Cadillac ELR Plug-In Hybrid Coupe: Car Review (Video)

Cadillac's $76,000 entry into the premium alternative-powered car category is stunning inside and out--even Bentley drivers think so.

A decade ago, Cadillac nearly drove off a cliff when it allowed itself to become irrelevant to young, affluent drivers snapping up BMWs instead of De Villes. But in a remarkable U-turn on its way to the abyss, Cadillac slammed on the brakes, sent its designers to the woodshed and conjured a radical concept car, the Evoq, which begat the game-changing 2004 CTS. 

The CTS introduced Cadlilac's "arts and science" design aesthetic--the faceted, Stealth fighter-like body style that would become its ranch-saving signature. The extreme makeover was polarizing--Caddy's 60- and 70-something devotees hated it--but it shocked Cadillac's corpulent, corporate heart like a jolt from pair of defibulator paddles and served notice to Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, the troika eating Cadillac's luxury lunch, that GM's wheezing luxury marque could still be a plausible competitor.

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Having tossed its land-yacht legacy down the memory hole, Cadillac is today busily fine-tuning its bulwark models: the 2014 CTS received rave reviews and a makeover of the Escalade SUV, which made Cadillac a plausible ride in Hollywood after it launched a thousand hip-hop videos, is due later this year.

Now, Cadillac is making another foray into uncharted territory with the 2014 ELR, a plug-in hybrid coupe. Like the CTS, the ELR started as a concept car, the Converj, and enthusiasts have applauded how closely the production model resembles the quixotic concept. 

Stickering at  $76,000, the ELR is Cadillac's priciest model but still $20,000 cheaper than its closest counterpart for now, the Porsche Panamera plug-in hybrid, and about the same price as the Tesla Model S, a pure electric that is Hollywood's default allternative-powered luxo car. By charging a hefty premium for a smallish coupe with a nearly unique power plant, Cadillac's intention is clear: the ELR is meant to captivate a demographic for whom price is largely conjecture, and image and performance are everything. In that regard, the ELR succeeds on (almost) every level. 

Stunning inside and out, the ELR is the most fully realized manifestation of Cadillac's arts and science aesthetic. Snug and cunningly proportioned, in side profile it faintly recalls the lines of the Audi TT or Mercedes SLK--you feel like you should be able to slip it into your back pocket. The interior metes out tasteful portions of suede microfiber, leather, chrome, carbon fiber filigree and dark accent woods. The instrument cluster and infotainment stack are married to Cadillac's much-maligned Cue interface, which looks great--a dramatic startup fanfare whooshes through the cabin's 10-channel Bose stereo system when the wireless ignition is engaged or switched off--but can  frustrate as much as it informs; my loaner ELR had a balky haptic volume control that made listening to the stereo an iffy proposition. 

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Active noise cancelation, also by Bose, dampens engine noise considerably. An array of useful tech safety features are standard, including lane departure warning and forward collision alert which projects a warning onto the windshield and sends a series of vibrations to the driver's seat when it senses an imminent collision. (I managed to engage it--don't ask--and can attest to its efficacy.)

The ELR shares an enhanced version of the powertrain that powers the Chevrolet Volt--a plug-in motor can power the car on electricty alone for about 35 miles, after which the gasoline engine automatically kicks in and the car switches to hybrid gas-electric mode. Charging the batterry takes five hours with a Level 2 charger, a $2,000 option, and about 15 hours plugged into a standard garage outlet. 

The performance in all-electric mode is impressive: smooth, quiet and, especially when the Sport mode is dialed in, head-snapping acceleration. The car falters slightly when the gasoline engine kicks in. On level streets or at speed on the freeway, it's supple and well-behaved; but on uphill grades at low speeds, it revs at levels unacceptable in such an otherwise refined--and expensive--car. (I managed about 30 miles per gallon of combined electric and hybrid mileage on a single electric charge in mostly city driving.)

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The ELR cuts an impressive figure. In my week driving the car, it turned more heads than my stint in a $300,000 Bentley Mulsanne; most important for Cadillac, those heads were attached to 30- and 40-year-old bodies, from the Paramount lot, where a 30-something couple attending an Academy screening complimented the car's looks unprovoked, to the driver of a Bentley GT who rolled down his window, asked if I liked the car, and declared that he had one on order.

Cadillac has modest expectations for the ELR--production this year is limited to a few thousand cars--but the casual evidence during my time with it suggests that, at least in Los Angeles, which with San Francisco accounts for 35 percent of U.S. electric car sales, the ELR is hitting its target demographic between the eyes.