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Cadillac ELR : Hedgeing Your Bets

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Cadillac's ELR is a very unique proposition and a remarkable vehicle in many ways. Based on the dual mode powertrain developed for the Chevy Volt, the ELR is a plug-in hybrid capable of running on pure electricity with a practical range of 30+ miles and switching over seamlessly to a gasoline fueled supplemental engine that generates electricity on the fly for the electric motor and can kick in a bit of added power too. If complexity turns your meter, there are few more complex automobiles available anywhere. It all works very, very well to deliver a useful duty cycle in all-electric mode and provide the extended range capability to deal with longer trips. It is also neither fish nor fowl, foregoing the green efficiency of a pure EV and lacking the performance and vigor of a gas-fired luxmobile.

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The biggest catch is simply that Caddy's marketers have decided that the best way to set the ELR apart from the Volt and others in the plug-in hybrid arena is to set a price north of $75K for it. At that price point the ELR is destined to become a very rare bird, despite its exquisite plumage. Even conspicuous non-consumption has its limits.

Since the engineering is the most important element in the ELR equation let's talk about that first. Compared to the humble $45K Volt, the ELR sports the same 16.5 kWhr battery, 1.4 liter gas engine and complex - if transparent- drivetrain. Cadillac has tweaked the software somewhat, so the ELR has a bit more power than the Volt, but its extra weight offsets this, so performance is quite similar. This Swiss army train delivers the goods in all modes. It's a smooth, moderately quick electric car with enough range to zip around town, or handle a modest commute. Zero to 60 comes up in 9 seconds or so, hardly rocket powered, but quick enough and the strong torque at tip in makes it seem a bit quicker. When the gas engine fires up, it all gets a bit more dramatic, but not much faster. You have a choice of modes as long as the battery has juice, but when it gets low, the gas engine chimes in all by itself. Freeway cruising is serene and steady, passing power up to the task, if hardly exhilarating.

On the efficiency front the ELR serves up around 35 MPG on a bad day, but much better than that if you can keep it in EV mode. A full charge on the battery runs up to 18 hrs on 120 volts, but likely overnight should keep it topped up. So, it is a gas saver and a relatively frugal energy consumer, but it's no Tesla.

That may well be the biggest question potential ELR customers face - why not just get a Tesla and be done with the hydrocarbons once and for all? Well, given the $5-$10K difference in price - which is lot of money, but not much of an increment in this high end market - the Caddy has to depend on it's supercoupe style and compact size to counter the Tesla's sexy futurism.

Designwise the ELR is a sleek beauty, no doubt, and the interior plays all the right high-end notes. Plush leather, artful detailing and fine materials make for a cozy cave to cruise around in. The dash is techno chic with engaging and amusing info screens and snappy graphics that look the part of next century machinery. Sound canceling technology mutes the rumble of the road and the gas-fired motor when it kicks in, but this sonic vacuousness is hardly as engaging as the rip of a high performance engine or the eerie whine of the Tesla under the whip. The back seat is the usual cruel joke found in sexy coupes and the luggage space hardly generous or hatchback functional. It a boulevardier for two, a sports car lacking convertability and more eye candy than dandy when it comes to taking the family out to dinner, but that's the price for style that many will gladly pay.

Driving is delightful if one respects the limits and expects lux over sportiness. The chassis is, again, an upgrade from the Volt's spec, with more sensitive steering, a better suspension design with nice, fat, meaty tires and a solid feel. It's all quite well done and a satisfying experience, as long as one is not inclined to go chase the Audis et al.

In the end the ELR is engaging and certainly technically fascinating. Not so much green as a pale jade - it pays a nod to environmentalism - while carrying an entire fossil fueled back-up system. It's priced all wrong, but done up right and will appeal to a select few, which will make it even more exclusive now and certainly a collectable oddity in the decades to come.

• dean seven

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