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.
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' 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?
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 behind.
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.
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 Cabriolet.
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.