Hated the Commercial, Loved The Car: 2014 Cadillac ELR Plug-In Electric Hybrid Review
- Zero noise, zero vibration, full torque at zero RPM make the Cadillac ELR fantastic to drive
- Plug-in hybrid technology gives great mileage while removing range anxiety
- Gorgeous and luxurious driving experience
- $83,000+ price tag for the model I drove
- For the price, it's not the top of the luxury food chain
- Effectively a two-seater car, due to unfit-for-humans backseats.
This is a car for a select niche—but if you are in that niche, I found the Cadillac ELR tremendously satisfying to drive.
First, let's talk about that ad, get it over with, and then move on to electric vehicles and the car itself. You remember the commercial that aired during the Winter Olympics and the Oscars? The one with (admittedly great acting by) Neal McDonough extolling the virtues of workaholic Americans accepting luxury cars as our reward in place of vacations like those lazy French bastards, n'est-ce pas?
"Poolside" was designed to cut through the advertising clutter during those high-profile advertising showcase events and drive awareness for Cadillac and, to that end, it succeeds wildly. While some found the commercial a stirringly patriotic ode to the United States' brand of capitalism, others (like me) hated it. Cadillac's CMO was sufficiently concerned about the tone of the ad to substitute the plug-in electric hybrid ELR for the original car—an unnamed, nonelectric model—to try to make it's "snobby" tone more "palatable."
While you might have passionately argued for or against this commercial's message, the actual car got lost in the noise. And that's a shame, because the Cadillac ELR is a terrific car that (despite being a super-niche offering) more people should know about.
Cadillac offered me the opportunity to drive ELR for a week, and I leapt at the chance. Part of me was curious simply because I was so fascinated by "Poolside." Despite my distaste for the message, it is a brilliant piece of advertising and it succeeded in making me take notice of Cadillac as a modern automaker, in a way that even the elevation of the Escalade to a hip-hop and pop culture status symbol hadn't. I also have a deep interest not only in cars, but also in green auto technology. I currently drive a conventional hybrid Ford Fusion, but plug-in electric hybrid technology has moved to the top of my next-car wish list. I have range issues that make me a bit nervous about a purely electric car, so a plug-in hybrid seems like a good compromise.
And that is where the Cadillac ELR shines. I live in Northern California, which is the epicenter of green automotive technology adoption, so I've seen pretty much every hybrid and/or electric car on the road. By the completely unscientific methodology of using my eyes, the popularity of plug-in electric autos seems to be growing rapidly. Sales data confirms my hunch—and, in fact, plug-in electric vehicles are outselling conventional hybrids at the same point in time from when they were introduced. In other words, even though hybrid and electric vehicles are a tiny fraction of the vehicles on the road, there is a growing chance your next car will be electric rather than a hybrid.
The hottest of the electric cars in this part of the world is our local superstar, the Tesla Model S. The higher-range 85 kWh battery is rated at a range of 265 miles. That would cover even some of the longest daily commutes here in the Bay Area, easing range anxiety for most. Coupled with the increasing number of charging stations available around town and Tesla's buildout of supercharging stations, you can easily re-charge while at work, out to brunch, on a Target run or at the movies. If you have $80,000+ to spend on a luxury car, the Model S could be your only car.
But with most other purely electric models (which have ranges under 100 miles), it is unlikely many owners could rely on an electric as their only vehicle, so many people also own an (at least partially) gas-powered backup for longer drives.
There are lots of reasons why luxury car buyers might be interested in electric car technology. Development of cleaner, greener automobiles relies on manufacturers offering the technology, sure, but it also needs early adopters to buy these cars. Electrics are usually more expensive than their gas-powered siblings and often are not eligible for rebates, discounts, and other deals, which means that even with local, state and federal incentives available, the initial buyers generally have deeper pockets and higher incomes. The luxury versions are also where manufacturers put in their latest and greatest bells and whistles. If you want it first, you have to start at the high end. Plus, higher-end buyers are more likely to have the ability to invest in adding chargers to their home, and in making it even cleaner and greener by installing solar panels to support charging. In California and some other locations, electric cars can sport a sticker that allows you to drive solo in carpool lanes, which is another big selling point. Another big benefit is not having to stop at a gas station (or having to stop less frequently, at least). I went from weekly to monthly fill-ups when I got a hybrid.
Another plug for electric technology is that electric cars are wonderful to drive. The engine in my housemate's electric Fiat 500e was rated one of 2014's ten best, not just of electric engines, but all engines. I found the Cadillac ELR to be exceptionally smooth, quiet, and powerful. Electric engines have full torque available at zero RPM, which makes acceleration easy and fantastic for things like getting on the freeway or passing when necessary. The lack of vibration and engine noise is delightful; it's what makes the ELR truly luxurious to drive.
Since the ELR is a Cadillac, other high-end luxury features let you know it is a premium ride. Plush, 16-way-adjustable leather seats are standard, and the model I drove had upgraded 20-way seats (although I'm still a little unsure of how much I liked the two-tone contrast of the brown leather seating and the black interior trim and surfaces). The Bose stereo provided fabulous sound. GM's CUE touchscreen infotainment system isn't generally well reviewed, but I found it slightly easier and preferable to use than my Ford SYNC system. And I loved the optional upgraded safety package with cutting-edge technology like a vibrating Safety Alert Seat that kicks in if you get too close to other cars or objects, and automatic braking to ensure that you stay a safe distance from the car ahead of you when you have cruise control engaged. The model I was loaned also had a gorgeous "Crystal Red Tintcoat," which is a $995 upgrade option. When the base price of the car is $75,000, what's another grand for it to look that pretty?
On a side note with respect to pricing, you probably want to consider leasing when it comes to electric vehicles. Leasing often does not make the most financial sense for cars you drive for personal (rather than business) use; buying (preferably paying cash, rather than financing) a used car in order to avoid the initial depreciation hit is generally recommended. But given how fast electric vehicle technology is evolving, leasing a new car so you can take advantage of the incentives, then trading in when more advanced technology comes on the market, can be a smart choice.
Another selling point for the Cadillac ELR versus its most obvious competitor, the Tesla Model S, is that you can buy a Cadillac ELR in all 50 states. (Tesla is currently fighting entrenched dealership laws that restrict their ability to sell in many states.) And because it's a hyrid, if you live in a state where charging stations are less common than they are in places like California or Oregon, you don't have to plan on getting back home to recharge when necessary.
The Cadillac ELR definitely has some potential downsides. It is a two-door coupe, which means that the doors are wide and heavy. The ELR's sexy,swoopy design leads to nonexistent headroom in the cramped back seat. I'm only 5' 5" tall, and my head scraped the roof while sitting in the back seat. I would say you could only fit small children back there, but with a car seat, they might be too tall. So the back seats really are only fit for stashing your coat or bag while driving. Compared to other super-luxury cars— not just luxury electrics, the ELR is poorly reviewed. It is often dismissed as an overpriced Chevy Volt. And GM gets the side-eye from some for killing off its pioneering and beloved true electric model, the EV1, for delayed recall of vehicles for problems that resulted in several deaths.
However, if you are concerned about climate change and the role gas-powered automobiles play in causing that environmental danger, I would encourage you to learn more about GM and Cadillac's innovation and commitment to developing cleaner technology. One example is a program Cadillac is developing with utility providers, starting in Southern California, where you can arrange for your car to charge using only renewable energy sources.
I spoke with Shad Balch, an Environmental and Policy Expert for GM about these issues, and he expressed Cadillac's vision of providing a car with the highest in technology and ultimate luxury. It's a niche Cadillac is qualified to occupy, and, as Blach sees it, once car drivers better understand what electric vehicle technology offers, manufacturers won't be able to keep up with demand. Even though Cadillac has sold fewer than 1,000 ELRs to date, Blach assured me that, unlike Fiat Chrysler's CEO, who is begging buyers NOT to buy the money-losing Fiat 500e (which was developed primarily to meet California's higher-than-federal fuel efficiency standards), GM and Cadillac see tremendous opportunity in the electric vehicle market.
As I said, the Cadillac ELR is very much for a niche market. If you are looking for a new car, have an income over $200,000, want to buy a car for you and not the whole family, want to support emerging cleaner automotive technology (but have range anxiety with electric vehicles), and don't live in Silicon Valley, the Cadillac ELR might be the car for you.
I loved driving the ELR. I was sad to give it back, and if I were buying a new car now and it was in my budget, the Cadillac ELR would be near the top of my consideration list. And, if the ELR doesn't fit your budget, the similar and roomier Chevy Volt is certainly worth a look and a test drive.
Disclosure: I was loaned a Cadillac ELR for a five-day extended test drive. I was not compensated for my review. All opinions are my own.