I had the pleasure of test driving an ELR today. On a whim last Sunday, I checked Cadillac's inventory in my area and discovered that a nearby dealership had received two. When I arrived at the dealership, I was told the first one had been sold, but the second was available for a test drive. The salesperson got permission from his manager to let me drive a few exits on the highway, so I was able to reasonably put it through its paces.
Some quick answers to questions I've seen posted here and on other forums:
1) The volume of the range extender engine is about half as loud as the Volt's. The mainstream reviewers who complained about the volume of the 1.4L DOHC I-4 engine were exaggerating and inaccurate. The harsh treble and overtones have been successfully muted and those frequencies do not intrude into the cabin. Yes, you can still hear the engine at higher RPMs, but the noise is absolutely not as loud as the Volt's.
2) The rear seats do fold forward to allow more room in the trunk, but the center section between the seats does not. So you're always going to have an obstruction in the middle when the seats are folded down.
3) The stereo system power button works exactly as it should, turning off the stereo but not the entire C.U.E. infotainment system.
4) The reverse camera is better than the Volt's, and includes the directional guide lines that are missing in 2013/14 Volts. However, I did not have the opportunity to test the backup camera at night or in a dark garage to see if it automatically sets the brightness and contrast properly regardless of the nighttime dimness setting of the instrument panels. It's still not as good as the camera in my wife's Rav4 EV, but it's definitely an improvement over the Volt's.
5) The navigation system does not zoom in to a "building scale" mode like systems in many other ~$80k cars.
6) The ELR does not offer the option of cooled front seats like many other ~$80k cars.
7) I did not see a CD player in the car as part of the C.U.E. system, but it occurred to me later that it might be in the glove box like in the CTS. Label this question "unanswered" for now!
8) I'm 5'7" and didn't fit in the backseat without slouching uncomfortably or sliding my butt forward. However, it was still a little more spacious than I expected. My wife, who is 5'4", fit comfortably. The problem is not a lack of legroom, but rather there's a lack of headroom due to the precipitously sloping back window.
9) The ELR has powered climate-controlled cup holders and a powered glove box opener, but no power folding mirrors. Go figure...
10) The regen paddles behind the steering wheel (which feel more like the large inset buttons you'd find below the trackpad on a laptop computer) are either on or off; there are no gradients of regen available. The left and right regen paddles perform the same function, as best I could tell. The paddles move around with the steering wheel, so holding them while turning is not easy (although by the time you're into a 90-degree turn, you usually won't need additional deceleration). To me, it felt like the paddles slowed the car a bit more than throwing the shifter into "L" mode.
I'll start my review here so that it begins on a positive note: The regen paddles are an epiphany. The thrill of not having to reach over and shift into 'L' every time you want to slow down is more satisfying than I thought it would be. The placement on the steering wheel is ergonomic, the regen engages instantly when pressed, and it's very smooth. If you're a Volt owner like me who typically drives in 'D' but shifts to 'L' every time you want to slow down, this feature will ruin you for the Volt.
But let's go back to the beginning... As I walked through the dealer's lot, I saw one CTS after another, wondering which one would turn out to actually be the ELR. But when I turned a corner and saw the ELR sitting by itself, it was obvious that it could never be confused with a CTS. It was jaw-droppingly gorgeous and will take your breath away. As others have said, photographs really don't do it justice. This was the Converj concept car I saw at the 2009 auto show, at least on the outside.
Inside, the car is comfortable, has spacious front seats with reasonable headroom (if you lower the seat), and all controls are placed within easy reach of the driver. For the most part, button controls and the C.U.E. system act as expected and are intuitive. The steering wheel controls, though, may take a bit of practice to master because it isn't obvious what certain things control, nor all the possible ways one can select a button. For example, the main selector on the right side of the steering wheel allows for left, right, up, down, and enter, although the tactile feel of the button only clearly conveys the ability to select left and right, and that selector doesn't seem to have the ability to control selections on the center nav screen (i.e., it's only for the instrument panel behind the steering wheel).
Entering a destination in the C.U.E. system navigation was very fast. Letters appear as quickly as you can type them, and you enter the address all at once instead of by city, then street, then house number. You can also use the voice controls to enter an address, which worked perfectly the first time I tried it. I even tried to throw it off by speaking "Navigation Controls" then "Cadillac" as the the point of interest, but it immediately found the dealership and allowed me to select it from the center screen from among additional choices.
My two big navigation system disappointments are that it can't zoom in to "Building Scale," and that the sound of the navigation voice is terrible. IMHO, an ~$80k car should not have such a cheap sounding voice. My $62k 2011 Infiniti M56, and all 2012+ Infinitis, have a natural system voice that is pleasant, articulate, and was nearly indistinguishable from a real person. But the ~$80k ELR's nav voice sounds more like the robotic computer from a second-generation 2004 navigation system. It was worse than the Volt's.
Regarding battery information, I couldn't find a physical "leaf" button anywhere on the instrument panel to bring up battery information. The only way I found to get to that screen was to press the virtual leaf button on the C.U.E. screen, and it wasn't on every screen.
When I tried to pair my iPhone 5 to the C.U.E. system, it worked like a charm. Took fewer than 20 seconds for the whole process.
Once my phone was connected, I played some lossless hi-fidelity tracks from iTunes. Speaking as a professional musician, I didn't think the sound system was remarkably better than the Volt's. It sure as heck didn't perform to the level of the Mark Levinson audio system found in the ~$80k Lexus LS460.
The Lane Departure Warning system was as annoying in the ELR as it was in my Infiniti. Trying to convey everything by buzzing the seat under your thigh is not very clear or efficient. I was getting buzzing for lane departure, for Cross Traffic Alert, for obstacles when parking in reverse, etc.... it was useless! You couldn't differentiate what it was trying to tell you, nor which system was activating it. Give me localized beeps and targeted light warnings any day!
I didn't have the opportunity to test the Adaptive Cruise Control system, although my test car did have that option installed.
As reported by some mainstream reviewers, the visibility in the ELR is worse than in the Volt, but I wouldn't consider it awful. Sure, it would be great if the rear window had a bit more size and the 'A' pillars were less intrusive to your line of sight, but I've driven cars with worse visibility.
Some high-end cars have a feature that automatically moves the driver's seat back when the car is turned off (to allow for a more comfortable exit). The ELR does not have this feature. The ELR also doesn't have a head's-up display, nor did I see evidence of a Blind Spot Warning system (unless that was also the damned buzzing alert under my leg).
OK, so how did it drive? If you're still with me at this point, I assume you've been wading through everything above to find out my impressions about that. Well, it felt like I was driving an expensive Volt. In normal driving, the ELR was exquisite: quiet, comfortable, smooth, and refined. However, I still felt bumps in the road, although perhaps a bit more muted than in my Volt.
The ELR did not feel any faster than the Volt, even though I had Hold mode engaged. Apparently, the 7.8 seconds from 0-60 is only available when you're in range extending mode, not just in Hold mode or Mountain mode. If the faster acceleration actually was available in Hold mode, I didn't feel the difference. The gas engine did eventually rev up when I floored it, but not right from a full stop. The gas engine in Hold mode appeared to engage exactly the same as it does in a 2013/14 Volt in Hold mode.
After trying Hold mode for a little while, I changed to Sport mode to see if that made any difference. Well, it did - the ELR was a lot more responsive earlier in the accelerator pedal travel. But it felt exactly like my Volt. And since there isn't any discernible way to engage both Hold mode and Sport mode at the same time, I'm at a loss as to what the heck Cadillac was thinking when it decided to give the car some more oomph with the engine running, but then didn't give the driver a way to use it while the battery still has a charge.
And that's the crux of the problem I still have with this car: Unlike the Volt, the ELR has a HiPer strut front suspension to help lessen the effects of torque steer, a semi-independent rear suspension with a Watts Z-link for better stability in corners, and Continuous Damping Control that adjusts shock dampening every two seconds according to the current driving situation. But because the ELR didn't improve its overall performance, it's all wasted! It feels like I'm driving a Buick (which is not necessarily a bad thing, as I find Buicks very comfortable) rather than a Cadillac because there's nothing in the acceleration or front-wheel drive that allows me to take advantage of the upgraded struts, suspension, and damping!
I pushed the ELR as hard as I could, and while it felt more refined, the driving experience was not so markedly better than my Volt's to make it worth twice as much money to me. Because of this, I've decided that I'm not getting the ELR without a very aggressive lease program. Why? Let me pose this question to you: If Chevrolet told you that they made the Volt faster, but you couldn't take advantage of that extra speed until the battery was depleted, what would you say?
The more I think about Cadillac's decision to engineer the ELR to go 0-60 in 8.8 seconds in EV mode, and then...37 miles later when the battery is depleted...go 0-60 in 7.8 seconds, I just can't bring myself to support that decision with my money. What the ELR needs, IMHO, is a Sport+ mode that engages the engine before the battery is depleted so that the ELR can get 0-60 in 7.8 seconds any time the drivers wants. Just using Hold mode didn't seem to accomplish this in my testing, and - anyway - that's a completely counterintuitive decision that Hold mode (or extended range mode) would be sportier than Sport mode! Duh.
I also don't like that Cadillac does not allow you to buy the Adaptive Cruise Control package without also buying the $1,695 Luxury package; and that I can't get the Kona Brown seats without paying for the $2,450 20-way seat controls; and that I can't get the "free" wheels with Midnight Silver premium painted accents without also buying the Luxury package.
The ELR looks great, is quiet, comfortable, and has reasonably good tech, but it is not worth Cadillac's price, IMHO. I can't imagine Cadillac's eventual lease rates will change my mind (although I won't deny that $600-700/mo with no money down would tempt me). The good news is that - in lieu of an ELR - I'd be replacing my 2012 Volt with a fully-loaded 2014 Volt come June, so GM would still gets a sale, and I'd still be happy. Not sure what I'd do with the $40,000 I'd save...
All that having been said, I can totally understand if others buy or lease this car and consider it worth the price. Some things that I care about won't even be on other people's radar, and others will just be mesmerized by the incredible look and presence of the ELR to even care about performance or whether the mirrors fold in automatically. IMHO, the ELR is a wonderful car that has some room for improvement, but Cadillac will have a lot of customers who think it's perfect just the way it is.