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BBC Autos

Review

ELR, the Cadillac of hybrids

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Before The Simpsons, there was The Flintstones.

In one episode, Fred, the Flintstones’ pater familias, and his sidekick Barney become pop music stars overnight. They bask in their newfound admiration until a teen decides they are uncool, and in an eye blink, the cavemen are rendered has-beens.

It seems Cadillac’s plug-in hybrid ELR has been subjected to a similar about-face by the automotive press. First came the fulsome praise for the Converj concept – the stylised wedge that presaged the ELR in 2009 – and then for the production prototype unveiled at the 2013 Detroit auto show, which stayed as true to the Converj’s crouching stance as could be expected from a production model.

But not unlike Fred and Barney, once the ELR was in the press’ hands, a backlash built, largely based around the car’s $75,000 price. Even Cadillac dealers became reluctant to order the car, with memories of the slow-selling, costly XLR roadster of a decade ago still fresh.

A comparably priced competitor like the Tesla Model S sedan, fitted with the entry-level 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack, reaches 60mph from a standstill much sooner than the ELR – 5.4 seconds v 7.8 seconds. But the Cadillac is by no means slow, and its strong torque delivery makes it feel fleeter at low speeds than it appears on paper. The ELR does lose steam as it gathers speed, which is why the stopwatch isn’t as friendly towards it as it is to the Model S.

The ELR’s signature dynamic feature is hydraulically smooth, silent power delivery. Like the Chevrolet Volt, it uses a plug-in electric powertrain with a small, gasoline-powered engine that helps recharge the batteries on the go and steps in when electric power fades. For up to a manufacturer-estimated 37 miles, the ELR is propelled around town exclusively by its electric motor.

The ELR delivers on its pop-star expectations, too, with handling that is hugely improved over that of the Volt. Cadillac replaced the Volt’s conventional MacPherson strut front suspension with General Motors’ more sophisticated Hyper Strut design seen on the Buick Regal GS, sold in Europe as the Opel Insignia OPC.

Caddy treated the ELR to Escalade-worthy 20in aluminium wheels and ditched the Volt’s traction-challenged tires for some proper performance-spec Bridgestone Potenzas. The new rubber grips the road as you’d expect of a sports coupe. GM claims that the added weight of the upgraded suspension parts and the higher rolling resistance of the tires cost one mile of rated electric driving range compared with the Volt, a penance well worth paying for the enjoyment of those miles.

The reprogrammed electric power steering eliminates the lifeless, video game-feel of the Volt’s rack. Energy recapture under braking manifests in a mildly intrusive – but not off-putting – touch of resistance when the driver’s foot is off the throttle. Pushed hard, the ELR buries its nose a bit in a corner, as would be expected of a front-drive car with boffo torque – 295 pound-feet of it from zero rpm. But what it doesn’t do is torque steer. Wheels do not shimmy to and fro when hammering on the accelerator – another bugaboo of high-power front-wheel-drive cars – and the subtler torque-steer symptom of fighting the driver’s inputs is completely absent. This is real substance, from an act that deserves to stay on stage a while.

The ELR ultimately is a capable and fun car to drive that also happens to be mostly powered by the local electrical grid. GM claims that its extended-range EVs – Volt included – receive about 80% of their energy through their charging port, with the rest coming in the form of gasoline at the pump. Roughly two-thirds of the tested car’s mileage was covered without engaging the onboard generator, and that amount would have been higher given access to a home charging station. (Recharging the car fully between drives using the standard 110-volt portable charger is an arduously slow process.)

Cabin appointments have garnered the ELR deserved praise, as Cadillac finally seems prepared to deliver customers a great interior rather than an acceptable one filled with Chevrolet switchgear. Granted, the test car’s Kona brown leather bumped the price up by $2,400, but a reason to drive a luxury coupe is to sense the luxury, right? Heightening the cocoon effect are a sueded microfibre headliner and active noise cancellation technology. Despite the car’s low roof and small windows, outward visibility is not as bunkerlike as might be feared, and even the rear view is tolerable, if not spectacular. (A standard back-up camera provided excellent supplemental vision.)

Where the critics gather momentum is around the ELR’s price. Though the driving and ownership experience seem every bit as premium as that of a Model S, the ELR is still a niche product built to sell in niche numbers, whereas the Tesla fancies itself a flag-waving revolutionary. Cadillac’s efforts are framed, of course, by consumers’ wan embrace of the Chevrolet Volt. But where there might not have been a massive market for a $35,000 plug-in hybrid, there ought to be a small one for a $75,000 one. The ELR shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because of its price, when it embodies the qualities that consumers at this end of the market want: luxury, exclusivity and feel-good green cachet. It’s a worthy step forward for EVs.

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