Cadillac Introduces a Classy Electric Hybrid Coupe

CADILLAC SLEEK: The 2014 ELR is a gas/electric coupe that competes with the Tesla Model S. You’ll get good mileage but pay for the privilege.
CADILLAC SLEEK: The 2014 ELR is a gas/electric coupe that competes with the Tesla Model S. You’ll get good mileage but pay for the privilege.
CRAIG FITZGERALD

Given it’s $83,000 price tag, the new Cadillac ELR gas/electric coupe is a car that makes sense for a certain, select audience. Either you have to be a very rich environmentalist or you have to be someone who doesn’t trust a Tesla. If you fit this bill, then you are going to be beyond thrilled with Cadillac’s new offering.

Despite opinions to the contrary, the 2014 Cadillac ELR is NOT a high-priced Chevrolet Volt. It’s almost nine inches longer, two-and-a-half inches wider, and rides on a longer wheelbase. The powertrain is the same as the Volt’s but with modified software that makes the ELR more performance oriented, delivering the equivalent of up to 217 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque.

The suspension is also unique, and it’s a difference worth investigating. The ELR is equipped with GM’s HiPer Strut front suspension, a revision of the conventional McPherson strut front suspension.

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Here’s the theory behind it: Since the time when mass-market front-wheel-drive cars became available, they’ve been plagued by a phenomenon known as torque-steer. Step on the gas, and because the driving wheels and steering wheels are the same, the car tends to shoot off in directions the driver doesn’t necessarily anticipate.

GM’s HiPer Strut suspension system essentially isolates the up-and-down movement provided by the spring and damper from the steering motion of the steering knuckles. It’s proven itself already in the Regal GS and the LaCrosse CXS, and it works extremely well in the ELR.

The ELR also features a Watt’s linkage rear suspension. It’s hard to explain without actually seeing it in action, but a Watt’s linkage prevents more sideways motion between the axle and the car body than the more traditional Panhard rod rear suspension you find in many front-wheel-drive cars.

All of these elements add up to great handling. Really great. The ELR is simply the best-handling hybrid we’ve ever evaluated. “Fun” isn’t something most folks toss around when describing a hybrid’s driving characteristics, but with the ELR’s improved suspension and its gigantic 20-inch wheels, it truly is a blast to drive, exhibiting the kind of handling you’d expect from something more in the gas-guzzling sport coupe segment.

When people used to buy full-size Cadillacs, quiet was one of the things they prized. In EV mode, the ELR makes those cars sound harsh. You’ll hear the rolling of the tires and a bit of whine from the motor, but it suddenly makes you realize how noisy even the smoothest internal combustion engines are.

You need to spend time to learn to drive this car to get the most efficiency out of it. It has four different driving modes, including three of the same modes you’ll find in the Volt: Tour, Sport, Mountain, and one you won’t: Hold. Hold allows you to determine how and when you’re running solely on electric power. There’s also a “Regen on Demand” function initiated by squeezing and holding either of the steering wheel paddles. It activates the ELR’s regenerative braking mode, which you can use to slow the car down significantly. You can learn to use it to cover a lot of your normal braking needs, while reserving the brake pedal for stops. Learning how this all works is part of the fun of owning this Cadillac.

On our drive to Providence, R.I., on a Saturday night, my intent was to drive to a garage that had EV charging. By my calculation, my home in Holliston was about 31 miles away from Providence. I could drive down solely on electric power, right at the limit of the ELR’s 35-mile EV range, and then plug in at the garage close by the restaurant, get a quick charge, have dinner, see a show, and head for home on a full charge, avoiding the gas pump at entirely.

One problem: The sole charging station in the garage we parked in was out of order, exposing one weak point in EV usage. If you have a Chargepoint card and the app on your phone, you can usually find another station relatively close by, but I didn’t have either, and I wasn’t going to drive all over town looking for one, thus spoiling my plan of hydrocarbon-free driving.

The ELR’s sole competitor, the Tesla Model S, features more spacious rear seat accommodations and 235 miles of electric-only range. But the difference is, when you run out of volts to power the ELR, the gas engine kicks in and takes you wherever you need to go. You’re free to drive the ELR anywhere that gasoline exists.

Using the gas engine as a constant backup, though, is pretty inefficient. Over four days’ driving we were able to manage about 39 miles per gallon, factoring in about 50 pure electric miles when the engine wasn’t running at all.

To make the ELR a wise choice, you’d really need to have a quick charge (5 hour) station at home, a quick charge station at your office, and live no more than about 30 miles away, never taking the ELR any farther than its EV range allowed. That’s a tall order for something that costs more than any car, crossover, or SUV in the entire Cadillac product line.

There is a federal tax credit available toward the purchase of an ELR of $7,500, effectively lowering the base price to $67,500. Aside from a $100 excise tax exemption in the town of Warren, R.I., and free parking in the city of New Haven, Conn., that’s the full extent of the tax benefits of owning an ELR in all of New England.

The Cadillac ELR is a wonderful car if you can fit yourself through the narrow window in which it makes sense. There really isn’t another car that blends possible fuel independence with full-on, American-style luxury. If you have a very specific commute, and a means of charging on either end, the Cadillac makes a compelling case. But if you’re driving here and there during the course of the day, there are likely better choices, even in Cadillac’s lineup.