At home with the Cadillac ELR, looking for the charge

Neal Pollack

The future arrived in my driveway last week in the form of a Cadillac ELR, but the present wasn’t quite ready to accept it. With a design based on Caddy’s wild Converj concept vehicle, a drive train and underpinning directly lifted from the Chevy Volt, and a price tag that could buy an entire Detroit city block, the ELR needed to be ready to fly. In my modest surroundings, it barely crawled.

Like the Volt, the ELR has a 37-mile electric-only range before the gas engine kicks in for another 300 miles. The guys dropped it off with a full tank of gas. They popped the trunk. There sat the charging cable.

“You driven the Volt?” one of them said.

“Yes,” I said.

“It works like that. You plug it in.”

If only I’d actually been an ELR buyer. At the end of January, Cadillac announced that it would be including a complimentary 240-volt charging station, plus installation, with the purchase of every $75,000-plus ELR. "Professional installation of the fastest home-charging unit is a natural way to mark the introduction of ELR to the luxury market,” said the brand in its release.

Having that station included — which, given that I had the car for seven days, was a total impossibility — would have created quite a different experience from the one I had.

The ELR arrived with its battery totally drained. They’d driven it down to Austin from Dallas. The ELR’s 37-mile electric range barely got them out of the Metroplex. And they weren’t going to charge it; even at the fastest public stations, that takes four hours and they had other cars to deliver. The system isn’t set up to leave electric-car testers in any other state than high and dry. Either is my house.

At my decrepit rental, the only 220-volt plug is for the clothes dryer, and that’s on the other side of the house from the driveway. So to charge the ELR, I needed to run a 110-volt extension cord with an adapter out the front door. The ELR stayed plugged in for six hours. After that, I had an available electric range of six miles.

That was enough for me to drive electric to the grocery store, where they have free public charging stations. Those miles were fun, zippy, and elusive. At the grocery-store charging station, though, I found out I needed a special card, which I would have had to send away for two weeks previous. Another option was to pay for a charge at a place a few miles from my house. But that would have meant spending the day in the parking lot next to a Jiffy Lube, the rough equivalent to calling in sick to work because it was going to take all day to gas up my car.

This gave me a good sense of what it would be like to own a really expensive electric car without a home charging station in Texas: Rough. So instead, I spent a week pretty much relying on the 1.4-liter gas engine to turn gasoline to electricity and then motive force. The ELR handled well but had about as much power as my desk lamp.

It felt like such a shame, too, because the ELR presents a nice package. The exterior is cool, sporty, and aggressive, futuristic without being weird, an excellent complement to the rest of Cadillac’s muscular lineup. The interior is full of gorgeous leather and nice suede accents, well on par with anything offered by other luxury brands.

There’s also a total suite of modern “connected car” touches, voice recognition, biodynamic hand gestures, and savvy safety features, not to mention a complete OnStar vehicle diagnostic and roadside assist system, accessible from a smartphone and totally integrated into the car’s DNA. When it comes to the connected car, GM is right on pace with the industry’s most forward-thinking carmakers. It’s astonishing how much their cars have evolved even in the last two years.

But GM still has a long way to go when it comes to what they call “electrification.” A 37-mile electric-only range might have impressed three years ago, but now it just seems sad. Tesla Motors has debuted a nationwide network of charging stations, and is soon to build out an equivalent one in Europe. BMW is constructing its own international infrastructure of charging stations for the forthcoming i-series.

Cadillac’s at-home charging station offer is more than a minor gesture; it’s a huge step forward for the individual customer. But they’re still not showing a larger commitment, no matter how nice the ELR might be.

Electric driving is about politics as much as it is about performance. In that regard, despite the ELR’s cool look, rapidly evolving tech, and nice interior, unless GM can take part in building a larger electric infrastructure, this car will not be the herald of some bright new future. It’s going to quickly look like something from the past.