Cadillac ELR plug-in: Friendly to the environment but not to your wallet


2014 Cadillac ELR. (Cadillac/ General Motors)
Warren Brown
Columnist August 29

Range anxiety disappeared 35 miles into our 250-mile drive here from our home in Northern Virginia.

It mostly was an uneventful passage, marked by an instrument-panel indication that the 2014 Cadillac ELR plug-in gas-electric hybrid coupe we were driving had switched from battery-only propulsion to a small, gasoline-fed engine/generator.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

I would have preferred to have completed the entire drive battery-only. The all-electric mode, enabled by a lithium-ion battery pack powering the equivalent of a 157-horsepower electric motor, was a supremely quiet affair delivering instant acceleration.

The 1.4-liter, four-cylinder, 85-horsepower engine/generator — which required premium gasoline to do its work of powering the electric motor after battery depletion — was noisy and a tad harsh in behavior, especially when called upon to make quick highway lane changes. General Motors, maker of all things Cadillac, needs to work on that aspect of living with the ELR.

Overall, though, the car makes perfect environmental and fuel-economy sense. At home in Northern Virginia, my wife, Mary Anne, and I seldom drive 40 miles round-trip anywhere. In the ELR, we could do those local motoring chores for weeks on end without buying an ounce of gasoline. That’s a good deal, which is made even better for folks who have altruistic concerns about reducing mobile-source air pollution.

But altruism dies easily when confronted by price. The all-new Cadillac ELR is ridiculously expensive, easily twice the cost of the Chevrolet Volt using the same plug-in gas-electric hybrid technology. That being the case, this column cannot recognize the ELR as being ready for market prime time.

The Chevrolet Volt, with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $34,170, makes substantially better sense than the ELR, which has a base sticker of $75,995.

I’ve driven both the Volt and the ELR. I simply cannot rationalize paying twice as much for the ELR, particularly if my primary concern is saving fuel and reducing air pollution.

True, the ELR is a swank piece of work — so attractively styled, it drew rave spectator reviews from Virginia to New York. Typical comment/conversation:

“Hey, man, that is one sweet-looking car. What is it?”

“It’s the new Cadillac ELR, a plug-in gas-electric hybrid. It can run up to 37 miles on battery power alone.”

“That’s sweet! How much does it cost?”

“It has a base price of $75,995.”

“What? Why? You joking me?

Rarely did an inquiring spectator hang around to hear the list of federal and possible state rebates that could cut the ELR’s price tag. And the one fellow who did, at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, responded with a hard-to-answer question:

“So, you’re telling me that Cadillac wants overtaxed poor people to help rich people pay for their toys?”

I wasn’t telling him that. But I certainly understood the sentiment. I’d rather think of the ELR and the Volt — and all cars like them — as necessary steps on the road to energy common sense and less smog-causing mobile-source pollution in the United States. The technology works. It is steadily improving. And in addition to nifty alternative propulsion systems, cars such as those increasingly are loaded with advanced electronic safety technologies that can reduce traffic deaths, serious crash injuries and property damage.

The ELR, for example, comes standard with OnStar emergency crash communications, onboard navigation, rearview camera, forward collision and lane-departure warning systems.

The car sampled for this column also came with an optional ELR Luxury package that included automatic high-beam control, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert systems, and adaptive cruise control with automatic collision preparation.

Experience has shown me that those advanced safety technologies can save much more than gasoline. I am a strong advocate of their inclusion in as many cars as possible.

But not at the current cost of the Cadillac ELR. That car has much to offer in terms of better fuel economy, significantly lower mobile-source pollution and life-saving advanced safety technology. But if only a few people can afford to buy it, what’s the point?

Nuts & Bolts
2014 Cadillac ELR

Bottom line: This is a welcome step forward on the path to better fuel economy, lower mobile-source air pollution and improved crash safety. But there has to be a less-expensive way of getting to those.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The car gets excellent marks in all three in the all-electric mode. But it falters in quiet going, acceleration and handling in engine/
generator mode.

Head-turning quotient: The Cadillac ELR easily is one of the best-looking cars on the road, inside and out, anywhere. Kudos to Cadillac design.

Body style/layout: The ELR is a front-wheel-drive coupe equipped with a plug-in gasoline-electric drivetrain. It is perfect for gas-free local driving. At this moment, there is only one trim level.

Power sources: An equivalent 157 horsepower electric motor is powered by a lithium-ion battery pack. An 85-horsepower, 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine/generator powers the electric motor after battery depletion. The battery can be recharged up to a 37-mile range in four to 15 hours depending on charging method used. The transmission is one-speed, direct drive.

Capacities: Seating is for four people — taller folks in front, shorter folks in back. Cargo capacity with all seats in place is 10.5 cubic feet. The engine/generator’s fuel tank holds 9.3 gallons of strictly required premium fuel (no lower than 91-octane gasoline). A full tank delivers a 267-mile range in addition to up to 37 battery-only miles.

Mileage note: I completed the 250-mile drive here with only a $20 purchase of premium gasoline.

Safety: Four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front/solid rear); four-wheel antilock brake protection; emergency braking assistance; stability and traction control; automatic high-beam control; automatic collision preparation; post-collision safety system; three-year subscription for OnStar emergency communications; air bag deployment notification; stolen vehicle tracking/assistance; front fog lights; and side and head air bags are standard.

Recommended safety options: You are spending a lot of money anyway. You might as well get the ELR Luxury package.

Price: The base price of the 2014 Cadillac ELR is $75,995. Estimated dealer’s invoice price on that model is $72,000. Price as tested is $79,125, including $2,135 in options (the ELR Luxury package and other items) and a $995 factory-to-dealer transportation charge. One wonders if Cadillac is trying to shift business to Tesla.

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