2014 Cadillac ELR review: Caddy plug-in comes at too high price

2014 Cadillac ELR
The ELR sports a sharp design, embodying Cadillac's Art and Science theme. Josh Miller/CNET

Despite the high trunk lid, I found rear visibility very reasonable. When parking, I could rely on a very good rearview camera, which showed trajectory lines and included object detection. A blind-spot monitor system alerted me to cars on either side, showing when it was safe to change lanes. When I drifted over a lane line, the lane-departure warning system buzzed my butt, a recent safety system Cadillac has been implementing in its seats that definitely got my attention.

On lengthy, boring highway runs, I made use of the ELR's adaptive cruise control, which did a fine job matching speed with slower traffic up ahead, even to the point of coming to a complete stop when a car up ahead took its time about making a right turn.

Brown leather seats gave the interior a bit of classic refinement. High gloss (not my favorite) covered control and trim surfaces. Echoing the modernity of the LCD instrument cluster was the 8-inch touchscreen hosting Cadillac's CUE (Cadillac User Experience) infotainment system. Rather than overload the cabin with switches, buttons, and gauges, I like how Cadillac kept the dashboard simple and uncluttered.

CUE performance
Flying in the face of tradition, the center stack used touch controls rather than buttons and dials. I know that touch volume controls, where you slide your finger to the right or left to adjust audio output, have not been terribly popular, but I found the slider in the ELR flawless in its performance. There is no superiority to a volume dial -- the slider is just a paradigm shift.

When I reviewed the Cadillac ATS, the touch screen-based CUE interface looked good but seemed sluggish. In the ELR, CUE worked much better with quick response to my onscreen selections. I'm not sure if Cadillac refined the software, but the specifications boast of the ARM 11 three-core processor in the dashboard. It looks like Cadillac learned the importance of robust silicon.

Unlike most touch screens, CUE employs haptic feedback, a tactile bump from the LCD to let you know when you've hit an onscreen button. That feedback is helpful when you're barreling down the freeway, and want to keep your eyes on the road.

2014 Cadillac ELR
The ELR's navigation system shows nicely refined maps. Josh Miller/CNET

As another cool trick, CUE also uses a proximity sensor. With the map screen up, for example, I couldn't see how to zoom or enter destinations. But as soon as I moved my hand near the LCD, onscreen buttons appeared showing the options. Along the top of the screen were icons for audio, phone, navigation, climate control, and energy information. The instrument cluster served as an auxiliary display, letting me choose trip, phone, navigation, or audio screens.

The instrument cluster display also showed available voice commands, which proved a useful guide to let me know what I could ask for. The voice command system in the ELR is as modern as they come, letting me ask for specific album or artists from USB-connected audio storage or enter whole address strings into the navigation system. Helped by good sound deadening in the cabin, voice command did an excellent job recognizing street names.

The navigation system maps showed excellent and easy-to-read detail. In perspective view, it included renderings of buildings in downtown San Francisco. Rather than portray buildings in scale height, however, the maps shortened them so as not to obscure the streets, making route guidance easier.

Under route guidance, voice prompts read out street names for upcoming turns, and the system took satellite radio-sourced traffic data into account in calculating routes. Satellite radio is commonly used throughout the industry for traffic data, but I would like to see Cadillac leverage the ELR's built-in OnStar data connection for off-board information sources. OnStar, with its two-way connection, could deliver information more specific to the car's location, as opposed to the one-way satellite radio model.

One thing lacking in the navigation system was any guidance for electric car charging stations or an indication of how far the ELR could go at its current charge level. These features are not absolutely necessary for the ELR because it can also run on gasoline, but might help the driver who wants to maximize electric drive time.

OnStar does include some electric vehicle-specific functions for the ELR. With the smartphone app, drivers can not only remotely unlock their doors, but also get climate control running while the car is plugged into the grid, making for a nicely warmed cabin when it's zero degrees out. Likewise, an owner can set the car to charge at non-peak power use times, something that makes the utilities very happy indeed.

2014 Cadillac ELR
For USB-connected music devices, the ELR's voice command supports artist and album names. Josh Miller/CNET

As in other CUE-equipped Cadillac's, the lower panel on the stack opened up, revealing a compartment suitable for stowing phones and other devices. A USB port in that compartment complemented the one in the console, adding flexibility to device charging. I could, of course, pair my phone to the car for hands-free calling and audio playback, and cable it to one of the USB ports. I could also devote one of those ports to a USB drive holding my music collection.

Other audio sources included HD radio, satellite radio, and Pandora, played off of my smartphone.

The ELR's standard 10 speaker Bose audio system sounded good, but didn't knock my socks off. Music reproduction was well-balanced, not favoring bass or treble frequencies in particular. The detail was good, but didn't rise to the level of even the Harman Kardon system in the Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabriolet.

Not a game-changer
Despite the similar drivetrain, the 2014 Cadillac ELR is not just a rebranded Chevrolet Volt. From top to bottom, the two cars share very little. The ELR's sharp design makes it look completely at home in the Cadillac line-up. The comfortable drive quality, and luxury cabin appointments are exactly what I would expect from the brand.

I was particularly impressed by the performance of the CUE interface, something that will play throughout the company's model line-up. Navigation, hands-free phone, and audio all worked well, with a robust set of modern features. OnStar brings in some excellent connected features, but app support in the ELR is minimal. However, Cadillac is reportedly going to expand the CUE system to include an app store, which may be retroactive.

The most intriguing part of the ELR is its drivetrain. Compared to other plug-in hybrids, 37 miles makes the ELR the electric range leader. I also felt that Cadillac further refined the drivetrain performance from what I had earlier seen in the Chevrolet Volt. But plug-in hybrids are funny things when it comes to fuel economy. The 33 mpg fuel economy when never plugging in isn't all that impressive, but those who can drive many miles under electric power will see results closer to 50 mpg.

Even with its comfort and all around fine performance, I don't see the ELR having much of an impact on Cadillac's model line-up or its future. The urp-inducing $75,000 price tag is going to restrict the car to the well-heeled Cadillac aficionado -- other techie buyers with that kind of change will opt for a Tesla Model S.

Also lessening the long-term impact of the ELR is the fact that the drivetrain isn't really modular. Cadillac can't deploy that drivetrain throughout its line-up of coupes, sedans, and SUVs in the same way, for example, Toyota has managed to sow its Synergy Hybrid system among its models. As such, the ELR looks like it will be something of a curiosity, rather than a milestone, in Cadillac's history.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Cadillac ELR
Powertrain Series hybrid system, 135-kilowatt drive motor, 16.5 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine generator
EPA fuel economy 85 MPGe city/80 MPGe highway
Observed fuel economy 43.6 mpg
Navigation Standard, with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Pandora, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system Bose 10-speaker system
Driver aids Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, lane-departure warning, rearview camera
Base price $75,000
Price as tested $83,130

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