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

Cadillac's first plug-in hybrid takes a huge leap up from its sibling, the Chevrolet Volt, but its price will make it a tough sell, especially when compared to the Tesla Model S.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
11 min read

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.

2014 Cadillac ELR

2014 Cadillac ELR

The Good

The <b>2014 Cadillac ELR's</b> plug-in hybrid drivetrain takes it 37 miles on electric power alone, then 303 more miles on a tank of gas, making for potentially high fuel economy. An LCD instrument cluster shows driver-configurable information. The elegantly designed CUE cabin interface responds quickly to inputs.

The Bad

The ELR will find it tough to compete with other high-tech rides at its $75,000 price point. Understeer hampers sport performance.

The Bottom Line

While the beautifully-designed 2014 Cadillac ELR offers refined electronics and comfort worthy of the brand, Its lack of sporting performance and high price tag limit its appeal.

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.

2014 Cadillac ELR looks sharp enough to cut (pictures)

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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.

More electric
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.

2014 Cadillac ELR
Cadillac's ELR model uses a similar drivetrain as the Chevy Volt, but is a very different car. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

2014 Cadillac ELR
A power flow screen shows the complex interaction between engine, battery, and motor. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Sport looks
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.

2014 Cadillac ELR
The driver-configurable instrument plane can be set to this Classic Enhanced screen. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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
2014 Cadillac ELR

2014 Cadillac ELR

Score Breakdown

Performance 7Features 8Design 8Media 8