America’s biggest and smallest car companies have squared off in the luxury electric vehicle market. GM vs. Tesla. The Cadillac ELR vs. Model S. Old Money Detroit vs. New Money Silicon Valley. These chiseled competitors caused a sore neck epidemic at this year’s Detroit auto show. Displayed in neighboring stands, they turned heads left and right, faster than a Federer vs. Nadal Wimbledon final.
I ached to get them outside to strut their stuff. But it’s the dead of winter, you say. It’s too cold for batteries, you say. Shouldn’t we wait until springtime? Nawww. Not even the Polar Vortex can chill our lust for these hotties.
So bundle up, turn on the heated seats, and unleash the electrons.
The similarities between the companies and their cars are remarkably few. Both GM and Tesla took taxpayer loans and are branded with that Government Motors stigma. Both use lithium ion batteries. But the Caddy shares a compact platform and plug-in-electric powertrain with the Chevy Volt, while the Model S boasts an all-new midsize chassis running on batteries alone.
The silver four-seat Cadillac ELR — with an $82,135 price tag — is a slick vehicle, but the seven-seat (yes, seven) Model S ( $75,520) is jaw-dropping. Game-changing. Stone-cold awesome.
In the Establishment vs. Startup showdown, score one for American entrepreneurial ingenuity as Elon Musk’s first sedan is not just the best electric vehicle ever made but gives the elites of the luxury sport world — Porsche Panamera, Audi A7, Jaguar XF — serious competition for best in class. Subsidies aside (Elon, you had to raid the taxpayer cookie jar to finance this gem?), Musk deserves a place in the Auto Hall of Fame next to irascible pioneers like Henry Ford and Carroll Shelby.
The ELR and Model S are accessible only to platinum club members. But they are serious machines — not just show horses to gain federal fuel economy credits. But Musk’s second act, a 200-mile range Model E that will go head-to-head with the Volt, Nissan Leaf and Prius plug-in, will be more accessible to the masses with a price tag of about $40K and hitting the market in 2016.
EVs to date have worn their green status on their sleeves to attract the crunchy granola crowd. Not the ELR and Model S. No leafy badges. No green-tinted instrument panels. They sell themselves on passion, inside and out.
“Coolest car ever!” squealed the 20-something at Tesla’s Detroit display. “I’ve gotta have one,” said the 70-something father of my college roommate at Christmas dinner in California.
When a car attracts a demographic that broad, you know something’s different.
Begin with the Model S’s signature 17-inch touchscreen, which works like an iPad maxi. The navigation app is made by Google, the menu icons look like a Mac.
Finally, a car screen that is as intuitive as your smartphone. Better yet, the screen centralizes all controls. No more split-level consoles of competing analog and digital tools that require a tutorial to understand.
Get it? Like the breakthrough Macintosh computer of a generation ago, Tesla brings electronic style to the automobile. With its massive batteries buried in the floor and its one-speed gear-shift on the steering column, the front cabin is uncluttered. The sculpted dash arcs to meet curved, aluminum-trimmed door handles.
While the Model S establishes a unique interior experience, the ELR is determined to make you feel like you are in a Cadillac. Gone are the green-preaching instrument panels of the Volt. In their place are Caddy’s familiar, cool CUE system.
But by building on a midsize platform, the Model S takes EV luxury to another level. Wedged into a compact chassis, the T-shaped ELR battery pack intrudes on the cabin, limiting seating to four adults. The Tesla cabin comfortably seats five adults — and two more in rear-facing child seats just like the flexible cargo bay of my old 1992 Taurus station wagon.
The five-door, 196-inch long Tesla is easily mistaken for a Jaguar XF from behind. Yet with no engine to conceal, the low aerodynamic hood — creating a slippery .24 drag coefficient — makes the Tesla even more beautiful overall.This S looks like Kate Upton wrapped in a satin dress.
The ELR, on the other hand, is Caddy’s angular “Art & Design” language perfected. The design is virtually identical to the show-stopping Converj concept unveiled in 2009 with raked windshield and knife-like lines. Think Stealth fighter meets Honda Civic Coupe.
Caddy’s stylish nose could teach the Model S a thing or two about EV grilles, which are decorative since there is no large radiator to cool. The one flaw in Tesla’s otherwise gorgeous bod is its blunt plastic honker. Chief designer Franz von Holzhausen says the design was deliberately conservative for fear that an unconventional face would scare off buyers — but he plans to broaden his palette with future designs.
With all that battery weight in the belly, surely these EVs suffer in handling? On the contrary. The lower center of gravity (at 17.5 inches, the 4,650-pound Tesla’s CG is on par with super-sports cars) lends these cars noticeably better cornering stability over their gas-powered cousins.
But for an $80K car, you want grunt. That’s where the Tesla really shines.
Bury your right foot and the big sled leaps forward, propelled by instant 317 pound-feet of electric torque. In the base, 60kwh Model S I tested — courtesy of Sean Maloney of Grosse Pointe — 0-60 mph shoots by in just 5.1 seconds. That’s over a half-second quicker than a base $81K Porsche Panamera. At 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds, the 80 kwh Model S would blow the doors off an Aston Martin DB9.
Yet the Model S achieves these violent acceleration numbers in silence. In a V-8, such an outburst would get Mr. Maloney arrested in the Pointes for disturbing the peace.
But the Tesla allows him to explore his animal instincts without waking up every cop in Motown.
The S brings this razzle dazzle while delivering 150 miles on a charge — in January. Sure, that’s less than the 208 miles advertised (because Tesla advises recharges to ¾of battery capacity for long life), but still plenty of mileage to avoid range anxiety as Maloney travels across southeast Michigan.
The ELR — using the same 16.5 kwh battery/1.4-liter gas engine combo as the Volt — also explodes off the line then quickly plateaus, reaching 60 mph in 7.8 seconds (8.8 in pure EV mode). Many will find this unacceptable at this price — as well as its 30-miles-on-a-winter-charge before the four-banger takes over.
In short, the ELR comes up short in room and performance next to the multi-talented Model S prodigy.
Electrics died a century ago, victims of Henry Ford’s more affordable, more fuel-able Model T. At the dawn of the 21st century, they are back, thanks in part to the determination of another mad genius and his Model S.
2014 Tesla Model S
Vehicle type: Battery propulsion, rear-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan
Price: $69,900 base, $75,520 (as tested, $68,020 after federal tax credit)
Power plant: Electric drive system with 60 kwh microprocessor lithium-ion battery pack
Power: 302 horsepower, 317 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Automatic, single-speed transmission
Performance: 0-60 mpg, 5.1 seconds (dragtimes.com); 134 mph top speed (governor limited)
Weight: 4,647 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 88 mpg city/90 mpg highway
Highs: Supermodel body; goes like stink
Lows: Plastic nose; good range limited by lack of charging infrastructure
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org. or Twitter @HenryEPayne