[FoRK] Forbes XLR Review

Rohit Khare rohit at ics.uci.edu
Mon Jul 12 11:50:20 PDT 2004

Test Drives
2004 Cadillac XLR
Charles Dubow

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  HIGHS: Great looks; world-class initial quality.
LOWS: Sluggish ride; inferior interior; high sticker price; inadequate 
cargo area.

  It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We were returning to New York 
from a wedding in Philadelphia and would have loved to put the top down 
on the Cadillac XLR we were driving but, unless we wanted to leave our 
suitcases behind, the roof was staying up.

  The reason was that when the hard top roof is stowed, there's barely 
enough room in the trunk for a tennis racquet and a can of balls, let 
alone a set of golf clubs.

  These days many new luxury convertibles such as Mercedes-Benz's SL and 
SLK models, and the Lexus SC430, come with retractable hard tops. The 
beauty of this feature is that they offer one-touch automatic raising 
and lowering, allowing drivers to convert their roadsters from a coupe 
to a sleek, aerodynamic convertible and back again in a matter of 
seconds. No more wrestling with straps and clasps at the first sign of 
rain. No more safety concerns. No more fears that a thief with a box 
cutter can slice through your ragtop and waltz off with your car 
stereo, or the car itself.

  However, there are significant drawbacks to these retractable roofs. 
While the technology and engineering are impressive, as mentioned 
above, when the roof is down it has to go somewhere, and that somewhere 
is the trunk. Fortunately, this means that the lines of the car are 
uninterrupted by the unsightly lines of a folded top. Unfortunately, it 
also means that unless you plan on using the car only on sunny days 
when you aren't planning on carrying anything in the trunk, you won't 
get to use it very often as a convertible.

  Moreover, not only do these slick retractable roofs add considerable 
weight to the car, they also add on extra expense as well.

  Clearly, these snags are not specific to the XLR but for some reason 
it bothers us more. Here's why: With a MSRP of $75,385, the XLR is far 
and away the most expensive car Cadillac makes. (The new Escalade 
Platinum ESV edition has a MSRP of $70,155.) Since Caddy introduced the 
redesigned Escalade in 2001, total sales for the division have risen a 
whopping 25.6%. This is a real success story, made even sweeter by the 
fact that Cadillac has had so many misfires over the years while 
attempting to regain its elite status in the automotive world.

  The XLR is part of General Motors'  (nyse:  GM -  news  -  people  ) 
successful--so far--strategy to reenergize the Cadillac brand. 
According to Cadillac, the Escalade is the best selling large luxury 
SUV brand on the market today and many of its other new models--such as 
the SRX and STS--reflect the division's bold new thinking. As such, the 
XLR is Caddy's attempt to break into the rarefied heights currently 
occupied by German, Japanese and English luxury auto makers who are not 
shy about charging north of $60,000 for their products.

  The competition in the XLR's category and price range is daunting, 
however--especially since Cadillac is still better known for building 
roomy luxury cars and SUVs than performance machines. Among the cars 
that potential buyers might also consider are, in addition to the 
Mercedes models and Lexus mentioned above, the Jaguar XK series 
convertibles, the Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet and, for a lot more, 
the forthcoming Aston Martin DB9 Vantage Volante.

  Seen in this light, at $76,000 the XLR may even seem like a pretty 
good deal stacked up next to, say, a $155,000 Aston Martin. The 
question is: Does the XLR belong in this league?

 From The Driver's Seat

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Automatically retracting hard tops are fashionable but not necessarily 

Today there are only two true two-seat roadsters built by American 
automakers. These are the XLR and the venerable $50,835 Chevrolet 
Corvette convertible.

  The only other mass-produced American car in this area, the Dodge 
Viper, doesn't make the cut because even though it is a two-seater, its 
8.3-liter 500-hp V10 and unforgiving ride doesn't exactly make this the 
best car for a Sunday afternoon pleasure drive.

  The Corvette and the XLR, however, are cut virtually from the same 
cloth. They are both long, low-slung, cool-looking two-seaters that 
elicit envy from people driving lesser vehicles. Unlike the Viper, they 
are also more comfortable to drive, thanks to GM's Magnetic Ride 
Control, a computer-controlled suspension system that enhances the 
car's damping capabilities and enables a smoother ride over all 
surfaces. Even more telling, they are both built at GM's Bowling Green, 
Ky. factory.

  For anyone who has driven a late-model 'Vette it will be hard to not 
make continual comparisons to the XLR--usually unfavorably. For 
example, while the interior of the XLR might be a shade more luxurious 
than the Corvette's, it is not even in the same class as a Lexus or 
Jag. Despite all the lip service being paid to Cadillac's new exterior 
design cues, it is frustrating to see how much its interiors still lag 

  The dashboard and console wouldn't be let out of the factory in 
Germany, Japan or England. While there are some nice wooden 
touches--such as on the steering wheel--the entire passenger side dash 
is one big swatch of vinyl. Would it have killed them to add a nice 
wooden strip to class it up a little? While environmentalists might 
appreciate the gesture, to most anyone else it seems like Cadillac is 
cheap, or clueless, or both.

  Similarly, the side control panels are covered in some kind of 
pseudo-industrial plastic stripping that is just embarrassing. Cadillac 
has made much of the fact that the gauges were designed by the 
Italian-luxury jewelry and watch firm Bulgari, and even emblazoned the 
name 'Bulgari' ostentatiously on the speedometer. While easy enough to 
read, it doesn't look particularly stylish or special.

  Equally pointless is the keyless ignition. While some people may 
groove on the coolness of this touch--a key does not need to be 
inserted into the ignition; as long as the key chain is close to the 
ignition all you need to do is depress the brake pedal and hit the 
ignition button--it doesn't really make any difference. What's more, 
there is nowhere to place the keychain so it just sort of hangs out on 
the console near the gear shift and cup holders. I hate to think how 
much that little innovation added to the XLR's retail price.

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It may say Bulgari but it still looks like the GM parts bin.
Another gripe, and in fairness not one aimed only at Cadillac, is the 
lack of legroom. For taller drivers, such as this reviewer, there just 
isn't enough space. This is in part due to the absence of a backseat, 
so the seat can only slide back just so far. It is a shame that GM 
didn't see fit to add even a nominal rear seat because it would not 
only allow greater leeway when adjusting the seat but would also give 
it somewhere to stow golf clubs when the top is down. However, that is 
the price one pays for the authentic two-seater experience.

  On the road, the XLR also fails to impress. Although it shares GM's 
new Performance Car architecture with the upcoming Corvette C6, the car 
feels strangely subdued. To be sure, its high-output 4.6-liter 
Northstar V8 in a rear-wheel drive configuration--similar to that in 
the all-new Cadillac SRX and STS--can kick out 320 horses at 6,400 rpm 
and 310 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm but it's not much fun. 
Acceleration from zero to 60 is a respectable 6.07 seconds but hardly 
remarkable when compared to 4.66 seconds for the Corvette, 5.9 seconds 
for the Lexus SC 430 and 4.39 seconds for the Porsche 911 Carrera 

  Handling also seems understated, though the soft ride is supposed to 
be intentional. Robert A. Lutz, GM's vice chairman for product 
development, reportedly said that he wanted the XLR to be a 
"gentleman's express," which we take to mean that it should feel more 
like a grown-up's car than a road rocket. We are confused by this, 
though. Having been fortunate enough to test drive many "gentlemen's" 
cars, such as the Bentley Azure, the Mercedes SL500, the Mercedes 
CL600, the Aston Martin DB9 and the Jaguar XKR, and finding all them a 
perfect combination of power and restraint, we question GM's thinking 
in this case.

Should You Buy This Car?

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The interior shows improvement but in fit and material has a long way 
to go to beat the competition.

When the XLR was delivered to us for our test drive, we were pretty 
excited. The press has been largely enthusiastic about the car and from 
the outside it is easy to see why. With its long, low hood, aggressive 
grille and stylish lines, this roadster really looks like it's got its 
mojo working.

  Clearly, plenty of Americans with $76,000 to burn think so. Since the 
XLR went on the market in September 2003, more than 2,131 models have 
been sold; 1,256 in 2004 alone through May. Like many new model 
cars--such as the Chevrolet Equinox reviewed last week--the dealers can 
barely take delivery before they disappear out the showroom door.

  Granted, many of the people who have bought or will buy an XLR are 
motivated by the car's good looks as well as its novelty. Yet they are 
also probably motivated by a mixture of patriotism (buy American!), 
smart marketing (many rap stars and professional athletes drive 
Cadillacs), and competitive lease incentives.

  There is no doubt that the majority of the people who buy a XLR will 
be very happy with it. In spite of our criticisms, this is still a very 
nice car. Our biggest complaint is that, while we congratulate Cadillac 
on turning around its brand by boldly re-imagining its products, we 
don't think it's gone far enough, especially when fighting the Lexuses, 
Mercedes-Benzes and Jaguars of this world for both mindshare and market 

  To be sure, there are plans afoot to introduce a V-Series limited 
edition sport version of the XLR in the near future but, according to a 
spokesman for Cadillac, no decision has been made yet on what kind of 
powertrain will be used. (Industry spies report that it may use the 
supercharged 4.6-liter V-8 used on the Cadillac Evoq concept in 1999 
that served as the basis behind the XLR.)

  Quality control is also way up. According to JD Power, initial quality 
is second only to Lexus these days. Mercedes, on the other hand, 
because of a host of problems is ranked 10th.

  Still, we are not convinced that buying the XLR is the best use for 
your $76,000. There are, frankly, faster or more luxurious (or both) 
cars at around the same sticker price. There is also the vastly more 
fun Corvette for about $25,000 less. For our money, we'd go with the 

  Are we right? It may be too early to call. We didn't particularly like 
the 2001 Escalade but it went on to become a blockbuster. We'd be happy 
if the XLR is a hit for Cadillac as well. If it is, maybe then GM will 
decide to actually invest in a future generation of luxury performance 
cars that really can challenge the interior quality and engineering of 
Asia's and Europe's best cars. Our concern is that GM may decide that 
as long as sales are strong, it won't need to. The current incarnation 
of the XLR is so close to being a truly exceptional car--and it just 
falls short--that we hope that Cadillac keeps plugging away until they 
get it right. It's nearly there.

  Manufacturer Contact: Cadillac Web site

  Color Options: Black Raven, Crimson Pearl, Light Platinum, Satin 
Nickel, Thunder Gray, Xenon Blue

  Suspension Type: Wishbone front and rear suspension independent with 
leaf springs and Magnetic Ride Control

  Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds

  Engine Type: 4.6-liter V8

  Horsepower: 320 @ 6,400 rpm

  Torque: 310 lb.-ft. @ 4,400 rpm

  EPA Mileage: 17 city, 25 highway

  MSRP: $75,385


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