Cadillac ELR — A stunning take on frugal driving

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Cadillac designers should be commended for turning the Cadillac Converj show car into a production vehicle. Design traits include a steeply raked windshield; long, sloping roof pillars that taper back into the trunk; and a character line that rises steeply from front to back into boomerang-shaped taillights. It's all set off by stylishly painted 20-inch alloy wheels. Meet the 2014 ELR.

Its striking sheetmetal looks as if it should be propelled by an exotic twin-turbo V-6 or a giant V-8. But alas, the beautiful clothing is draped around the workings — although modified for slightly better performance — of the Chevrolet Volt hybrid electric car.

If any car deserved state-of-the-art performance, it's the ELR. But Cadillac chose this automotive gem to showcase its hybrid technology in a luxury package, and unfortunately at about twice the price of the Volt, starting at $75,995 including destination charge.

Was this a giant misstep for Cadillac? It's looking that way as only 241 copies were sold in the first four months of 2014, and as of May 1 Cadillac dealers possessed 1,700 unsold ELRs, 86 percent of total production, representing a 725-day supply of cars.

Like the front-wheel-drive Volt, the ELR is primarily powered by electric motors that put out 157 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The motor is fed by a 16.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack until the battery charge is mostly depleted. Then an 84-horsepower, 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline-fueled engine springs to life to feed juice to the battery.

For the most part, the gasoline engine is used as an electricity generator, though in some situations it kicks in to boost the car's performance. There are Normal, Hold, Sport and Mountain modes designed to maximize the powertrain's performance and efficiency in different situations.

The beauty of this drivetrain is its ability to travel an advertised 37 miles without the aid of the gas engine/generator, which is a considerably greater distance than all other plug-in hybrids currently on the market with the exception of its twin, the Volt. The battery takes only 4-to-5 hours to recharge on a 240-volt power source. It can also be plugged into a 120 outlet, but figure a minimum of 12 hours to fully recharge.

Even when the gas engine is required, the Cadillac is relatively frugal with a combined 33 mpg in combined city/highway driving. We gave the ELR a 600-mile test of its extended range mode getting nearly 38 mpg on interstate driving. While the 9.3-gallon gas tank is adequate in around-home driving, we would like to see a bigger tank for extended driving, which would require fewer gas stops.

While performance is adequate, the small four-cylinder engine has a coarseness that is more associated with a sub-20-grand economy car, not a high-end luxury coupe. Performance has been measured from 0-to-60 in 8.8 seconds in full electric and 7.8 seconds in extended range, adequate, but far from sporty. We discovered that the ELR is quick off the line as are most electric vehicles, and has enough power to handle all eventualities.

The ELR's design is a prime example of form over function. While head and legroom are plentiful up front, the rear seat is mostly a place to store things. The sharp, sloping roof erodes rear head room, and legroom is non-existent. The artfully designed roof also restricts the trunk opening. Cargo space is measured at 10.5 cubic feet.

While the interior is attractive, the touchscreen CUE system, which is now standard in all Cadillac models, is difficult to use. The screen manages all systems including climate, audio, navigation and phone. Frustrating to use sums up our feelings about CUE.

As you might expect from a car in this price range, the ELR comes with a lot of desirable standard features including 20-inch alloy wheels, rearview camera, keyless ignition and entry, dual-zone climate control, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, an eight-inch touchscreen that includes navigation, a 10-speaker Bose sound system, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and Cadillac's vibrating Safety Alert Seat.

In addition to a 4-year, 50,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, Cadillac offers an 8-year, 100,000-mile hybrid component warranty and a 6-year, 70,000-mile powertrain warranty.

There were three options on our test car, adaptive cruise control and Intelligent Brake Assist for $1,995; the Luxury package for $1,695 that includes ultra-bright machined aluminum wheels, rear cross traffic alert and side blind zone alert; and the stunning Kona Brown leather seats with 20-way (count 'um) adjustable power. That brought the bottom line to $82,135 before some meager government tax credits that look good to a Volt buyer, not so to an ELR buyer.

Base price: $75,995; as driven, $82,135
Engine: 1.4-liter 4-cylinder gas, two electric motors
Horsepower: combined, 217
Torque: combined, 295 pound-feet
Transmission: CVT with direct drive, blended modes
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 106.1 inches
Length: 186 inches
Curb weight: 4,050 pounds
Turning circle: NA
Luggage capacity: 10.5 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 9.3 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 33 combined (gas), 82 MPGe (EV mode)
0-60: 7.8 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, Tesla Model S

The Good
• Head-turning styling
• Luxurious interior
• Excellent fuel economy

The Bad
• Unusable back seat
• Frustrating CUE system

The Ugly
• Huge price tag