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The Cadillac XLR is the company's stunning flagship, a luxurious high-performance sports car based on the new Corvette.
Its styling is edgy, classy, powerful and distinctive and its interior is luxurious and attractive. Like the Mercedes SL, the XLR is a hardtop convertible: Press a button and the top goes up or down in 30 seconds. With the top up, the XLR looks like an edgy, powerful coupe, and it acts like one.
This is not your father's Cadillac. The XLR offers tenacious grip and excellent handling, benefits of a modified version of the superb 2005 Corvette chassis. It sounds sexy and delivers brilliant acceleration performance. Its 320-horsepower Northstar V8 is a modern, double overhead cam engine with variable-valve technology. The XLR is lighter and more powerful and quicker than the Mercedes SL500, Lexus SC430 and Jaguar XK8. Yet it's smooth, quiet and pleasant when cruising, top up or top down.
The styling of the Cadillac XLR is distinctive and controversial. Some people like the sharp styling, some people don't. Most people like it. We like it. It's unique with a cause, which is difficult to achieve and reason enough to like it. It's an in-your-face kind of grace.
We especially like how the XLR looks when the hard top is up. Very cool, chopped and suggesting a hot rod, with a steeply raked rear window and lots of angles like the rest of the car. The top is made of aluminum and magnesium with composite panels and contributes to the structural rigidity of the car. The Mercedes SL roadster has a similar top but it's rounded at the edges and doesn't do for the Benz what this top does for the XLR. It adds power to the aura of the car, erases the top-down gentrification.
Four wide exhaust tips, pointing out from under the center of the rear bumper like the tips of two big double-barreled shotguns, add to the statement of power. We think they could and should have done something different with the wheels, though: 18-inch, mirror-polished alloy, a seven-spoke wagon-wheel design. They are the same wheels available on the CTS sedan and SRX crossover SUV. The XLR ought to have its own wheels. Actually, the special wheels on the V8 CTS-V are what the XLR needs.
The shape and silhouette of the XLR works, but if you take it apart the elements suggest it was designed by two people with clashing ideas because the details seem incongruous if you study the shapes for a while. The bright and bold egg-crate grille announces the flow of the styling, and the headlamps wrap around the corners; they touch front, top and sides. The front bumper/airdam is massive, and extends like an underbite but not conspicuously. The rectangular foglights don't seem to take part in the styling, and the long horizontal opening in the air dam is just big and just there.
The sides are blessedly smooth, and the wheel cutouts are full with the fenders flared just enough. The XLR is low and wide, and the wheels are big, so it looks hot. The rocker panel bodywork, a composite plastic, like the rest of the body, is sharp but tidy, while the mirrors are bulky.
The high angularity of the tail perfectly complements the shape, but the big pseudo carbon-fiber box around the license plate, also containing the backup lights, mostly messes it up. But the four cool exhaust pipes almost redeem it. They draw the eye, at least.
There are no door handles, instead a deep notch behind the top trailing edge of the door where there is a button that opens the door. You don't need the key to unlock or start the XLR. With the keyfob in your pocket or purse, the door will unlock as you stand before it, and you can fire or kill the engine with the push of a button on the instrument panel. When you walk away from the car it unlocks itself. If the key fob transmitter fails, there's a little hole in the rear bumper with a plug covering a slot for the key.
The XLR has an attractive interior, as tastefully done as a Lexus, though it still feels like a Cadillac inside. The interior is awash in beige or black leather. Wood trim is used with restraint, and is either light-colored wood that warms the interior or a dark eucalyptus, along with anodized aluminum trim. Dash and other trim materials appear to be of high quality. It's as nice as anything from Lexus, Mercedes or BMW.
From behind the wheel the view is swoopy. Between the fender bulge and a peaked center line on the hood, a subtle but sharp trough runs away from the driver down his line of sight. A head-up display projected onto the windshield indicates speed and the selected gear, the latter convenient when using the manual shifting mode. The HUD displays the radio station for a moment after switching stations; it also does some neat scoreboard-type effects for your amusement.
The instrument panel is by Bvlgari, an Italian design company which judging by the way it spells/designs its own name (that's not a "v" it's a Roman "u"), might value style over clarity. Except for being dark, with white numbers on a black background, the gauges are clear, surrounded by unnecessary but seemingly obligatory chrome rings.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel has burled wood between 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock. One New Car Test Drive staffer didn't like it, another loved it. We report. You decide.
The XLR seats feel relatively soft and are heated and cooled. There's decent bolstering. More support could be used in a car that corners this well, though that would make getting in and out harder.
Thankfully, Cadillac hasn't tried to compete in the flawed technology chase that BMW and Audi send their luxury drivers on to control simple things. Most of the functions in the XLR are controlled by simple switchgear with finger-sized buttons. Thankfully, the HVAC (heating) controls are separate, elegantly designed and easy to use. The navigation system is displayed on a seven-inch LCD screen located in the center console, under neat rectangular heating and cooling vents. The system will also play DVD movies when the transmission is in Park, treating the driver and passenger to virtual surround sound, like a drive-in movie theater without the wailing babies. The screen can be difficult to read in bright sunlight, however.
Setting up the radio is tedious until you know how. Once set up, however, buttons on the steering wheel make switching among your favorite stations easy. Turning off the radio is as easy as pressing the volume knob, aesthetically more appealing than the Mercedes system which cannot be turned off without turning off the navigation system (you can only turn the Mercedes radio all the way down). We recommend springing for XM Satellite Radio for the 24-hour new channels, sports stations, and near-CD quality music.
It's easy to reach the dual cup holders on the center console next to the shifter. The XLR is a two-seater, so there's not much room to store so much as a briefcase or tote bag without cooperation from your passenger. Places to stash stuff are provided in the doors, center console and glove box, though none of them are large.
The retractable hard top consumes three-fourths of the trunk space when it's down. And because the trunk raises and opens at the back to swallow it, rainwater will drain down in the trunk instead of dropping on the ground behind the bumper. Cadillac says owners should be able to fit a small golf bag in the trunk (or passenger seat), but recommend keeping the clubs at the club.
The Cadillac XLR boasts the latest and best version of the 4.6-liter Northstar V8. It's smooth and quiet, and powerful. With double overhead-cams, variable valve timing and electronic throttle control, it produces 320 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.
The XLR can go from 0 to 60 in 5.8 seconds and do the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds, making it faster than its competition because it's lighter and more powerful. The XLR's 320 horses only have to drag 3,647 pounds. The Mercedes SL500 has 302 horsepower to propel 4,220 pounds; the Lexus SC430 is 300 horsepower and 3893 pounds; and the Jaguar XK8 is 294 horsepower and 3991 pounds.
Big torque numbers aside, the XLR engine is thrilling when it comes on strong at higher revs, all the way to redline at 6500 rpm. Much of the torque seems to start at about 4400 rpm.
One especially pleasant feature is that the manual mode for the new five-speed automatic transmission is true, and doesn't override the driver; again, this is refreshing and unlike German thought. When the electronic transmission is left to its own algorithmic designs in Drive, it sometimes shifts back and forth in the leisurely 40-mph range.
In the handling department, the XLR was halfway home when it was mounted on the superb new Corvette chassis, which is very strong and light. In fact, the XLR is assembled in the Corvette plant at Bowling Green, Kentucky. New aluminum subframes were built to accommodate the XLR body, lengthening the wheelbase by one inch. Along with the low stance, good weight distribution and lightweight aluminum suspension components, this edges the car in the direction of great handling. The XLR has a longer wheelbase and wider track than the SL500, SC430 and XK8.
The electronic active suspension is unique, and works exceptionally well. It's rocket science: Like the Corvette, it uses transversely mounted composite leaf springs front and rear with wishbone control arms. The monotube shock absorbers contain fluid with magnetic particles whose alignment controls the stiffness. Sensors read the road 1000 times per second and vary those magnetic fields. In short, the XLR offers tenacious grip and excellent handling. It charges down rippled curvy roads and takes smooth sweepers flat out.
Cruising in the XLR, which is what most of us do most of the time, is pleasant. There's little wind noise. If there are any hard edges to the ride we haven't felt them. It feels big, somewhat like the Corvette, but tight, fast and quick.
The faster the car went the better the speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion power steering felt. The high-speed chassis balance was impressively neutral. The StabiliTrak electronic stability control made corrections to regain traction, but wasn't as intrusive as the Mercedes SL600 and SL500.
The Michelin Z-rated run-flat tires measure 235/50ZR18 on 8-inch rims, not particularly wide for 320 horsepower. That helps the ride but not the braking distance. We gave the brakes a good panic stop and, as with all Cadillacs, the ABS worked especially well. Recently we tested a V12 Mercedes SL600 roadster ($125,950), and the XLR's anti-lock brakes seem smoother.
The new Cadillac XLR is faster than its competitors from Mercedes, Lexus and Jaguar and offers fresh, distinctive styling. It holds its own in other important categories such as ride, cornering, comfort and electronics. The XLR simply succeeds as a luxury performance roadster, as well as in its mission to be an admirable flagship for General Motors.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses reports from the Columbia River Gorge in Washington, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.
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