If you ever want to feel like you’re from the future, just roll through the city streets behind the wheel of a Cadillac ELR. Few press cars I have ever driven elicited as many stares and as much neck straining (some would have surely rotated a full 360 degrees were such a thing possible) as Caddy’s new plug-in hybrid. And just by looking at it, it’s not hard to see why. Based on the Converj concept that made its debut way back in 2009 at the North American International Auto Show, the ELR retains much of the concept look and feel of its ancestor. Given that it’s a car that runs primarily on electricity, this circumstance is not likely coincidental. Suffice it to say, if the future automotive landscape is dominated by cars like this one, I’m looking forward to it.
Built on GM’s compact Delta II platform, which also underpins the Chevrolet Volt (both cars are built in the same Detroit plant), the front-wheel-drive ELR coupe is powered by a variant of the Voltec drive system utilized by the four-door Chevy. The system is comprised of a 117-135 kW electric motor, a 55 kW generator motor, a four-cylinder gas generator (engine) and a 16.5 kWh battery pack. Power is put to the ground through an automatic transmission. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pegs the ELR with an all-electric range of 59 km (37 miles), and a total range of 552 km (340 miles) but, as we all know, real world figures vary.
Charging times also vary, but EPA testing suggests a full charge (from empty) will take approximately 13 hours using a standard 120-volt household outlet. A 240-volt charging station (available separately) will cut that time roughly in half to about five hours.
Despite its compact size, the ELR is still a Cadillac and, as result, it doesn’t come cheap. In Canada, it comes in one well-stocked trim with an MSRP of $78,250. My tester came equipped with a few extras, including upgraded leather seats (finished in Kona brown), 20-inch aluminum wheels and a host of accident avoidance gadgetry (adaptive cruise control, rear cross traffic alert, side blind zone alert, etc.).
As with all electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, the ELR is eligible for purchase incentive programs organized and funded by provincial governments in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Individual rebates vary by jurisdiction and vehicle. Unlike the United States, Canada currently does not offer a federal incentive program, much to the consternation of manufacturers and car buyers alike. More on all of this later.
On the ambitiousness scale, the Cadillac ELR is at least a 12 in the eyes of this writer. Everything about it, from the powertrain to the exterior design to the high quality interior materials and glitzy graphical user interface, or GUI, screams of lofty aims. As mentioned earlier, this car really turns heads. The populace seems to find it to be irresistible. The ELR is a real looker, in a futuristic, not-of-this-earth kind of way. When I first picked it up, I thought it looked like a concept not approved for being driven on public roads. Space-age, indeed!
Its exterior lines retain much from the Converj, stretching tightly over the 4,724 mm length in a fashionable, wedge-shaped fashion. The family resemblance is obvious, but not so much that it can’t be distinguished from other Cadillac models. To these eyes, it’s a handsome piece of machinery made all the more attractive by the rising beltline, small windows and sharply raked A and C pillars.
In keeping with the idea of unbroken lines, the ELR has a pair of very unique door handles. There is no actual handle, but rather a touch pad on the inside, which opens the door once the presence of the key fob has been detected. Very cool. Despite being aware of its compact platform, I still found the ELR to be smaller than I imagined, but impressive nevertheless, especially on the inside. Cadillac used its best stuff to finish the interior and it has paid off handsomely. Every surface is pleasing to the touch, and befits a car that costs north of $80,000. The variety of materials – Alcantara, leather and a mix of soft touch and piano black plastics – create a nice mix of textures and shapes that are visually appealing and suit the ELR’s up-market aspirations. Even the CUE (Cadillac User Experience) system, which looks and operates like so many others I’ve tested recently, has been customized to suit this plug-in Caddy. Monitoring energy usage, battery drain and available electric range is fairly straightforward, but does require a bit of fiddling given the deep functionality the system offers. It’s best discovered when the car isn’t moving.
One other note about CUE: the glitzy animations and sound effects accompanying every start-up and shut-off are pretty entertaining the first few times, but considerably less so as time wore on. After a while, I felt like looking for an off switch, which I’m not sure even exists. I didn’t wind up looking too far into it, so I can’t say for certain. Those distractions aside, the ELR is quite pleasing to drive. Despite the snug cabin, the driving position is comfortable, due in no small part to the leather, eight-way adjustable powered driver’s seat, which provides good support all the way around. The smallish, thick-rimmed steering wheel also feels good and can be easily adjusted to suit different driving positions.
On the road, the ELR is whisper quiet in all-electric mode. Not hearing anything at start-up (aside from the racket generated by the CUE system) did take a little getting used to, but the lack of engine noise made me more aware of things like road and wind noise. Neither are especially bothersome, but they are more noticeable in this car. Acceleration was impressive and the handling felt secure. All in all, it felt like a normal car.
As with many modern vehicles, the ELR offers several different driving modes that alter the car’s efficiency and performance. The four on offer here are: Tour, Hold, Mountain and Sport. Tour is the default setting, Hold allows for electric power to be held for later use (i.e. city driving), Sport sharpens the steering and throttle response and stiffens the suspension settings, and Mountain saves electric power for climbing steep grades.
Given that I was driving the ELR in a combination of city and highway driving, I chose to leave the car in Tour mode the entire time it was in my possession. I did this primarily because I wanted to see if range and fuel efficiency would change despite travelling the same route to and from work each day.
Spoiler alert – the variance was minor. Basically, I was able to drive about half of my Oshawa-Toronto commute (58.6 km one way) on electric power. The morning drive was done in electric power and the late afternoon trek home utilized the gas-powered generator. Not a bad trade-off, in my view, given that I was basically halving my normal gas consumption. The 1.4-litre gas generator seamlessly engages once the battery is fully drained, and while its operation is a bit noisy, it’s not unduly harsh. The ELR’s cabin is a tranquil place regardless of the power source. My ability to utilize more of the electric capabilities certainly would have improved had I been able to charge the car while at work, but as I discovered during my time with the ELR, public charging capacity in the Greater Toronto Area is a bit sparse (see sidebar).
Speaking of charging, my experience with the ELR proved to be a bit of a confounding experience. Let me preface this by saying I was expecting it might take a bit longer than the prescribed 13 hours to fully charge the battery from empty. I live in an older building where power is shared among six apartments, so I figured it might take a bit longer than if I were a house-dweller and the power isn’t being shared in multiple ways.
With that said, I was more than a bit surprised to discover that my building, which has standard 8-Amp service and 120-volt outlets, could not charge the ELR in less than 18 hours. During the work week when I was only able to charge the car for 12-14 hours, I would usually only get an 80% charge (~50 km range). It was only during the weekend, when I could leave it plugged in closer to 18 hours that I was able to bring the level up to 100% (60 km+ range). Experiences vary, of course, and I don’t mean to suggest that mine is typical – it very likely isn’t. Given that the majority of ELR buyers will likely be able to house the car in a garage complete with a 240-volt home charging station, long charge times are probably not going to be of much concern.
Despite the longer charge times, the ELR is a very impressive car. I come away from the experience impressed with the manner in which GM has been able to combine an incredible amount of sophisticated technology with forward-looking design and impressive assembly quality to create a car that’s also enjoyable to drive. While GM’s decision to go the route of building range-extending vehicles rather than pure electrics might not please every environmentalist, I firmly believe this route offers the best compromise between improved fuel economy and driveability. This is the way to encourage more car buyers to consider hybrid vehicles, in my view. Range anxiety isn’t a concern here.
The ELR may be a niche car in a niche market, but it could be a sign of things to come not only for Cadillac, but other luxury car brands that want to deliver a premium driving experience with a vastly improved carbon footprint. GM will likely only sell a few hundred ELRs a year combined in North America, but with plans to expand sales to China and Europe in the coming years, there’s plenty of room for growth.
2014 Cadillac ELR
BASE PRICE: $78,250
PRICE AS TESTED (BEFORE TAXES): $86,505
PROPULSION: 117-135 kW drive motor; 1.4L 4-cyl. gas generator
HORSEPOWER / TORQUE: 157 hp / 295 lb-ft (electric drive); 84 hp (gas generator)
CONFIGURATION: FF TRANSMISSION: Voltec drive system
FUEL ECONOMY RATINGS (all electric – Lₑ* / 100 km): 2.8 / 2.9 / 2.9; (gas generator) 7.6 / 6.7 / 7.2 (city / hwy. / combined)
BASIC WARRANTY: 48 months / 80,000 km
OPTIONS ON TEST VEHICLE
Kona Brown / Jet Black Accents ($2,575)
semi-aniline leather seats
Safety Package ($2,095)
Adaptive Cruise Control
Luxury Package ($1,785)
20-inch ultra bright machined aluminum wheels
rear cross traffic alert
side blind zone alert
Intellibeam automatic high beam control
Destination and delivery ($1,700)
* Lₑ (L equivalent): 8.9 kWh is the equivalent amount of electrical energy in one litre of gasoline