Cadillac takes on Tesla with plug-in ELR

ANN M. JOB For The Associated Press Published:

Finally, there's an electric car that rivals Tesla's eye-catching Model S.

The sleek, new-for-2014 Cadillac ELR coupe is arguably as sexy looking as the sporty Model S, and like the Tesla, it's a plug-in vehicle that's capable of traveling for hours without stopping.

For drivers who don't want to worry about finding a place to recharge batteries and waiting around until the charging is complete, the Cadillac ELR is eminently more accommodating.

It carries with it a four-cylinder gasoline engine. So when the electric power is depleted, the ELR switches seamlessly to the onboard engine and can, therefore, travel well over 300 miles.

A few points, though: According to U.S. government estimates, the Cadillac's range in all-electric mode is just 37 miles, while the Tesla's all-electric mode is good for up to 265 miles.

Secondly, the Tesla only has an electric powerplant and so is viewed as more of an earth-friendly car by environmental purists.

Plus, while the ELR is a new model at Cadillac, it's frequently called the Cadillac version of the Chevrolet Volt because it uses the Volt's underlying front-wheel drive platform and electric-gasoline power system.

But the luxury car price tag on the ELR means buyers can purchase two Volts for the price of one ELR.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $80,990 for a 2014 ELR. The 2014 Volt has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $35,805.

Meantime, the rear-wheel drive, 2014 Tesla S has a starting retail price, including destination charge, of $63,570 with an electric storage battery pack that provides a federal government estimated travel range of 208 miles. A 2014 Tesla S with a higher capacity battery pack that provides a federal government estimated travel range of 265 miles has a starting retail price of $73,570.

All ELRs come with a continuously variable automatic transmission that a driver operates like an automatic.

Standard equipment includes dual-zone, automatic climate control, remote keyless entry and keyless start, suede microfiber ceiling material, rearview camera, outside heated mirrors, 20-inch wheels, rain-sensing wipers and premium Bose 10-speaker audio system.

The ELR also includes Cadillac's CUE touch screen for ventilation and audio controls, among other things, and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and audio streaming as standard equipment.

The ELR even allows drivers to program the times when they want the car to begin charging, say, late at night when the electricity rates can be lower priced.

But the ELR, which has the highest starting retail price of any Cadillac car, does not offer a sunroof.

Production of the ELR is limited to fewer than 5,000 annually.

People in the know, especially Volt owners, immediately recognized the ELR and had to get a close-up look.

The striking ELR exterior, which is similar to that of other Cadillacs, has flat fascia panels in the grille, and the back of each outside mirror has a "stripe" that glows green as the car charges. But there is little, otherwise, to make passersby think this is an especially fuel-conscious Cadillac.

The ELR can befuddle some riders right at the start. There are no exterior door handles. Doors unlatch when fingers slide into a crevice at each door and press an activation switch.

Finding the start button for the car on the dashboard also is different for people who are unfamiliar with Cadillacs. Rather than being next to the steering wheel or in the center console, the ELR push button start is up near the top of the center stack, next to a heating vent.

Fortunately, the ELR drives like a regular car. Though it weighs 4,050 pounds -- the battery pack alone weighs 435 pounds -- the ELR moves quickly from startup under electric propulsion.

Two electric motors in the car provide up to 295 foot-pounds of torque almost immediately, and silently. The only noticeable sound was the high-pitched whine that many electric cars have during acceleration.

The 1.4-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder takes over without a hiccup when needed and produces 84 horsepower at the maximum engine rpm of 4,800. The gasoline powerplant can get buzzy when pressed hard, but the ELR is nicely insulated from many sounds.

The test ELR impressed in short-trip daily driving because it didn't sip a drop of gasoline for days. This was good, because the gasoline requirement for the ELR is pricey premium and the gas tank is on the small side, holding 9.3 gallons.

Getting a depleted battery pack fully charged at a 240-volt charging station can take up to five hours. Slower charging at a 120-volt outlet can take 12.5 hours or more, depending on outside temperature.

The test car would not charge at one power outlet in a home garage, but it charged easily when plugged into the same power outlet as the garage door opener.

There's no guessing about whether the ELR is charging. Besides the glowing green stripes on the outside mirrors, the ELR has a small light atop the dashboard that glows green or amber, depending on whether the car is receiving a charge.

Seats are thick and supportive but not overly cushioned. Alas, the two ELR rear seats are like those in sports cars -- tight and difficult to access.

The changeable appearance of the gauges in the instrument cluster takes personalization to a unique level. And the ELR eschews the usual pull latches to open the doors from inside the car. Instead, driver and front passenger must press a button with their thumbs, then push the doors open.

The Cadillac's trunk space is decent at 10.5 cubic feet, but the opening to put items inside is narrow.