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Hybrids

2014 Cadillac ELR Test Drive

Sometimes you do get what you wish for.

Back when the Chevrolet Volt first hit the scene, many balked at the idea of paying over $40,000 for a compact economy car, despite the fact that it was filled with never-before-seen plug-in hybrid technology. I was among the chorus suggesting that then-embattled GM would’ve gotten a better reception if it had been offered as a Buick or Cadillac, but plans for the Chevy were already set in stone, and no one really cares what I have to say.

Nevertheless, at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, the automaker did unveil a Volt-based concept called the Cadillac Converj; a super-sleek two-door that was proof that at least some people at GM had the same idea. That car has finally made it into production as the 2014 Cadillac ELR.

The shorthand on the ELR is that it is a coupe version of the Volt, using its sister car’s chassis and powertrain. But there’s a bit more to it than that.

Yes, it has the same electric motors, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and 16.5 kilowatt-hour battery pack as the Volt, but they’ve been upgraded for Cadillac duty with a boost in power to 217 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Along with losing two doors and a hatchback, the ELR gets a reengineered suspension system that uses GM’s torque-steer reducing HiPer Strut front suspension and electronically adjustable dampers.

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The body is an almost perfect port of the Converj, its wedge profile and sharp creases a far cry from the Volt’s bulbous shape, and evidence that the suit truly makes the man. The last time I drove a car that got more approving stares than the ELR, it was an Aston Martin, which is the high watermark for this sort of thing.

The cabin is equally exquisite, and worthy of what is essentially now Cadillac’s flagship model, trimmed in layer upon layer of stitched leather, microfiber suede, real wood and carbon fiber. You have to dig deep into the footwell before you find anything resembling cheap plastic, and the quality of the carpet down there will distract your attention, anyway.

A configurable 8-inch screen dressed with a chrome bezel in the center serves as the instrument cluster, while another sits at the top of the center console for the CUE infotainment system, which comes standard with navigation. It all looks very high-tech, and the gauges are great, but the CUE’s touchscreen interface is slow and finicky compared to the tablets it tries to emulate, and it could use a few physical knobs and buttons to augment all of the not-so-responsive touchpads below it.

The only package options available on the ELR are one with adaptive cruise control with automatic braking, and a luxury package that adds fancy wheels, headlamps and blind spot monitoring systems that vibrate the very rich leather upholstered driver’s seat when danger is afoot.

Rear seat passengers aren’t treated as well. While legroom is reasonable for a car this size, the sloping roofline cuts into headroom, making the back buckets suitable only for children and petites.

The ELR has four driving modes. The first two – Tour and Sport – use up the battery’s charge before employing the engine to generate electricity for extended trips. According to the EPA, the all-electric driving range is 37 miles per charge at an efficiency rating equivalent to 82 mpg. Both figures are lower than the Volt’s, likely due to the ELR’s higher power, weight and aerodynamic drag. Nevertheless, my test drive suggests those numbers are close to the real-world mark.

Unfortunately, so is the 33 mpg rating it has when running off the engine in extended-range mode, not even close to the Lincoln MKZ non-plug-in hybrid’s 45 mpg.

Switch it to Mountain mode and the electric range is reduced, as the ELR reserves more of the charge for getting up and over the tallest geographical features without losing power. This is for use on the truly big stuff, like the Mount Evans Scenic Byway in Colorado, not your average hill. On the way down, you can use the paddles on the back of the steering wheel to engage what Cadillac calls “Regen on Demand,” which uses the electric motor to slow the car down as it charges the battery with what would otherwise be wasted energy.

In Hold mode, you can do whatever you want with those captured electrons. It locks out the battery pack until you decide to use it, like around town where electric drive is most efficient, or if you need to do something sneaky.

As far as the drive is concerned, the ELR’s performance is about on par with a typical family car’s. It’s not very exciting, but plenty adequate. The power delivery, as expected, is smooth and quiet in electric mode, and when the gas engine kicks in it’s usually not much of a nuisance. Only when it really needs to crank up the juice and revs to its 4,800 rpm peak does it come across as rough, coarse and un-premium. Luckily, this doesn’t happen very often.

Regardless of where the power is coming from, the ELR rides and handles much better than you’d expect from its pedestrian roots. The wide tires wrapped around those 20-inch wheels may be a little stiff for rough roads, but their grip is surprisingly tremendous, and the suspension provides a composed, neutral set in the turns.

Overall, this is a really enjoyable little luxury car Cadillac has put together here, as long as you don’t mind writing really big checks.

The starting price for the ELR is $75,995, twice as much as the Volt and the highest of any Cadillac, including the Escalade. With the options boxes checked, that rises to $79,685 before you deduct the $7,500 electric car tax credit and any state incentives available.

Granted, while several premium plug-in cars are expected to arrive in the next few years, the ELR’s competition today is limited to the all-electric Tesla Model S, which costs roughly the same but has a 265-mile battery range and is much faster, and the similarly swift Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, which goes only 20 miles on electric power and starts at $99,995.

Had the ELR come out way back when, it would’ve been a game-changer, and much more impressive. Instead, the car relies on years-old technology that’s will soon be replaced with next-generation stuff that will certainly be more efficient, with a higher level of refinement and possibly a longer battery-powered range.

But, boy, does the ELR look good.

Too bad GM couldn’t have figured out a way to make it cheaper and sell it as a Chevy.

Fingers crossed. Again.

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2014 Cadillac ELR

Base price: $75,995

As tested: $79,685

Type: 2-door, 2+2 passenger coupe

Powertrain: Electric/1.4-liter 4-cylinder internal combustion engine combination

Power: 217 hp, 295 lb-ft torque

Transmission: CVT automatic

MPG: 82 combined (electric), 33 combined (gas)

Electric range: 37 miles