The Cadillac ELR is a future pod, a show car made real. And it better look like a million bucks, because everybody’s going around calling it the $75,995 Chevy Volt.
And as it turns out, this $80,000 Volt business is a bit of an overstatement anyway. The Cadillac is indeed based on the Chevy but shares very little with it except the 16.5-kWh battery pack and powertrain, and even those have software tweaks.
The floorpan is similar, but the suspension is all-new. It uses GM’s HiPer strut in front for better geometry, a Watt’s linkage for better lateral control at the rear, and variable dampers and power steering from ZF.
It’s longer than the Volt by 8.9 inches, wider by 2.3 inches, and lower by 0.7 inch, and it rides on a slightly longer wheelbase. The base of its windshield sits 6.3 inches forward of the Volt’s for that dramatic front rake, and not a single exterior piece is shared. So saying it’s just an $80,000 Volt is akin to asserting that the Cadillac XTS is a $45,000 Malibu. Which is true and also not true at all.
All you need to know is that there are two main propulsion modes: electric vehicle (EV) and extended range (ER). With a fully charged battery, the larger motor is limited to 157 horses and powers the front wheels through a fixed ratio. The second motor/generator, in conjunction with the planetary gears, can provide a ratio effect allowing the ELR to reach its 107-mph top speed in EV mode.
After draining the majority of its battery, the ELR automatically switches to ER mode and lights the engine. Most of the time the engine is turning the second motor/generator to provide electric juice, though there are times when the engine also delivers torque to the wheels. The drive motor makes 181 horsepower in ER mode; if the driver calls for it and there is enough battery, the ELR’s combined system will make up to 217 horsepower, a serious bump from the Volt’s 149.
Running as an EV, the ELR’s acceleration to 60 mph is 9.0 seconds, 0.2 second slower than the last Volt we tested because the 4054-pound ELR is nearly 300 pounds heftier. With its full 217 ponies saddled up, the ELR gets to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds and slips through the quarter-mile mark in 16.5 seconds at 87 mph, putting the ELR in a dead heat with a $16,000 Honda Fit. But the motor’s instantaneous torque will fool you into thinking it’s quicker.
Driven slowly, as the hybrid gods intend, the ELR is as smooth as two fingers of Lagavulin. The only clue that the engine has kicked over is a small change in the gauge cluster. The extra effort invested in the suspension—the shocks, the fancy struts, and the Watt’s linkage—pays off on wrinkled pavement and with increased pace. Even when the tires are close to falling off the grip cliff, at 0.84 g, the car responds to inputs better than any other front-drive hybrid on the road. The electric power steering is appropriately light and has zero slop, on-center and elsewhere.
What the ELR gives up in outright performance, it gets back in efficiency. Unfortunately, EPA figures weren’t available at press time. Caddy says the numbers will be slightly lower than the Volt’s 98 MPGe in combined electric-only driving and 35 mpg city/40 mpg highway. Yes, that seems absurdly low for an often-electric car, but it includes nearly eight gallons of gas burned in ER mode coupled with a test distance of just 440 miles.
The four driving modes are hold, mountain, sport, and tour. Added to the Volt last year, hold forces the ELR into extended-range driving. This maintains the battery’s charge and allows the driver to choose when and where to use the 30 or so miles of pure electric driving. It’s most useful on the highway, where aerodynamic drag depletes the battery as quickly as the Omega house drains a keg. Think of the ELR’s battery as a computer hard drive with two unequal partitions. The large partition is used for pure electric driving, and the smaller part is used for ER driving, the same way a regular hybrid uses its relatively small battery: constantly discharging and charging in the name of efficiency. In mountain mode, the smaller partition is temporarily increased. For the record, sport mode is mostly a novelty. It firms up the adaptive dampers, adds some heft to the steering, and quickens the accelerator pedal’s action.
The other unavailable EPA test result is EV range. When released, it should be close to 35 miles, or just three miles shy of the Volt’s. If, say, you live 22 miles from work and your commute includes 14 miles of 70-to-80-mph interstate traffic, you could conceivably drive to work, plug the ELR into a 240-volt source, and drive home without consuming a drop of gasoline.
Charging the ELR fully on a 120-volt source takes between 12.5 and 18 hours, depending on ambient temperature and energy flow. We found it charged overnight on a cold evening without a problem on 120. A 240-volt source will recharge a drained battery in five hours, according to Cadillac.
The ELR has what Cadillac calls “Regen on Demand,” which sort of mimics the way the Tesla Model S initiates regenerative braking every time its driver lifts off the throttle. Squeezing and holding either of the steering-wheel paddles triggers this function. It is either on or off, not progressive like a brake pedal, so there is a bit of a learning curve. Regen on Demand decelerates the car at a maximum of 0.20 g, with the brake lights illuminating at 0.12 g and above. At 0.20 g, an ELR would theoretically stop from 70 mph in about 800 feet, versus 173 feet (0.95 g) in a full-brake situation. But the ELR won’t come to a complete stop using only Regen on Demand.
With practice, you can drive around town with one pedal, using the paddles to engage regen and set up for 90-degree corners or otherwise manage speed. It makes mundane driving partially entertaining; you have to perfectly time it to avoid tapping the brakes. But we’d still rather have maximum regenerative braking when lifting off the accelerator, as in the Tesla.
The styling theme remained fairly static over the ELR’s gestation (the Converj concept that influenced this car made its debut at the 2009 Detroit auto show), and with good reason: The envelope is beautiful and dramatic. It was determined that a low-volume, Volt-based Cadillac was a non-starter without 20-inch wheels, no matter how much their increased rotational inertia and 245-section-width tires hurt efficiency.