it's a futuristic show-stopper, but it's also a Prius-like doorstopper in its outline, wildly out of context with cars like the ATS, CTS, and Escalade. 

The ELR owes much to the 2009 Converj concept, and even to the recent CTS Coupe. It's one of the rare cars to emerge from the design studio and to make it to showrooms largely intact. The 20-inch show-car wheels keep the hiked-up proportions in play, and the rakish stance is exciting from the LED headlights and active-aero grille through its deep shoulders, to the elongated points drawn out of its LED taillamps. There's a small trunk lid tucked discreetly into what looks like should be a hatchback. Lots of details are hidden on the ELR, in fact: the tailpipe is cloaked behind the rear fascia, the door handles are scooped out behind the door skins, and the fuel ports are discreetly cut into the fenders--the charging port up front, the gas flap out back.

As a front-drive coupe, the ELR looks exciting. The question on the floor is whether it reads Cadillac or connects successfully with people who want to buy a luxury car. There's none of the languid styling language of Cadillac's latest El Miraj concept, and even the new ATS Coupe downplays its passing resemblance with larger quarter windows and a softer appeal.

There's no ambiguity inside the ELR. It's stitched together from the same multitude of trims and lines you'll see in the ATS and CTS, and while we've seen other opinions, we think the theme works well for Cadillac's more glam executions. There's piano-black trim, a sueded headliner, rich leather, and some carbon-fiber accents. Occasionally, all of them meet in complex junctions on the dash and doors, but the layered look is appealing. Cadillac's CUE interlaces two large TFT displays that cascade a cool glow throughout the cabin, and the dash's gentle curve toward and around the driver is a welcoming gesture.

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7

2014 Cadillac ELR

Performance

The 2014 ELR performs exactly the opposite of how you'd think a Caddy should, and it's a big mental hurdle.

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.

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2014 Cadillac ELR

Comfort & Quality

Luscious cabin trim and sporty front seats cosset front passengers, but rear-seaters shouldn't be whiny, and all should travel lightly.

As Cadillac coupes go, the 2014 ELR is a compact one, rakish and forward in the ways that we've liked in the CTS Coupe. The comfort and space play out in about the same way as in that car, rendering the ELR effectively a 2+2.

Though the ELR shares the Chevy Volt's powertrain and even has more wheelbase (not quite half an inch), it doesn't have anywhere near the practicality of the Chevy, sacrificing lots of headroom and trunk space in its Wallenda-like leap into Cadillac's portfolio.

In front the ELR has exceptionally comfortable, 16-way adjustable leather seats--but 20-way adjustment comes with a "luxury" package. The dash warps gently inward toward the driver, surrounding that seat with screens--two eight-inch screens, one displaying gauges and all sorts of driver-selected information, the central one serving as the display screen for CUE. The console runs wide and long, splitting the ELR down the center and dividing its passengers into neat little quadrants, leaving just enough knee and shoulder room for front-seat occupants.

The ELR’s roofline takes its penalty in rear-seat space. Cozy would be a generous description. The individual buckets are a chore to access and aren't really sized for anyone more than medium of frame. Fold-down rear seat backs accommodate longer items, including multiple sets of golf clubs; it's a feature that probably will be used more often, since the trunk is small, even by coupe standards.

The ELR's finishes compensate for the meager rear-seat space. The cockpit's composed of swatches of wood, contrast-stitched leather, and suede in a complex, layered look--there's a lot going on, but we like it, as we have in Cadillac's ATS and CTS. As for storage, though, there's not much--a bin hides behind the motorized CUE screen, with a USB port included for connectivity. Elsewhere there's only a little storage, in the small console, shallow door pockets and a petite glove box.

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2014 Cadillac ELR

Safety

The ELR hasn't been crash-tested, though it shares some structure with the high-scoring Chevy Volt.

No crash-test ratings are available yet for the 2014 Cadillac ELR--neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has put one on the sled. The ELR's platform-mate Chevy Volt has done extraordinarily well in testing, however, so we're giving the related ELR a slight boost in its rating here until otherwise convinced.

All ELRs come with a passel of safety technology that's practically a requirement in its class, including forward-collision alerts and a lane-departure warning system. In Cadillac's case, the latter sends a buzzer warning through the driver's seat cushion, rather than the steering wheel--it's no less subtle but we like it better, since it doesn't interfere with the signals coming in from the wheel.

Blind-spot monitors are bundled in an option package with adaptive cruise control, which can bring the ELR to a full stop and resume to cruising speeds, based on information it's receiving from the car's forward sensors.

And to better protect pedestrians--and to conform to electric-car norms--the ELR emits a stalk-activated sound so drivers can alert people of its forward progress when it's operating nearly silently in EV mode.

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2014 Cadillac ELR

Features

The ELR has fine Cadillac-worthy flourishes and puts a wealth of green data at the fingertips, but CUE remains fiddly.

The 2014 ELR isn't the most expensive Cadillac--that's the Escalade SUV's job. But its pricetag of $75,999 before any federal or state tax credits and rebates has evoked some low whistles, for its $35,000 boost over the Chevy Volt and for its lack of a few luxury options, nixed due to weight and power-draw concerns. There's no sunroof, no head-up display at all, and with its few available options, the price soars to nearly $80,000.

Still, Cadillac says it's in the same arena as the Tesla Model S, BMW 6-Series, and Mercedes-Benz CLS for a reason--while adding that those tax incentives can drop the net price even lower, if you live in the right state.

For that price range, the ELR is trimmed out sumptuously in attractive leathers and suedes, all the usual power features, ten-speaker Bose audio, and safety features like forward-collision alerts and a lane-departure warning system that buzzes the seat cushion to cue you back in between the stripes.

The ELR has a TFT display instead of gauges, and those screens can be cleaned up of ancillary information nicely by toggling through the steering-wheel controls. It's a welcome step down the road of information de-cluttering.

Navigation is factored into CUE, the Cadillac User Experience, which also governs the car's audio, phone, climate, and efficiency-monitoring systems. Most can also be controlled or accessed via steering-wheel buttons or by voice command. As we've found in other Cadillacs, CUE looks fantastic, but gets tripped up not infrequently by its haptic inputs and by long strings of inputs. Wave a hand in front of the screen and the displays brings up favorites or access to other areas of control--and sometimes, it actuates those systems when you hadn't planned.

Navigation in particular is a repeated sore point: we've seen CUE drop its routing, losing its place on the map at critical junctions. We love its clean look and the way it dominates the cabin--but like almost every other infotainment system we've sampled in this mini-era of the past five years, CUE feels like it needs more processing power and a little more redundancy to make it wholly useful.

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2014 Cadillac ELR

Fuel Economy

Its estimated MPGe ratings are high, but living up to them in the ELR will require a steady green hand at the wheel.

The EPA has now certified fuel-economy ratings for the 2014 Cadillac ELR, and it is now the luxury brand's most efficient car, by a wide margin.

The ELR offers fuel economy of its gas-electric drivetrain of 33 miles per gallon combined. More important to green-car shoppers will be its electric-only driving range of 37 miles, and its 82-MPGe fuel-efficiency rating when operated on electric power alone.

Those figures are roughly equal to the ones affirmed for the Chevy Volt, which pioneered the ELR's primarily series-hybrid drivetrain, though the ELR carries around about 200 pounds of additional weight despite two fewer doors. Charging times remain the same, at about 4.5 hours on a 240-volt connection or more than 7 hours on a 120-volt household outlet.

On a full tank of gas, the ELR has an operating range of 340 miles.

Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system has new layers of information to display the ELR's charging status and operational efficiency--and like the Volt, it can be monitored by remote via a smartphone app that also provides drivers with the ability to set charging times based on lower electricity rates, and to set up alerts for battery charge state.

Our initial drives in the ELR didn't provide the chance to measure our own fuel economy--and took place in the canyons around Malibu, where fuel efficiency takes a nose-dive. We'll report back as we have more real-world exposure to the ELR.

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May 19, 2015
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Car of the future-now.

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I have driven the Cadillac ELR approximately 4800 miles. It is a wonderful car with a drive system that should be emulated throughout the GM line. Pros: The car has ample pickup and can drive at highway speeds... + More »
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April 20, 2015
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Style, comfort and efficiency in one packsge

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Car attracts stares for appearance, carries me in style and treats the environment gently
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