By Dexter Ford, Globe and Mail
In explaining the new ELR plug-in hybrid, a Cadillac spokesman offered this rationale: “Mercedes-Benz doesn’t have anything like this.” So true. As a corporate statement in the 21st century, the ELR makes a certain amount of sense. It’s unique, beautiful, efficient, serenely comfortable and electronically avant-garde. At a $78,250 base price, it’s also bracingly expensive.
The expense seems even higher when one realizes that beneath its lovely, high-cheekboned skin, sculpted under the watchful eye of Bob Boniface, Cadillac’s exterior design director, the ELR is a sister of the Chevrolet Volt.
This is Apollo’s own Volt, to be sure, with a thick, creamy layer of running-gear refinements, noise-absorbing touches, handcrafted interior and a long list of luxury, safety and technology gizmos. If the Chevy Volt is a four-wheel incarnation of, say, Ed Begley Jr., think of the ELR as an automotive George Clooney.
The ELR’s recalibrated electronic control unit extracts significantly more power from its Volt-spec hardware: a 16.5 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, a primary electric-drive motor and a 1.4-litre gasoline-powered motor-generator. In EV mode, the ELR sends 157 horsepower to the front wheels, compared with 133 in the Volt. In extended-range mode, the gasoline motor-generator adds 24 more, for a total of 181 horsepower, versus the Volt’s 151.
With a full battery charge, the ELR has an estimated driving range of 60 km in all-electric mode. That charge takes from 12.5 to 18 hours with a standard 120-volt outlet, and about five hours at 240 volts. When the battery is discharged, the gasoline engine fires up to keep the car humming. Car and Driver drove the ELR from a standstill to 97 km/h in nine seconds in EV mode, clocked 8.1 seconds in gasoline-powered extended-range mode and reached a top speed of 172 km/h.
I experienced 48 to 56 km of all-electric range in real-world (well, California) driving and Cadillac estimates total range – on batteries and the gas range extender – at 547 km.
The ELR performs swimmingly in the feeding frenzy of urban commuting. The Volt’s electric motor creates gratifying initial thrust but loses steam quickly as speed increases. The ELR comes on stronger at first and keeps accelerating longer, with smoother overall power delivery.
The ELR is not fast compared with its gasoline-powered coupe competition. Or compared with the similarly priced all-electric Tesla Model S. But the ELR is sufficiently lively for almost all real-world driving, including an occasional uphill pass.
The ELR chassis uses GM’s HiPer Strut front suspension to reduce the torque steer that lurks in front-wheel-drive cars and to align its wider, 20-inch-diameter wheels with the road. All four dampers adapt continuously to driving conditions and selectable driving modes. The ventilated front disc brakes are bigger than the Volt’s, to handle the ELR’s added weight and speed.
The rear suspension shares the Volt’s twist-beam design, with a Watts link added to enhance lateral stability. This is an improvement, but even with its understeer-prone front-drive layout, the ELR can wag its tail in hard cornering if the front tires suddenly gain traction while turned.
With the standard electronic stability control engaged, this is not a problem. With the stability control switched off, it can be disconcerting. The ELR is more capable of going quickly over a twisty road than most of its drivers ever will be, or most of its passengers will ever allow.
The ZF Servoelectric power steering is programmed to raise steering effort when the driver selects Sport mode, and to increase effort and on-centre feel with increasing speed and cornering force. It works so well one wonders why the Volt’s steering, which uses the same system, is so lifeless. Hackers, while you’re at it…
My test car’s interior was a rich combination of leather, olive wood, carbon fibre and Alcantara. To exploit the silence of the electric powertrain, the ELR has hydraulic suspension bushings, thick window glass and ample sound-damping insulation. Bose’s active-noise-cancelling technology helps to keep the cabin calm when the gasoline engine fires up, but the increase in ambient noise is still pronounced. At freeway speeds, the generator sound is largely masked by the muted road and wind noise that slips through the ELR’s soundproofing armour, but at slower speeds and at stoplights the thrum of the genset under the hood is more intrusive.
Front-seat room is ample, but the cramped rear seats, with their limited headroom and leg space, are best reserved for the young and the restless. The front-seat shoulder belts are a significant obstacle to rear-seat access.
Standard safety equipment includes frontal-collision and lane-departure warning systems. The Safety Alert Seat vibrates through the left, right or forward seat bolsters if you drift from your lane or come up quickly behind another car. It feels vaguely as if you’re running over Botts’ dots – or as though you’ve found that long-lost cellphone.
The Cadillac ELR is an intriguing engineering effort and a striking piece of modern automotive art. Whether it inspires buyers remains to be seen. Is there a significant group of well-heeled drivers who crave the efficiency and subtle environmental cachet of a long-range plug-in hybrid, and who are willing to pay far more than they would ever save in energy costs?