Cadillac ELR

Debut: 2013
Maker: General Motors
Predecessor: No

 Published on 12 Dec 2013 All rights reserved. 

Normally price is not too big a concern at AutoZine because we see cars from enthusiast rather than consumer's viewpoint. Nevertheless, we have to mention the price of this car in the beginning of our discussion – US$76,000. Yes, it costs as much as a mid-spec Tesla Model S, an Audi RS5, a BMW 640i and a Mercedes CLS500. The new Cadillac coupe not just lacks the fame of its rivals but it is also a lot smaller, slower and less powerful. Worse still, it is built on the same underpinnings of Chevrolet Volt, a car that sells for only $35,000. Is it mad?

No one understands what Cadillac and GM's top executives were thinking when they decided the pricing and market positioning of Cadillac ELR. I try very hard to imagine and come up with this version: the General was not happy with the huge loss Chevrolet Volt was making. To recoup the heavy investment in its plug-in hybrid technology, or so-called "Voltec", one bloke suggested to build a small Cadillac on the Volt platform so that it could earn back the money lost on Volt. However, as sales volume of Cadillac is likely to be smaller than Chevy, it should be priced a lot higher, so high that it could easily match German luxury coupes from a class or two above. Such a strategy didn't make sense, of course, but then the General realized that Tesla was able to charge $100K for each Model S Signature model. If a no-one-knows nameplate can charge so much for an innovative green concept, why not Cadillac? In this way, GM greenlighted the ELR program.

Apparently, they thought a beautiful design and a luxury interior are what it takes to charge more than double of its donor car. The ELR is undeniably very stylish. Sleek, sharp, clean and elegant, it might be the best example of "Art and Science" design theme to date. The sealed front grille hints its unconventional propulsion system, but it doesn't shout different for the sake of it, unlike BMW i3 and i8.

The styling is flawless, but the ELR still looks too small to be so expensive. Although it has already added considerable length to its overhangs and extra width to the shoulders, it is still obviously built on a compact car platform. The wheelbase is 10 mm longer than Volt's but still shy of 2700 mm. This reflects in its interior space – while the front seats are comfortable for most people, the rear seats are restricted to children, and very small ones. They lack both head and legroom to accommodate adults. Cadillac agrees, so it calls the cabin 2+2. Expect most drivers will fold the rear seats to place hand luggage. As for the boot, it is quite narrow and shallow.

The interior packaging is quite classy. It uses too many varying materials, but the leather, woods and fabrics are high quality items, as in the case of new CTS. Not so great is the center console, whose lacquer black surface is easy to catch fingerprints (that's why piano black plastic is popular on cheaper cars) and the touch screen of CUE infotainment system is again a nightmare to operate.

However, most absurd is that it carries over the floorpan and propulsion system from its Chevy cousin. Yes, there are some significant changes, such as the front MacPherson struts have been replaced with torque-steer-killing HiPer struts that was originally designed by Opel. Unfortunately, suspending the rear axle is still that Astra-derived torsion beam axle with Watts link. That should not have happened on a Golf GTi, let alone something asking for $76K! Even though continuous adaptive damping (from Opel Astra again) is equipped as standard, it is not a substitution for a proper independent rear suspension.

The powertrain hardware is exactly the same as that of Volt. It consists of a pair of AC electric motors which drive the front wheels, a 1.4-liter petrol engine which works as range extender and a planetary gearset CVT that link them up. The electric motors produce up to 181 hp and 295 lbft of torque, higher than those of Volt (149 hp and 273 lbft). The differences lie on the current supplied to them rather than the motors themselves. The petrol engine is rated at 86 hp and 94 lbft, but this is irrelevant to performance, because it revs at a constant 4800 rpm as long as the battery is exhausted. The total system output is 217 horsepower, an excellent figure if you: a) wind back 30 years ago, when a Corvette had much the same horsepower; b) overlook its 1830 kg kerb weight; or c) used to drive a Prius and have never heard of Tesla.

If neither cases fit, you will find the ELR underpowered. It might be able to do 0-60 mph in 7.8 seconds, thanks to the instant electric torque delivered right from idle, but the initial sensation fades out as speed rises. By the time 107 mph is reached, the computer stops it from accelerating. This is to say it could feel quite brisk in town, but it never feels like a coupe, let alone one so expensive.

Like Volt, the 16.5 kWh, 200 kilograms of lithium-ion battery is placed on the floorpan in T-shape. It is housed within the transmission tunnel and under the rear seats. It offers an EV range of 35 miles, far less than a proper electric car's, thus its usage is limited to short commutes. When the battery is drained, the petrol engine fires up. Boy, it is so noisy! GM should have found a more refined unit or added more insulation around it. As it didn't, the Cadillac suffers from a very unpleasant transition between the super-quiet EV mode and unrefined range-extending mode, and the latter usually sustains until the end of the journey. This damages the luxury pretension of the Cadillac. You might start questioning why you have spent so much money on a hybrid instead of a pure EV like Tesla or a refined Germany luxury coupe.

The same question can be asked for its chassis dynamics. By the standard of luxury coupes, the ELR's road-holding, braking, body control and ride quality are all mediocre. Its 245/40R20 rubbers might look sporty, but they are low-rolling resistance design thus the grip they afford is relatively modest. Low speed maneuvering feels agile and stable enough, but push harder the car in corner and it will give up gripping, washing into early understeer. The steering is precise but the effort is too light and short of communication. On poorer surfaces, the semi-independent rear axle fails to settle down, so you have to back off.

After all, we should not forget that it is derived from a small hybrid car platform that was originally designed to excel in efficiency and use as many existing parts as possible. Comparing its driving dynamics with the aforementioned premium rivals is not fair. Unfortunately, its price tag says otherwise. If it cost half the price, it could have earned a lot more favourable comments. The problem is, the car cannot be built at a reasonable cost. Maybe the Voltec concept is wrong from the beginning. 3 years ago I thought it might be turned into a success given more time and further development. Now with Tesla showing the light, perhaps we don't really need plug-in hybrids to be the interim solution of the ultimate EVs.

Length / width / height

Valve gears
Other engine features
Max power

Max torque

Suspension layout

Suspension features
Kerb weight
Top speed
0-60 mph (sec)
0-100 mph (sec)
Front-engined, FWD
Steel monocoque
Mainly steel
4725 / 1847 / 1420 mm
2695 mm
Electric motors + Inline-4 range extender
1398 cc
DOHC 16 valves
Engine: 86 hp
Motor: 181 hp
Total: 217 hp
Engine: 94 lbft
Motor: 295 lbft
Total: 295 lbft
F: HiPer strut
R: torsion-beam + Watts link
Adaptive damping
1830 kg
107 mph (limited)
7.8 (c) / 8.1*

Performance tested by: *C&D

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