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Call it a plug-in series hybrid or extended range electric vehicle, the 2014 Cadillac ELR, using the same drivetrain architecture as the Chevrolet Volt, attempts to help the quintessential American luxury automaker push the boundaries of advanced, economical mobility. This type of post-oil development has been taken up by other companies, such as BWM with its 'i' brand, but the show has really been stolen by the Tesla Model S.
To Cadillac's credit, the ELR shows excellent exterior design, employs solid cabin electronics, goes about 37 miles without using a drop of gasoline before its engine has to kick in, and I found it very enjoyable to drive.
The ELR, like the Volt, carries a T-shaped, 16.5 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack down its center, supplying electricity to a 135-kilowatt drive motor at the front wheels. A fully charged battery pack allows the aforementioned electric range. When the battery runs out of juice, a 1.4-liter gasoline engine kicks in, serving as an onboard generator to let the ELR go another 303 miles before the tank is empty.
Cadillac cites its EPA fuel economy estimates of 82 mpg equivalent and 33 mpg on just gasoline, both averages for city and highway. Starting out with a full tank and battery, I achieved 43.6 mpg over a wide range of driving situations and the car's different drive modes. None of these figures will be meaningful for the ELR owner, as plug-in hybrid fuel economy varies considerably. Plug in the ELR every night and drive a 20-mile roundtrip commute every day, and you won't use a drop of gasoline all week. Never plug it in, and your fuel economy will come closer to the quoted 33 mpg figure.
A recharge takes five hours from a 240-volt outlet, according to Cadillac, and about twice as long from 110 volts. There is no fast-charging port on the ELR.
When I got behind the wheel, I was expecting the ELR to act like a conventional hybrid, but for almost 40 miles it ran on pure electricity. Pushing the accelerator, the ELR glided quietly forward, electric power steering making the wheel easy to turn. The accelerator push was gentle, its programming masking the full 295 pound-feet of torque afforded by the drive motor, even with the pedal to the floor.
The leather-shrouded shifter on the console, with its PRNDL positions, seemed an odd throwback as I considered the single-gear transmission translating motor revolutions to the wheels. Buttons, a stalk, or a gesture-controlled touchpad would have functioned the same.
Braking was a little uneven. Not much happened for the first quarter of pedal travel, but stomping harder made the pads grab hard, abruptly halting the car except for some seismic shifts as its 4,000 pounds rocked on the suspension. I learned over time to use that soft first quarter of travel to maximize the braking regeneration, which would recharge the battery and let the engine remain off.
In city traffic, the ELR was easy to control, the linear acceleration inherent to electric motors contributing to the drive quality. In one test I use for electric cars, I stopped halfway up a particularly steep San Francisco street, then attempted to resume the climb. The ELR did not balk when I hit the accelerator, merely giving me the same kind of easy acceleration it had on flat ground. The electric range, shown on the instrument cluster, didn't run down precipitously, either, and it regained a few miles on the ensuing downhill.
More impressively, the ELR didn't struggle with freeway speeds, running up to 65 mph without complaint or any indication that it wanted to bring the gasoline engine into play. I found myself monitoring the electricity usage displays on the LCD instrument cluster, seeing how many kilowatts it took to maintain speed. I was impressed by this instrument cluster, which could be set to Modern or Classic themes. I chose Classic Enhanced, which added a variety of bar gauges to either side of the centerpiece speedometer.
With a nice sense of balance, Cadillac put the battery level gauge to the left of the instrument cluster, above the electric range display, and the gasoline level on the right, above the gasoline range. As I ticked down city, suburban, and freeway miles, I watched to see how they comported with the electric range display. They were remarkably close. In fact, the car seemed about to outperform its mileage projection as I sped down the freeway.
Having traveled a little over 38 miles, I finally ran out of battery, beating Cadillac's own 37-mile specification by just a little. I was to find, though, that my electrically-driven miles were far from over.
With the battery drained, the engine quietly kicked in, supplying electricity to drive the car, but my only indication of the combustion taking place under the hood was a slight vibration from the steering wheel and a bar gauge showing engine speed on the instrument cluster. The accelerator response didn't feel any different, though Cadillac notes that the ELR will go from 0 to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds when the engine is supplying juice, one second faster than when it is drawing from the battery.
As I drove, I noticed the ELR acted more like a conventional hybrid with its battery depleted. Rather than the engine running continuously, the instrument cluster showed it shutting down whenever regenerative braking built enough charge to get the ELR going, which was frequent. Sure, when I was powering up a mountainside the engine remained on, but on a lengthy downslope it remained off, and the battery level display even gained a couple of bars.
I wouldn't call the ELR's ride quality soft, but the adaptive suspension is very competent, taking care of potholes and rough bits of road with little bother to passengers. The quiet and comfort of the ride and the assured, easy feel of the drive both felt worthy of the Cadillac brand. It felt like a lot of care was taken in tuning the car, and no expense was spared on equipment.
The ride toughened up a little when I toggled the mode button to Sport, which at a single stroke adjusted throttle, suspension, and steering. The suspension was noticeably more rigid and the steering wheel showed more heft, but the throttle change felt minor. The ELR didn't have a whole lot of hidden power to suddenly unleash.
The sport tuning at the wheel felt good, but I didn't spend a lot of time thrashing the corners in the ELR. On my first few corners I noticed a tendency to drift, the low center-of-gravity from the battery pack combining with wet roads to loosen lateral grip from the Potenza all-season tires. When I found some drier roads and built my confidence back up, my cornering experiments uncovered a bit of understeer, for which the ELR couldn't bring the kind of immediate power required to counter.
While sport performance may be lacking, the ELR certainly looks the part. The wedge-shaped body, with its sharp lines, nicely embodies Cadillac's Art and Science design language. I never tired of its looks, and it got the attention of more than a few passerby on the street. I found myself thinking that Cadillac should have copied this design for the recently unveiled ATS Coupe.
The A pillar cants back severely, making the acreage of windshield a near-horizontal plane. The side graphic, the window opening, employs knife-like angles, while the side contour leads back to fenders wide enough to serve as laptop stands, giving the ELR a very sporty stance. Vertical headlight casings house stacked LEDs which, in the car I reviewed, included automatic high-beam technology. The grille, like that on the Volt, is more of a shield since Cadillac limited the air intake for aerodynamic purposes.