A Deep Dive on Cadillac's ELR

By · January 29, 2013

Cadillac ELR in Detroit

The good-looking Cadillac got swarmed by the media in Detroit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I am standing next to the two-door Cadillac ELR at the Detroit Auto Show, admiring its lines, and talking to Phil Gott, an auto analyst at IHS Global Insight with a specialty in electrics. “If I were General Motors, I’d have done the ELR before the Volt,” he said. “Buyers in this class are used to paying $60,000 for a car.”

Indeed, the ELR—the production version of the Converj show car first shown at the Detroit show in 2009—could have come first. If so, GM would have been embracing Telsa Motors’ philosophy, which is to bury the cost of batteries initially in the higher-priced models, then bring out more affordable iterations as cell prices come down and expertise grows.

A Luxury Coupe with Attitude

Dave Caldwell, a spokesman for Cadillac, calls this a “hypothetical barroom debate. It’s a reasonable way of looking at it, certainly.” But Caldwell emphasizes that it was Chevrolet that wanted to make the massive technology statement around the time of its 100th birthday. Cadillac, well, it just wants to put out another cool Cadillac.

“The ELR will survive based on whether it is a desirable luxury coupe with electrification,” Caldwell said. “The other luxury brands really aren’t doing something like this—we think it’s in the sweet spot for the luxury consumer.” Of course, the BMW i8 is at least in the ballpark as a high-end performance plug-in hybrid.

What's New

Here’s a few new things about the ELR. Cadillac said from the beginning that it would be a limited production vehicle. Caldwell defines that as a few thousand a year, “not hundreds.” If the demand is there, the division will ramp it up. Expect the first cars on the market in about a year, with the production line beginning to run in December (though initially with pre-production vehicles only).

Cadillac ELR on the Town

The Cadillac ELR as sophisticated boulevard cruiser. (Cadillac photo)

The ELR will feature LED headlamps, active grille shutters and also paddle shifters—not to change gears, but to dial in degrees of regenerative braking. That’s an innovation I admired on the latest Smart Electric Drive (where it’s an option). Owners should be able to control regen level, and this allows them to do it on the fly—even access it as a component of performance driving.

The price hasn’t been released, and it’s been bandied about as between $55,000 and $60,000. “I think that’s a bit low,” Caldwell said. He said the ELR should be priced somewhere between the LEAF and the Tesla Model S, which allows for quite a lot of wiggle room. But if we’re looking at a $70,000 car it could end up being fairly exclusive. Caldwell also said there will be no Opel version of the car for Europe, as there is with the Volt. The ELR will stand alone.

Here's a look at the car on video:

In introducing the car in Detroit, Cadillac global design guru Mark Adams said the ELR “isn’t reinventing the Volt’s formula,” but advancing it and connecting it to international styling trends and a new emotional appeal. That does seem right. The ELR buyer won’t necessarily put the car’s green credentials first on a list of priorities.

Power Grab

What else is new here? A bit more power, though the 16-kilowatt-hour battery and two electric motors are the same units as in the Volt. Cadillac is “accessing a deeper state of charge” from that battery, Caldwell explained, evidently moving away from the caution by which the Volt only draws on 50 to 60 percent of the pack’s capacity. Now it’s closer to 70 percent of the battery that’s accessed. Power is up from 149 horsepower to 154, and torque from 273 foot pounds to 295. Electric range probably won't change significantly.

The ELR needs the extra power, because not only is it 300 pounds heavier than the Volt, but it’s also running more electronics and big 20-inch wheels.

The ELR also imports a version of the HiPer front suspension from the XTS. The tech is all about controlling torque steer, which is pretty important in electric cars (which access all their torque at zero rpm).

Caldwell says that competition in the luxury market has traditionally moved along a well-worn path, but the ELR changes the game. “It’s pretty new territory,” he said. Yes, it is, though you’d have to say that Tesla got there first with the Model S. But the more ultra-cool plug-in hybrids and battery electrics on the market, the better.

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