XLR8 AND EXHILIRATE?
Can Cadillac’s Sharp-Suited XLR Go Head To Head With The Best European Drop-Tops? Andy Enright Reports
Car manufacturers go to great lengths to portray their wares in the most favourable light and it’s the job of an enterprising hack to pare through much of the baloney. If the test route of the press launch consists of nothing but motorway, you can be sure the car will handle like a frog in a sock. Likewise, if there’s nothing but billiard-table smooth German tarmac, chances are that car will have the sort of suspension that will cause mild concussion when driven down a British B-road. The Cadillac XLR’s native environment is on the gentle sweeping bends of California’s Highway 1.
Escaping the traffic choked environs of Santa Monica, the road opens up north out of Los Angeles. Malibu seems nothing but strip malls and sewage outfalls, the sprawling homes of the stars tucked away in the mudslide-prone hills or behind the unprepossessing garages fronting onto the main road. It’s about this time that you may feel tempted to drop the roof of this coupe convertible and feel the wind in your hair, but for the time being it’s worth getting a feel for the excellent roof-up refinement. The interior of the XLR is better than most American cars, but if you suspect this is damning with the faintest of praise, you’d be right. In a market populated by cars like the Mercedes SL and the BMW 6 Series Convertible, the Caddy doesn’t really get close. Probably its closest rival is in fact the more relaxed Lexus SC430 and this boasts a cabin which may not be the very acme of good taste, but is nevertheless screwed together with faultless integrity.
The XLR’s cabin doesn’t hang together quite so convincingly, with some of the metallic finishes looking like cheaply snapped-on components and the rather cheap looking instrumentation rather ridiculously bearing the mark of premium watch manufacturer Bulgari. Bulgarian is closer to the mark. There is an awful lot of standard kit on offer, but the overall feel of the interior is one that you might expect from Kia or Proton were they to suddenly decide that premium convertibles were something they could do. It all works well enough, but crucially lacks a bit in the perceived quality stakes.
"Cadillac would probably prefer the XLR to be slightly less exclusive than it will doubtless prove"
Let’s push on. Leaving Los Angeles behind, you’ll need to make fast progress up the 101 to San Luis Obispo and the start of California Highway 1 ‘proper’. If you really want to soak up the sun, drop the top and spend an hour or so on Oceano Dunes, one of the few beaches that allow vehicles. The hood is manufactured by Car Top Systems Gesellschaft mit Beschränker Haftung GmBH and asking Cadillac executives who made the roof is always a fun, if slightly cruel, excuse to hear Americans mangling the German language. Most will just point out that the roof is made by the same people who do the Mercedes SL system.
The XLR’s styling looks a little too neo-brutalist for Cambria, an artsy enclave famous for fine art and crafts galleries in pseudo-Tudor buildings. Cambria's Moonstone Beach features bluffs with walking trails, play areas and picnic tables -- and spectacular sunsets. About eight miles north of Cambria, San Simeon's attractions include Hearst Castle, the home of news magnate William Randolph Hearst's magnificent 115-room mansion. Atop a 1,600-foot mountain, La Cuesta Encantada ("The Enchanted Hill") overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Hearst Castle is a must-see. Four distinct tours through the property cover Hearst's art and antiques collection, private quarters and gorgeous gardens set around reflecting pools, fountains and statuary. Although the lions and zebras which used to roam the grounds are gone, there’s plenty to amaze although you’ll be forced to swap the XLR for a shuttle bus that runs to one of the underground car parks.
Driving away from Hearst Caste in a Cadillac XLR gives a disorientating spin on how American design has progressed. There’s something rather Germanic about the almost brutal lines of the car. Catch a glimpse of the car’s shadow playing on the smooth road and you’d swear it was a Mercedes SL, the XLR sharing the big Benz’s wedge shaped profile. Whereas the German car features some smooth curves, the Cadillac’s designers have has taken a jack plane to these swoops, creating an angular but interesting look. The car struggles for a true ‘American’ personality, however, and only its shortcomings are in any way typical of US car manufacture.
The speed-sensitive steering is still way too light for the enthusiast driver and body control isn’t what you’d describe as particularly sporting. As the road narrows and you approach the Big Sur coast, you’ll feel thankful for that 320 horsepower Northstar 4.6-litre V8. A five-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox available, but there is a manual-shift gate that allows you to manipulate the gears yourself. Measured against the clock at a test track, the XLR will hit 60mph in 5.9 seconds, a showing that can outshine the SL500. Full throttle shifts result in little hesitation and the engine note is reassuringly purposeful. Dawdlers can be swiftly dispatched with one stab of the right foot, although carrying speed into corners isn’t hugely reassuring, especially when there’s a 300 foot drop into the cold Pacific Ocean below. Keen eyed passengers will spot sea otters at Point Lobos, but the sea lions that haul themselves onto the beach are impossible to miss. Get really lucky and you may see a great white shark taking a meal from the cover of the thick kelp beds.
As Monterey rolls into view, you’ll probably think there are few better companions for a journey of this sort. Were I flying into LA and looking to rent a car for the trip, the Cadillac XLR would be near the top of my list. Walking into a dealership in the UK and forking out for a left-hand drive version is quite a different matter.