Review: Cadillac XLR-V roadster puts all other vehicles made in U.S. to shame

2007 Cadillac XLR-V - Photo by GMBy Paul Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
September 6, 2006

ANN ARBOR -- The 2007 Cadillac XLR-V is not only the best Cadillac on the market today, it may be the best car built in America, period.

Priced at a cool $100,000 (including shipping and a $1,700 gas guzzler tax), this sharply chisled two-seater is a formidable competitor to one of the world's best roadsters, the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG, which costs about $30,000 more.

From almost every angle, the XLR-V, a high-performance version of XLR, is darn near perfect, with just a few quirks and quibbles.

The XLR-V starts with a special motor -- a supercharged, 4.4-liter version of the highly regarded Northstar DOHC V-8. The engine drives the rear wheels through a new Hydra-matic six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift capability. The supercharged V-8 not only sounds terrific under full throttle, it delivers an ample 443 horsepower and 414 pounds-feet of torque -- enough to rocket this sled from rest to 60 in about 4.9 seconds.

Which is only a sliver slower than the SL55 AMG, which packs a much larger and more powerful supercharged, 5.4-liter V-8 rated at 510 horsepower. But the Mercedes two-seater also outweighs the XLR-V by about 550 pounds, and it gets only a five-speed automatic. The Cadillac also has a decided edge in fuel economy, if that matters; its EPA city/highway numbers are 15/22 miles per gallon; the Mercedes is rated at 14/19.

The XLR, as many enthusiasts know, shares its basic underbody architecture with the Chevrolet Corvette; in fact, the Cadillac roadster is built on the same assembly line in Bowling Green, Ky. But the XLR-V gets some extra tweaks that lend it an air of greater sophistication, even though the $66,000 Corvette Z06 is considerably lighter, more powerful and more agile in terms of pure performance.

Under the skin, Cadillac has fitted its magnetic ride control, which automatically adjusts the suspension to compensate for issues like pavement conditions and vehicle speed. On the V-series, the settings are a little firmer than on the standard XLR. The V model also gets larger brakes, a rear stabilizer bar, a larger front stabilizer, stiffer bushings and larger wheels and tires, among other modifications.

Naturally, the XLR-V also shares such standard XLR equipment as stability and traction control, and Magnasteer power rack-and-pinion steering. Even with the 19-inch Pirelli run-flat tires, ride quality is generally superb -- partly a function of the generous 105.7-inch wheelbase and wide track -- while handling is crisp, controlled and exceptionally stable at higher speeds. My only complaint with the vehicle dynamics concerns the brakes, which require more pedal pressure than expected and don't inspire confidence in panic stops.

You're probably wondering how else Cadillac justifies the $21,000-plus bump in price over the standard XLR. The graphic differences are subtle, to say the least. There's the signature V-series wire-mesh grille, which looks much classier than the plasticky insert that GMC uses on its "premium" Denali models. The XLR-V also gets unique 10-spoke alloy wheels, four polished stainless-steel exhaust tips and black-finish brake calipers (you'll have to look twice to spot those).

Inside, the XLR-V is trimmed in rich-looking ebony leather with French stitching and matching perforated-suede inserts, as well as aluminum accents on the steering wheel and instrument panel. The materials, in general, are really top drawer -- just about the nicest that GM offers on any of its interiors in North America. One gripe: The exotic, grayish Zingana wood on the shift knob, steering wheel, doors and center console is not nearly as attractive or expensive-looking as the lovely eucalyptus that's offered on the standard XLR.

Another quibble is the trunk space. It turns out this car isn't the ideal vacation vehicle, unless you pack light -- very light.

I really had my heart set on piloting the mouth-watering XLR-V from Ann Arbor to the Mackinac Bridge, then taking a long, leisurely drive back home along the spectacular Lake Michigan shoreline. With the top down, of course.

Then Mrs. Lienert's patented reality check set in.

With the retractable hardtop stowed in the trunk, the XLR-V has a razor-thin 4.4 cubic feet of luggage space, which is about enough room to stash two soft duffle bags -- forget the picnic basket and golf clubs. And there's barely enough room in the two-seat cabin to stow an iPod, let alone a laptop computer.

My other issues involve mostly ergonomics in the cabin, which feels more cramped than the cockpit of the SL. From the driver's seat, the belt line is too high for comfort; with the window down, it's difficult to rest your arm on the sill, even if you're a six-footer. The position of the gas pedal is such that it puts the driver's right foot at an awkward angle. And the wide center console and transmission tunnel further encroach on leg and foot room.

The transmission tunnel also gets extremely hot to the touch over long distances -- uncomfortably so. And even though the handsome seats are heated and cooled, with power adjustable lumbar support, they're also overly firm and tend to get uncomfortable if you drive more than 100 miles in one sitting. The Mercedes seats are definitely superior.

Despite all the grousing, the XLR-V is truly exhilarating to drive. Cadillac lavishes enough high-tech features on the car to rival Germany's best, but without the unnecessarily complicated controls. Standard features include adaptive headlamps, radar cruise control, an ultrasonic reverse sensing system, rain-sensing wipers, a DVD navigation system with touch-screen controls, a head-up display and keyless access with pushbutton start/stop.

One last complaint: The power hardtop -- one of the few that looks really good when it's up -- takes nearly forever to retract or return. I counted almost to 30 and got a blast of rain in the face before the roof and power decklid to closed.

But once I got back on the local highway, goosed the throttle gently and heard the telltale growl from under the hood, pretty much all was forgiven. The XLR-V imparts that sort of magic when you're behind the wheel, rain or shine, top up or down.

So maybe I can talk Mrs. Lienert into leaving the golf clubs, picnic basket, ice chest and cosmetic bag at home on this vacation.