Cadillac headed in right direction with new XLR

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Back in the days of black and white movies, radio comedy dominated by Jack Benny and Bob Hope and before the invention of interstate highways, Cadillac was the standard of the world.

If you purchased a Cadillac you were buying the best automobile available in the U.S. It was a symbol that you had made it – you had reached the pinnacle.
Cadillac was the leader in innovation, plush interiors and powerful engines.

Alas Cadillac’s image has slowly eroded over the years, accelerated by a perceptible drop in quality in the ‘70s and lack of imagination in the ‘80s and the appearance of several Japanese luxury brands 15 years ago until it fell into the ranks of second-class citizen in the premium automobile hierarchy.

It took mere years to erode an image meticulously built over decades, and it will take time to revitalize the brand.

Thankfully the revitalization project is under way. Several years ago the Cadillac division got the green light from General Motors to take a new direction, using a design theme characterized as “Art & Science,” which embodies sharp edges and bold lines.

The design direction emboldened the brand as the company has returned to a prideful organization and imagination has been rekindled.

There are several examples now in showrooms of Cadillac’s new direction, which not only includes new styling, but rear-drive platforms, new cutting-edge technology and enhanced performance.

Cadillac has moved away from a stogy old-people’s car image, the DeVille not withstanding. The General Motors luxury brand’s new perception, styling with attitude has caught on with the car-buying public.

The best example of Cadillac’s transformation is the 2004 Cadillac XLR roadster. It’s a superb rendition of design, technology, luxury and performance, a viable answer to the industry’s other coupe/cabriolet two-seaters, the Mercedes SL500 and the Lexus SC430.

It has more personality and attitude than the Lexus and is loaded with as many standard features and has a bigger and equally sophisticated engine as the more expensive Mercedes.

Wow, we’ve just put a Cadillac in the same class with a premium Mercedes and a top-of-the-line Lexus. But, this roadster can play in the big leagues.
The XLR is based on the next-generation Corvette architecture. Both vehicles are being built at the Corvette plant at Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The Cadillac is composed of steel hydroformed frame rails, an aluminum cockpit structure and composite floors made from balsa-wood, creating a light and stiff structure. This gives the XLR a solid, granite-like, unflappable stance.

And its lightweight construction with a curb weight of just 3,643 pounds allows the modern 4.6-liter 320-horsepower Northstar V-8 with variable valve timing to shine.

Mated to a rear-mounted 5-speed automatic transmission, the V-8 is capable of rocketing the relatively lightweight XLR from 0 to 60 in 5.8 seconds. That’s faster than both the SC430 and SL500.

Acceleration is smooth and seamless. And if you can force yourself to turn off the magnificent stereo system (a Bose sound system with a 6-disc CD changer) a wonderful low growl from the V-8 will provide background music.

Not only will this sharp-edged looker go fast and stop quickly, it is easy to handle in normal driving situations and exhibits a slot-car-like persona on the sweeps.

Cadillac uses one of GM’s newest marvels, Magnetic Ride Control, an electronically controlled, magnetic-fluid based system that automatically adjusts shock damping to handle changing road conditions and driver inputs. It gets the most out of the roadster on the twists and turns while maintaining a livable ride during normal driving.

We found the XLR a rocket off the line with the ability to surge through and around traffic. Tip-in has a well-modulated Mercedes-like feel. It can best be described as just the opposite of a jackrabbit start.

While the XLR delivered everything we wanted on the back-road curves, the speed-sensitive power steering gives the XLR more of a big-Caddy feel on the highway, and less of a sports car persona. But steering is accurate and on-center feel is excellent.

The XLR is loaded with gee-whiz features the best of which is the top that retracts into the trunk with the press of a switch. One reviewer was dismayed the top takes 27 seconds to stow, while the Mercedes takes only 16. What has life in America come to when we criticize a car because it takes a half-minute to remove a top?

When retracted, usable trunk space is reduced to space for just a couple of bags of groceries. But with the top up, storage space expands to 12 cubic feet, enough room to store a couple of sets of golf clubs.

Another gee-whiz feature is a totally keyless system. Pocket the key fob and you can open the doors and start the car with the press of a starter switch on the dashboard. It’s addictive to never have to pull a key out of your pocket. Several other brands are using similar systems as well with the biggest problem being the confusion of valet parking attendants.

And yet another neat feature is a trunk lid that rises with the press of a button and lowers with the press of another button.

The interior is well thought out. Switchgear is easy to use. Unlike the Mercedes or even worse a BMW 6 or 7-Series, it doesn’t take an evening of book learning and a couple of weeks of hands-on experience to learn the ins and outs of the equipment.

We had no problem finding a good driving position. But with the large number of great features on the XLR, we wonder why power adjustable pedals are not part of the package.

One rather disconcerting feature is electronic buttons to open the door from the inside. There are no handles. The buttons work well, but what if someday they stopped working? Perhaps the gee-whiz factor may have been taken too far in this case.

The high belt line may take some getting used to, but the leather fabric and the eucalyptus wood trim are easy to get used to. And a version of GM’s head-up display where speed, radio station selection and adaptive cruise control settings are displayed on the windshield is so useful you wonder how you’ve gotten along without it.

Although interior storage is at a premium, the cockpit is spacious and it accommodates two people with elbowroom to spare.

Everything is standard equipment on the XLR with the exception of XM radio, and well it should be for a list price of $76,200. An XM radio receiver, a feature that should not be passed up, is just $325.

Among the standard items not already mentioned are 18-inch polished alloy wheels with run-flat tires, heated and cooled seats, DVD navigation, ultrasonic park assist and dual-zone climate control.

The XLR is an eye-catcher. Honks and thumbs up punctuated our week behind the wheel, especially while driving with the top down.

More than good looking and more than an outstanding performer it can be argued with conviction that the XLR is the best car built in America.

Is Cadillac is back? Is it once again the standard of the world? Is it the pinnacle? Maybe not, but it is most certainly headed in the right direction.