General Motors began its journey into electric vehicles—at least in the last decade–with the Chevy Volt. GM did delve into EV technology with the EV1, introduced in 1997. It was always a lease-only vehicle, and in 2003, GM terminated all leases, took possession of virtually every vehicle and destroyed them. Another, somewhat friendlier take on the EV1 may be found here. 

Regular readers have been well informed—my EV archive is here–of the trials and tribulations of the Chevy Volt, including long charging times, short range, heater problems, the occasional catastrophic fire, high MSRP, high repair costs, and frequent plant shut downs due to poor sales. In order to get them off the showroom floor—many dealers won’t sell them at all—Chevy has had to offer very favorable leases and substantial reductions of MSRP. Even GM has had to admit that it does not make a penny on the Volt, suggesting that when it eventually offers its second generation EV—obviously not counting the EV1—it might begin to make at least some profit.

This does not mean that Chevrolet has not sold any Volts. Indeed, the occasional reader writes in to laud their Volt. Even so, despite driving in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex, I’ve seen only 4-5 Volts since they were first introduced that I could be reasonably sure were individual vehicles.

credit:carswatcher.com

credit:carswatcher.com

So. GM now has what is arguably its second generation EV: the Cadillac ELR. Will GM make any money on it, and will it open the floodgates of eager owners that have, thus far, been underwhelmed by the Volt? Gary Gastelu, at Fox News, has a review: 

Back when the Chevrolet Volt first hit the scene, many balked at the idea of paying over $40,000 for a compact economy car, despite the fact that it was filled with never-before-seen plug-in hybrid technology. I was among the chorus suggesting that then-embattled GM would’ve gotten a better reception if it had been offered as a Buick or Cadillac, but plans for the Chevy were already set in stone, and no one really cares what I have to say.

Nevertheless, at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, the automaker did unveil a Volt-based concept called the Cadillac Converj; a super-sleek two-door that was proof that at least some people at GM had the same idea. That car has finally made it into production as the 2014 Cadillac ELR.

The shorthand on the ELR is that it is a coupe version of the Volt, using its sister car’s chassis and powertrain. But there’s a bit more to it than that. [skip]

Yes, it has the same electric motors, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and 16.5 kilowatt-hour battery pack as the Volt, but they’ve been upgraded for Cadillac duty with a boost in power to 217 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Along with losing two doors and a hatchback, the ELR gets a reengineered suspension system that uses GM’s torque-steer reducing HiPer Strut front suspension and electronically adjustable dampers.

Gastelu has nothing but praise for the interior appointments, and for the body design, but notes that the touchscreen control centers are–touchy and less than responsive. As one might expect in a two door coupe, rear seat passengers had better be of the minute persuasion.

The ELR has four driving modes. The first two – Tour and Sport – use up the battery’s charge before employing the engine to generate electricity for extended trips. According to the EPA, the all-electric driving range is 37 miles per charge at an efficiency rating equivalent to 82 mpg. Both figures are lower than the Volt’s, likely due to the ELR’s higher power, weight and aerodynamic drag. Nevertheless, my test drive suggests those numbers are close to the real-world mark.

Unfortunately, so is the 33 mpg rating it has when running off the engine in extended-range mode, not even close to the Lincoln MKZ non-plug-in hybrid’s 45 mpg.

Switch it to Mountain mode and the electric range is reduced, as the ELR reserves more of the charge for getting up and over the tallest geographical features without losing power. This is for use on the truly big stuff, like the Mount Evans Scenic Byway in Colorado, not your average hill. On the way down, you can use the paddles on the back of the steering wheel to engage what Cadillac calls “Regen on Demand,” which uses the electric motor to slow the car down as it charges the battery with what would otherwise be wasted energy.

OK, so it actually has less electric range than a Volt, and its actual mileage figures are, well, mediocre. But it looks fast just standing still. It must be a real pavement burner, right?

As far as the drive is concerned, the ELR’s performance is about on par with a typical family car’s. It’s not very exciting, but plenty adequate. The power delivery, as expected, is smooth and quiet in electric mode, and when the gas engine kicks in it’s usually not much of a nuisance. Only when it really needs to crank up the juice and revs to its 4,800 rpm peak does it come across as rough, coarse and un-premium. Luckily, this doesn’t happen very often.

OK, so it’s no performer, but with a well-equipped Volt going for more than $40,000, the ELR must be a bargain, right? Not so much.

The starting price for the ELR is $75,995, twice as much as the Volt and the highest of any Cadillac, including the Escalade. With the options boxes checked, that rises to $79,685 before you deduct the $7,500 electric car tax credit and any state incentives available.

But it must compare favorably to its competition…right?

Granted, while several premium plug-in cars are expected to arrive in the next few years, the ELR’s competition today is limited to the all-electric Tesla Model S, which costs roughly the same but has a 265-mile battery range and is much faster, and the similarly swift Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, which goes only 20 miles on electric power and starts at $99,995.

Perhaps the Executive Editor at Autoweek, Rory Carroll, is a bit more enthusiastic. He is positive about some things, but…:

Driving the ELR is a bit of a mixed bag. Under full electric power, it’s quick enough, but the real joy of it is how smooth and quiet it is. I could see the owner of a late pre-war Cadillac being impressed. When the juice runs out, you quickly learn to dread the sound of the rough, 1.4-liter ‘generator’ motor. In the Chevy Volt, the motor makes sense, in the ELR, the sound of it and the way it feels when it’s driving the front wheels is incongruous and unpleasant. The gasoline motor will allow ELR owners to travel further, and worry less, than they would be able to if the car was all electric, but in a car this nice — and this expensive — the roughness is weird.

Which brings us to the price; the ELR we tested would cost $83,130 if you were to buy it. For around that price, you could buy an Audi S7 or a C7 Corvette and a Chevy Cruise. That said, if I were among the deep-pocketed that have come to fetishize American-made things, or a wealthy fan of Cadillac and/or General Motors, I’d have to consider buying an ELR as second or third car on looks alone.

One more thing: I observed fuel-economy just a hair under 35 mpg. I left the office with a full charge, and then exhausted the ELR’s battery fairly quickly, probably due to the cold weather and lead foot. After that, I made no effort to charge it.

If this were my daily driver, I’d be able to complete my normal, daily commute on battery alone. But, over a recent long weekend, the ELR spent a lot of time on the freeway, shuttling me all over the suburbs. Even though I knew a hybrid isn’t going to return maximum economy on the freeway, the 35 mpg figure was surprisingly low.

This, from Autoweek Editor Wes Raynal: is interesting:

Cadillac’s challenge, in my opinion, is like Chevrolet’s with the Volt: selling new (and in many cases, misunderstood) technology. It takes time. I personally believe in this range-extender technology. I think unlike pure electrics, this is the future until there’s some kind of major battery breakthrough. Cadillac sold 41 ELRs in January, on pace for 492 a year. Question is, is that good enough — will the company have the patience to stick with it?

A Cadillac official told me once that ‘electric cars suffer from extreme over analysis.’ I agree. He went on to say ‘some assume an electric car must defeat all conventional cars, or that you must renounce all others. ELR is just trying to be a cool car,’ he said, ‘exclusive, great to look at, fun to play with. It’s not so much a city car promising to change transportation forever. It’s a good-looking luxury coupe.

ANALYSIS:

GM now has an $80,000 EV that actually has less all-electric range than the Volt. As I noted in an October 25, 2012 article each Volt takes from $60,000 to $75,000 to manufacture. In addition, GM loses money on every Volt, but hopes to eventually make some money on its second generation EV. I suspect the real cost of manufacture–and the losses–are substantially higher, but that’s for a vehicle with a MSRP of around $40,000. It’s possible that GM has a somewhat higher profit margin on the ELR, but it’s difficult indeed to imagine how GM could make any profit on individual sales, and particularly not on a line of vehicles selling only about 500 copies per year.

Marketing the vehicle as a Cadillac is particularly odd. While Cadillac drivers appreciate luxury, they have always demanded power as well. Mileage–and green street cred–have always been far down on the list, if Caddy owners considered them at all. Considering that Cadillac has been striving in recent years to build Cadillacs that were not only powerful but handled well as a means of competing with Audi, BMW and even Mercedes, it’s difficult to imagine why GM executives thought the Cadiolt (Voltilac?) could fit into that corporate brand strategy. Which Cadillac owner seeking a new vehicle wants something far less powerful and sporty, particularly when it’s MPG figures are no significant improvement on what they’re used to driving?

Perhaps GM seeks the socially conscious Cadillac driver whose primary automotive concern is stacking up as much green street cred as possible, cost be damned. OK. How many of those people actually exist?

Perhaps this is another attempt to will a market niche into being, as with the disastrous Pontiac Aztec.  What’s the niche here? The Cadillac official Raynal quoted seems to think the vehicle’s exclusivity and its good looks will sell it. “It’s a good-looking luxury coupe,” he proclaims. There are plenty of those that actually cost less, handle better, are far more powerful, and far more flexible and useful.

EVs don’t have to be better than all conventional cars. They just have to be as practical and useful, or nearly so. If they’re carefully analyzed, it’s not a matter of over-analysis, but the same kind of careful scrutiny any new product receives, particularly if its technology is new and unproven, and when it doesn’t measure up to its promise.

I’ve little doubt that some people–people with substantial wealth–will be willing to buy an ELR as a second, third or fourth car, essentially a novelty or even a sort of hard to imagine (for the less well-heeled) status symbol. Such people can get away with that kind of extravagance. They have the money and other, conventional, vehicles to make up for whatever weaknesses an EV might have. But how many of those people exist? Perhaps 500? A thousand? And after they’ve purchased the first year of two of ELR production, what then?

If such people exist, what happens when they tire of their ELRs–and they will–who is going to buy a used EV in the $50,000-60,000 range? Used value is likely to be even lower than the tragic used value of Volts. This is particularly likely when one considers that no one knows how long Volt/ELR batteries will last, and their replacements costs are almost certainly astronomical, probably higher than the used cost of a Volt.

So why do I care? Even though the federal government finally sold its stake in GM for a substantial loss, my taxes are still subsidizing every EV purchases to the tune of $7500 (yes, it’s a tax credit, but you don’t think the government takes money out of our pockets for those too?). Besides, who do I have to be to comment on issues of public interest? That’s still allowed in America, isn’t it?

If you want an ELR, buy one and enjoy it. You certainly have a great deal more money than I do. Actually, a substantial number of people have a great deal more money than I have. The question remains whether there are enough such people to make the ELR–and the Volt–commercially viable, even with federal subsidies. Car manufacturers, federal subsidies or not, can’t afford to make this kind of mistake for long.

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