2004 Cadillac XLR Road Test

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2004 Cadillac XLR Convertible

(4.6L V8 5-speed Automatic)

Cadillac's Concept Comes to Life

It takes a serious set of wheels to turn heads in Beverly Hills. The average valet attendant has seen more Ferraris than a Maranello gas station, and unless you just won an Oscar or were recently indicted by Elliot Spitzer, a Porsche or BMW isn't going to get you too many looks either.

So it was with great surprise, and a hint of patriotic satisfaction, that we observed the constant head swinging and finger pointing that accompanied the XLR as it rolled through some of L.A.'s most pretentious locales. Whether it was the gleaming ruby red color or the origamilike creases of its low-slung body, Cadillac's new flagship convertible drew the kind of attention typically reserved for the world's most exclusive roadsters.

Of course, such fawning begs the question: Is the XLR worthy of the attention that its striking lines so easily attract? Our initial impressions were a resounding yes, but after spending the better part of a week behind the wheel, we realized that while the XLR has a look that sets it apart from the crowd, it still has a ways to go before it can match its European rivals when it comes to delivering a complete package of style, performance and refinement.

The XLR is essentially a production version of the Evoq concept car that debuted in 1999 at the North American International Auto Show. For those who don't spend their post-holiday weekends in downtown Detroit, we'll refresh your memory. It was the Evoq that introduced the world to the look of the 21st-century Cadillac. Instead of big, broad and bland, the Evoq was long, low and seemingly chiseled out of a solid block of iron with its sharp edges and flat surfaces. In effect, it didn't look like a Cadillac, but it was daring and distinctive and a clear sign that GM's luxury brand was headed in a new direction.

In its transformation from concept car to showroom centerpiece, the XLR incurred relatively minor styling and dimensional changes. Its body rides on a slightly shorter wheelbase, but its overall length of nearly 178 inches has it stretching roughly 10 inches longer than the concept. Compared to the Mercedes-Benz SL and Lexus SC 430, the XLR is bigger in both its length and wheelbase. Lest you get the impression that it's just another oversized Cadillac cruiser, bear in mind that the XLR utilizes the same chassis that underpins the 2005 Corvette so its performance credentials are sound.

Like the Corvette, the XLR requires a little ducking and sliding to get in, but most will find its ease of entry acceptable. The seat and steering wheel open up wide to smooth out the entry process, with both returning to your preset position once you're situated. A keyless entry and ignition system allows you to enter the car and fire it up without ever having to take the key fob out of your pocket. It takes some getting used to, but once you've gotten accustomed to the process, it becomes second nature and quite convenient. Most drivers will find plenty of room to stretch out, but if you're on the tall side, the limited seat travel may present a problem.

A quick look around the cabin reveals a relatively simple design, but lavish materials throughout give it the upscale ambience of a true luxury roadster. A mix of Eucalyptus wood trim and anodized aluminum adorns the console, dash and door panels, while the gauge cluster bears the mark of world-renowned jeweler Bulgari who lent a hand in its design. A touchscreen navigation display sits front and center with a set of easily adjustable climate controls just below. Supple leather covers the seats, steering wheel and just about every other surface that isn't already adorned with wood or aluminum.

Opinions were mixed on how well the look and feel of the interior reflects the car's $75,000 price tag. The rich color of the wood trim looks as good as anything you might find in a Lexus, but the aluminum accents aren't quite as convincing, as some of the metallic panels look more like snapped-on covers than integrated pieces of a cohesive design. Switchgear quality is good but not great, and even the conspicuously branded gauges failed to generate much enthusiasm. "The mere presence of the Bulgari branding isn't the problem," one editor wrote. "It's the fact that the name adorns a cluster so thoroughly unremarkable in its design that makes it look ridiculous."

The debate continued as we settled in and became more familiar with the feel of the XLR on the road. Press the ignition button and GM's Northstar V8 rumbles to life with a familiar sound. At idle it registers a barely audible murmur, but a poke of the throttle generates a throatier rasp that hints at its considerable output. Now in its second-generation of development, the Northstar engine uses advanced engine technologies like variable valve timing and electronic throttle control to give it robust power while retaining the kind of refinement expected in a car of its caliber.

With 320 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, the 4.6-liter V8 measures up favorably with its peers. A five-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox available, but there is a manual-shift gate that allows you to manipulate the gears yourself. Measured against the clock at the test track, the XLR turned in a 0-to-60-mph run of 5.9 seconds, a time that placed it a tick faster than the last SL 500 we timed. It leaves the line with a tame lunge forward (it proved unable to break the tires loose), but builds speed quickly once the Northstar hits its stride. Full throttle shifts result in little hesitation and the sound of the engine at full song is as good or better than any V8 in its class.

As fast as the XLR is when pushed, those expecting a Corvette in Cadillac clothing will be disappointed. Not only does the XLR return less enthusiastic responses to the throttle than its corporate cousin, its soft suspension tuning results in considerable body roll during hard cornering and plenty of nose dive under heavy braking. Magnetic Ride control (MR) shocks are standard equipment, but even with their split-second adjustability, the XLR still feels less willing to tackle the turns than an SL. An overly large steering wheel makes it feel all the more ponderous, but at least the level of steering assist isn't overly aggressive. Regardless, whether we were threading through the slalom at the test track or knifing through our favorite canyons, the XLR seemed out of its element.

In order to truly appreciate the XLR's best qualities, one only has to seek out roads that are long, straight and preferably drenched in sunshine. For it's in these types of conditions that the XLR shines, as its pliable suspension, willing motor and convertible hardtop coalesce to deliver a formidable grand touring car that devours miles at a furious pace.

The suspension that's overly forgiving in the turns makes for an undisturbed ride on the highway and the precise steering tracks well at all speeds. Smooth downshifts and an abundance of available power allow effortless passing that takes the drama out of making time on two-lane roads. Dropping the convertible hardtop takes just 20 seconds, and given the fact that it was designed by the same company that built the folding roof for Mercedes' SL, it's no surprise that it opens and closes with similar precision.

With the hardtop in place, the XLR is dashing in its profile and whisper-quiet inside. Road and wind noise is minimal, although one passenger complained of feeling claustrophobic with the roof closed. Dropping the top solved that problem in a hurry, but introduced another one in the form of excessive wind buffeting. Refreshing at best and annoying at worst, swirling cabin winds are one of the XLR's few faults when it comes to long-distance cruising.

Gusty winds aside, the XLR's supportive seats, powerful audio system and extensive array of standard features keep you comfortable and well entertained. Unlike some of its competitors, the XLR comes fully loaded, with satellite radio being the only option. Among the many features are an adaptive cruise control system, a DVD-based navigation system and a head-up display that projects vehicle information onto the windshield to help keep your eyes on the road.

While some luxury cars often overdo it with overly technical systems that are confusing to use, the XLR's various technologies are easy to master. The touchscreen navigation controls are laid out in an easily recognizable manner, and even the head-up display was considered useful by most. The adaptive cruise control system worked as advertised, keeping a consistent distance (easily adjustable with a button on the steering wheel) between the XLR and the car in front of it without feeling like it was in the way. A few of the radio controls are confusing and the main screen washes out in direct sunlight, but for the most part we considered the XLR's numerous luxury features desirable enhancements instead of frustrating distractions.

The ease with which the XLR goes about its purpose results in a luxury roadster that will put a smile on the face of any Cadillac fan. It looks fast, goes fast and turns heads everywhere it goes, faithfully delivering on the promise of the long-forgotten Evoq. As impressive as it is, however, the XLR is not quite the world standard just yet. The performance is there, the technology is there, but next to an SL, it's still the runner-up. If you're looking for nothing more than a little attention, the XLR will do the trick, but if you want the best luxury roadster, you won't find it at a Cadillac dealer just yet.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.0

Components: Wedging high-end components into a two-seat roadster is never an easy task, but the Bose system in the XLR still manages to cram nine speakers into its tight interior. All audio controls are accessed via the touchscreen interface or the steering wheel satellite controls. Definitely not our preferred setup, but we did find the system relatively easy to configure and simple to use on a day-to-day basis. The small hard buttons around the perimeter of the screen are a little on the small side.

Performance: Designed to sound equally impressive whether the top is up or down, the XLR's full-range system provides an enjoyable listening experience in either configuration. Obviously, with the top in place, you get a much better taste of the system's excellent separation and well-defined soundstage. With tweeters placed on each side of the headrests, you're never at a loss for sizzling highs, but given that the main drivers are buried low and deep in the doors, midrange production is not surprisingly a little weak. Bass levels are solid, but we did notice a tendency for it to loosen up at higher volume levels. With the top down, there's plenty of power to cut through the wind noise, but ultimately, excessive wind buffeting limits the system's effectiveness.

Best Feature: Enough power to sound balanced even with the top down.

Worst Feature: Touchscreen interface isn't always on the same page you are.

Conclusion: A solid overall system brought down by a moderately frustrating interface. — Ed Hellwig

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The XLR is proof that Cadillac can build a world-class automobile…if it wants to. The modern automotive consumer will no longer put up with obvious cost-cutting measures, and in general it has taken the domestic manufacturers longer to realize this than the Asian or European brands. But within minutes of sitting in the XLR, it was clear that Cadillac now gets it. Probably the biggest hurdle this car faces is from potential customers who expect it to be a Corvette with a wood trim interior. It is based on the next Corvette's platform, and it does have a wood-trimmed interior (some of the best interior wood I have seen/felt), but the XLR uses a Cadillac drivetrain and Cadillac philosophy in terms of suspension tuning.

What this means is that the XLR drives like, well, a Cadillac, not a Corvette. Smoky burnouts are not part of the equation here. In fact, we couldn't even break the rear tires loose. And handling, while better than any other vehicle to wear the wreath and crest on its grille, is still not Corvette-like. But trying to smoke the rear tires or power slide the car around a twisty mountain road is not what most Cadillac buyers do, even the younger, hipper ones Cadillac is now courting. Drive the XLR like the luxury convertible it is, and you'll be hard-pressed to find anything to complain about. It's not quite a Mercedes SL, but it doesn't cost quite as much, either. The BMW 645Ci convertible is closer on price, but the aggravation of manually tuning a radio station offsets any driving dynamic advantage held by that car. Yup, I can say it without a qualifier: I like this car, and could see myself buying one under the right circumstances. To paraphrase the company's own marketing theme, it's been a long time since I could say that about a Cadillac.


Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Although Cadillac has been down the luxury roadster road before with the Pininfarina-designed Allante (1987-1993), the company didn't exactly enjoy resounding success. Even though the handsome Allante's chief competition initially was the outdated Mercedes 560SL, problems with the Caddy's soft top and digital dash got the expensive two-seater off on the wrong tire. Of course, by the Allante's final year of production Cadillac had worked out the bugs and fitted the powerful Northstar V8 under the hood, but it was too late to save the expensive drop top.

Seventeen years later, Cadillac has once again aimed the wreath and crest at the three-pointed star, and this time it nailed it right off the bat. For me, this is the best expression of Caddy's new design direction — apart from the oversized taillights that extend halfway over the rear quarters — it's sleek and crisp at the same time. The cockpit proves that, yes, GM can craft an elegant, well-finished interior. And even though it has all the latest techno-marvels, such as adaptive cruise control, a head-up display and a DVD-based navigation system, the XLR doesn't overwhelm the driver with a Starship Enterprise-like flight deck.

In terms of performance, the XLR should satisfy most if not all of the intended demographic. Most folks interested in this type of car want high style, a luxurious cabin, powerful acceleration, a nice ride and precise handling. And the XLR more than delivers on all fronts. Those looking for a full-on sports car's level of handling may find the XLR too soft, but they should be shopping the Corvette if that's what they're looking for. Sure, at $76 grand the XLR is a lot of coin, but a comparably equipped Benz SL500 is $20,000 more. The SL500 is still one of my favorite cars, but the XLR is a lot closer to it than a 26-percent advantage in price would suggest.

Consumer Commentary

"In a simple word this car is amazing! I have just purchased mine in a black on black base. It's a lot of fun to drive; prior to the XLR I had the SC 430 Lexus and it was stolen. So I went for this car and I am completely grateful for this car — it has the looks, the power and the performance. Overall, the car is a pure joy to wake up to every morning; I have an '03 Range Rover as well and I haven't driven it since I bought this car." — (949)Motoring, Jan. 9, 2004

"This car is a work of art. I was driving down the Las Vegas Strip last week and a young man, who was walking around arm in arm with his girlfriend sightseeing, left her standing on the sidewalk, stepped out into the street, took out his phone and snapped 3 photos of my Xenon Blue XLR. The fit and finish of this car is excellent, the engine powerful yet somehow quiet, the handling is precise and lightning quick, the ride is amazing. This car signals a rebirth of Cadillac's proud past." — JimHarnish, Nov. 29, 2003

"Car arrived last week. It is black on black. It has the same ride feel as my Audi A4. Love all the gizmos, especially the HUD or head-up display, power-retractable hardtop, very good sound system, adaptive cruise control, etc. They should have more interior color options. Overall I am pleased." — arcuby, Nov. 5, 2003

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