2004 Cadillac XLR

By November 11, 2003
2004 Cadillac XLR

The cars of General Motors are moving in an exciting direction, and Cadillac is leading the way. The stunning new Cadillac XLR is the company's new flagship, a luxurious high-performance sports car built on the next Corvette platform.

Its styling is edgy, classy, powerful and distinctive. It boasts a beautiful and luxurious interior that befits its $76,200 price. And it's a hardtop convertible: Press a button and the hard top goes up or down in 30 seconds. But the XLR goes beyond that. It boasts impressive cornering capability and thrilling acceleration performance. It benefits from a high-tech structure and a powerful Northstar V8.

Model Lineup

The 2004 Cadillac XLR ($75,385) comes one way, with a convertible hard top. Its 4.6-liter V8 engine is mated to Cadillac's newest five-speed automatic transmission.

XM Satellite Radio is the only option ($325). The list of standard equipment is long: side-impact airbags, a nine-speaker Bose sound system, DVD navigation and video, StabiliTrak electronic stability control, radar-controlled adaptive cruise control, keyless entry and push-button start, a head-up display, and OnStar, the highway assistance service featuring the helpful voices of genuine human beings beamed to the car by satellite.


The styling of the Cadillac XLR is distinctive and controversial. Some people like the sharp styling, some people hate it. 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 it 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 a big 18 inches, so this 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 (when) the keyfob transmitter technology is KO'd by sunspots or reluctant space-traveling electrons, there's a little hole in the rear bumper with a plug covering a slot for the keyfob. So you'll be granted entrance to your $76,000 car if you get down on your hands and knees in the dirt. Play Indiana Jones entering a protected temple. Don't look over your shoulder; the ghost of Henry Ford will be laughing at you.

Interior Features

The Cadillac XLR features a retractable hard top that flips up or down with one button in 30 seconds. However, it 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.

The XLR feels like a Cadillac inside. The interior is awash in beige or black leather, eucalyptus wood and anodized aluminum which could pass for plastic.

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 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.

Also obligatory is the Cadillac trademark steering wheel, leather-wrapped except for burled wood between 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock. It feels bulky on the XLR; the wood is slippery and colder than the leather, and a driver's hands often land on the intersection of the two materials. Cadillac's website shows an interior picture of an XLR with an all-leather steering wheel, which might be available.

We had driven a Cadillac CTS immediately prior to our time in the XLR, and the XLR seats felt softer and less sporty than the CTS seats. The seats are heated and cooled. There's decent bolstering, but more support could be used in a car that corners this well.

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. The navigation system is displayed on a seven-inch LCD screen located in the center console, under neat rectangular heating and cooling vents. It will also play DVD movies when the transmission is in Park.

Driving Impressions

The Cadillac XLR boats 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 pounds-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 main opponents, because it's lighter and more powerful. The XLR's 320 horses only have to drag 3647 pounds; the Mercedes SL500 is 302 hp and 4220 lbs.; Lexus SC430 is 300 hp and 3893 lbs.; and the Jaguar XK8 is 294 hp and 3991 lbs.

Its big torque numbers aside, the engine is very thrilling when it comes on strong at higher revs, all the way to redline at 6500 rpm. Once, when we floored it in second gear, we had to ask ourselves, “Where's the torque?” because the car didn't accelerate quickly. The torque is mostly up there at 4400 rpm. The transmission was in manual mode, and it didn't kick down because we hadn't shifted it. One especially pleasant feature is that the manual mode (called Driver Shift Control) 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, 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 Corvette chassis, which is very strong and light; in fact, the XLR is assembled at the Corvette plant in 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. If there are any hard edges to the ride we haven't felt them. It feels big, somewhat like the Corvette, but tighter, fast and quick.

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 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 new Cadillac XLR is faster than its competitors from Mercedes, Lexus and Jaguar and offers fresher and more 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.

Model Line Overview
Model lineup:Cadillac XLR ($75,385)
Engines:4.6-liter V8
Transmissions:5-speed electronically controlled automatic with Driver Shift Control
Safety equipment (standard):seat-mounted side-impact airbags, adaptive cruise control, head-up digital speed display, OnStar service for one year, seat-mounted shoulder belts, tire-pressure monitoring system, rain-sensing wipers
Safety equipment (optional):N/A
Basic warranty:4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in:Bowling Green, Kentucky
Specifications As Tested
Model tested (MSPR):Cadillac XLR ($75,385)
Standard equipment:power retractable hardtop, digital Bose nine-speaker sound system, XM Satellite Radio, DVD navigation and video system, StabiliTrak electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control, keyless entry and push-button start, head-up display, one year of OnStar, air conditioning, tilting and telescoping steering wheel, rear window defroster, power memory heated cooled seats, universal garage door opener
Options as tested (MSPR):N/A
Destination charge:$815
Gas guzzler tax:N/A
Price as tested (MSPR):$76200
Layout:rear-wheel drive
Engine:4.6-liter dohc 32-valve V8 w VVT
Horsepower (lb.-ft @ rpm):320 @ 6400
Torque (lb.-ft @ rpm):310 @ 4400
Transmission:5-speed electronically controlled automatic with Driver Shift Control
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:17/25 mpg
Wheelbase:105.7 in.
Length/width/height:177.7/72.3/50.4 in.
Track, f/r:62.2/62.0 in.
Turning circle:39 ft.
Seating Capacity:2
Head/hip/leg room, f:37.3/53.0/42.6 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m:N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r:N/A
Cargo volume:11.6 cu. ft.
Towing capacity:N/A
Suspension, f:independent
Suspension, r:independent
Ground clearance:6.6 in.
Curb weigth:3647 lbs.
Brakes, f/r:Vented discs with ABS
Fuel capacity:18 gal.
Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle. All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSPR) effective as of November 11, 2003.Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable. Manufacturer Info Sources: 800-333-4CAD - www.cadillac.com

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