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First Drive: 2004 Cadillac XLR

Running Topless With the Imports

By Erin Riches

Date posted: 06-02-2003

Cadillac has set about reinventing itself as a premium luxury brand, one that needs no "pretty good for a domestic vehicle" qualifiers, one that well-to-do car buyers will take seriously alongside the top import brands. The process was set in motion by the unveiling of the Evoq concept at the 1999 North American International Auto Show. Cadillac's first concept car in over a decade, this roadster featured a supercharged Northstar V8 and various Corvette mechanicals, while ushering in the company's "art and science" school of design.

Since then, new product has come about slowly. Indeed the Escalade, along with its ESV and EXT variants, makes a strong case for itself in the luxury SUV segment, but the new-for-2003 CTS is not yet an A-team pick among entry-level luxury sport sedans — fortunately, upgrades are on the way for 2004. Regardless of where we think they stand, both the Escalade family and the CTS are important vehicles for Cadillac. They sell well and they bring in younger buyers.

And younger is crucial to the success of the car that will arrive this summer. Too expensive to be a sales leader, this production translation of the Evoq, called the XLR, will instead define the image of a company that says it's committed to building world-class luxury cars. Farther upmarket than any Cadillac of the last 10 years, the XLR is engineered and priced to compete with cars like the Mercedes-Benz SL500, Lexus SC 430 and Jaguar XK-Series.

Enthusiasts will of course remember the company's last two-seat roadster, the Allanté, introduced in 1987 when most people who came to Cadillac dealerships were older and looking for larger, less involving transportation (you know, Broughams, Fleetwoods and DeVilles). Allanté sales never materialized in the numbers the company had hoped for, and production was cancelled in 1993, this despite the fact that the car was the beneficiary of the then-new Northstar V8 that year.

Fortunately, the XLR enters a different buying environment. The frumpier nameplates have been cleared out of the way, and the public has had a couple years to get used to the idea of Cadillac being more about performance and audacious style than an isolated driving experience and padded vinyl tops. Moreover, based on what we've seen so far, this roadster has plenty of substance to back up any marketing buildup — it's a car we'd feel comfortable shopping against any other premium convertible, including the SL500, which won our 2002 Luxury Convertibles Over $55,000 Comparison Test.

Cadillac's roadster starts with a world-class foundation: it rides on the next-generation Corvette (C6) platform. As one engineer explained to us, the company knew that the XLR would have more of a touring personality and would never be driven as hard as a Corvette. Nevertheless, it was decided that the Cadillac should have a high pain threshold on the off chance that a driver did decide to give his luxury roadster a serious workout.

Accordingly, the XLR had to be both stiff and lightweight — obvious considerations during the development of any convertible, but of particular importance for a high-dollar drop top that must offer a supple ride and great handling. In service of this goal, the roadster is equipped with hydroformed steel frame rails (with no seams, joints, welds or overlaps), an all-aluminum double wishbone suspension, an aluminum cockpit structure and composite floors (with balsa wood cores). The folding hardtop has an aluminum and magnesium structure and composite exterior panels. Additionally, the center tunnel (through which the driveshaft runs) provides a sort of backbone for the XLR, helping to reduce longitudinal twisting.

The result of all this is a curb weight of 3,647 pounds — over 200 pounds less than what an SC 430 weighs, over 300 less than the XK8 and over 400 less than the SL500. The XLR manages this feat even though it has the longest wheelbase and widest track of the four cars. Short front and rear overhangs keep the overall length down, as the Cadillac is about the same length as the Lexus, negligibly shorter than the Mercedes and nearly 10 inches shorter than the Jaguar. Mounting the transmission in the rear allowed engineers to give the car a 50/50 front/rear weight distribution (as well as open up a little extra space in the occupant footwells).

Out on the road, the XLR has a full array of familiar Cadillac technology to enhance its handling characteristics. This list includes Magnetic Ride Control, StabiliTrak and Magnasteer. Previously seen on the Seville STS and Corvette, Magnetic Ride Control is one of the fastest reacting adaptive suspension systems on the market: It can pick up on changes in wheel motion and adjust the suspension damping in little more than one millisecond, according to Cadillac. So where does the magnetic part come in? Each shock absorber contains magneto-rheological fluid (in place of the usual mechanical valves). In the presence of a magnetic charge, tiny iron particles within the fluid align to form fibrous structures that create specific amounts of damping force to keep the XLR's body as level as possible. This is all transparent to the driver, of course. Magnasteer also makes use of electromagnetic technology to provide variable-effort steering according to vehicle speed. StabiliTrak is Cadillac's stability control system and is therefore constantly on patrol for situations in which the car's actual path deviates from the driver's intended path, in which case it would intervene with brake and/or throttle adjustment.

Knowing what we did about the XLR, we were enthused about the prospect of exercising it on the scenic two-lane roads near Sedona, Ariz., but as it happened, our turn behind the wheel came on a relatively straight portion of the driving route. No matter, that gave us ample opportunity to appreciate the XLR's merits as a touring car. The ride was smooth and comfortable, even with run-flat 235/50R18 tires mounted at all four corners, and cowl shake was pretty much nonexistent. As you can imagine, we savored the experience of driving top-down, the wind ruffling (and tangling) our hair, on a cloudless late spring afternoon. Temperatures climbed as we descended from the mountains, but use of the ventilated seats and the dual-zone climate control made the desert heat a mere afterthought.

Obviously, there's a bit more to the XLR than a pleasant ride (else we'd all be driving Sebrings), and that special something is a 4.6-liter Northstar V8. While not the 405-horsepower supercharged version from the Evoq concept (at least not for now), this is a second-generation Northstar adapted for use in a rear-wheel-drive configuration and improved with continuously variable valve timing that works on both the intake and exhaust valves. Other upgrades include a higher 10.5-to-1 compression ratio (versus 10.0 to 1 previously); electronic throttle control; low-restriction intake and exhaust manifolds and cylinder head ports; more efficient catalytic converters; a new air induction system; and a more powerful engine control module (ECM). Engineers also took various measures to reduce noise, vibration and harshness.

The final product is quite satisfying with 320 horsepower coming in at 6,400 rpm and 310 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. Acceleration is strong all the way up the tach, and full-throttle applications result in delicious sounds from the engine bay — Mercedes' 5.0-liter V8 has met its match. Fuel economy should be a strong point for the XLR; preliminary estimates have it at 17 mpg city/25 highway — better than any competitor, save for the XK8.

A new five-speed automatic transmission adapted from the unit in the CTS (but designed to handle higher horsepower and torque loads) is standard in the XLR. Like the SL's transmission, it offers an automanual gate for driver-controlled shifts. Left to its own devices in "D," though, it does an excellent job. Not only are shifts quick and smooth, but a pair of algorithms allows the transmission control module (TCM) to detect aggressive use of the accelerator pedal as well as the buildup of cornering forces (when entering a turn) — in either case, the transmission holds onto lower gears.

The XLR proved to be a swift and stable companion around the handful of high-speed turns we encountered. The next day we had a brief opportunity to drive it back to back with an SL500 around some slightly tighter turns on GM's Desert Proving Grounds. Already, we're convinced that the SL is the XLR's only peer in terms of handling among high-end touring convertibles. The XLR did seem to have a bit more body roll around turns than the SL, which isn't surprising since it doesn't have an equivalent of the Benz's Active Body Control system to flatten its cornering attitude. Nevertheless, we'll have to spend more time with the new roadster in order to get a feel for its handling limits and how they compare to those of the Mercedes. We did prefer the Cadillac's progressive brake feel to the somewhat artificial pedal sensations associated with the Benz's electronically controlled setup — we'll be curious to see whether the XLR can duplicate the SL's short braking distances.

As you get in and out of the XLR, you'll be surprised by the number of interesting gadgets that survived from the Evoq concept, namely the push-button door releases (eliminating the need for exterior handles and interior release levers) and the Keyless Access. Similar to Mercedes' Keyless Go, Cadillac's Keyless Access allows the driver to start up the XLR at the push of a button on the dash, provided the key fob is in his pocket or in close proximity. However, Keyless Access takes that idea one step further by eliminating the ability to insert a key at any time. Where the ignition would normally be, there are only three buttons — engine on, accessory mode on, everything off. It couldn't be easier in practice, but Cadillac will need to make doubly sure that all the electronics are fail-proof before sending new XLR owners on their way.

A lengthy stint on the interstate provided an opportunity to try out the XLR's radar-based adaptive cruise control system. Once you've got your speed set, the system works as smoothly as Mercedes' Distronic to keep you the proper distance behind the car in front of you. Like other systems of its kind, this one uses only partial braking intervention, providing visible and audible alerts to the driver when he needs to do his own braking. The XLR's standard heads-up display (a digital readout on the lower left side of the windshield) offers a pretty good interface for the system, even showing a graphic of the XLR and the car in front of it if the driver so chooses. The one thing we didn't like was having to use GM's outdated three-on-one wipers, turn signal and cruise stalk to activate the cruise in the first place and adjust the speed — this is probably the single cheapest aspect of the XLR. A separate button on the steering wheel allows you to adjust the following distance.

There's nothing groundbreaking about the XLR's interior design, but we warmed to the large, simple analog gauges, meaty shifter and ample storage areas. Materials quality easily surpasses that of other General Motors' products with the requisite soft-touch materials on most every surface. Hell, the grain patterns even match! The leather upholstery looks and feels nice, as does the woven material on the pillars and hardtop headliner. The light eucalyptus inlays are a pleasant deviation from the bird's eye maple or walnut route that most luxury cars take, though alongside the SC 430's cockpit forestland, the XLR's wood accents are few in number. Here and there, we found a few hard plastics that seemed chintzy, but the same could be said of the SL500's interior — Lexus is still best in show in this area.

The seats proved comfortable and supportive for an hour-long stint behind the wheel, though some drivers may find them a little tight on hip room — our wider-hipped editor found them snug at first but soon grew to like them. Each seat offers heating and cooling, as well as a pair of speakers (to ensure enjoyment of the Bose sound system with the top down) and head- and torso-protecting side airbags.

Aside from the maligned cruise control stalk, the touchscreen that controls all audio and navigation functions presents the only ergonomic difficulty. Inputting an address is easy enough, but using the touchscreen to access radio presets and switch between CDs (loaded into the in-dash changer) will take some practice — something we were loathe to do while the chief engineer sat next to us in a preproduction prototype.

Although first drive events rarely give us as much time to spend with a car as we'd like, the XLR struck us as a particularly desirable high-end roadster, one with enough performance and luxury features and one that we'd definitely like to drive again soon. Will it draw younger buyers to Cadillac dealerships? Most certainly. But price could be a sticking point for some: The XLR costs over $10,000 more than the SC 430. True, the XLR is the better performer and lots more fun to drive, but to those who just want a cruiser, the finely furnished Lexus will seem like the better buy.

If on the other hand, you're a prospective SL500 buyer, the XLR may have your number. In terms of performance, cockpit accommodations and feature content, these two match up almost one to one. Now consider that the Cadillac costs $10 grand less than the Benz. Sounds like you've got some test-drives to take, doesn't it? Meanwhile, we'll get to work planning our next roadster comparison test.

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