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Auto Test Drives

The Cadillac XLR-v: It Slices, it Dices, It Cuddles and Woos - and Then it Zooms
By Andrew Gardner; photos by the author & W. Tsai
Nov 18, 2006, 10:12 PST
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What's the only thing better than a Cadillac XLR? A supercharged Cadillac XLR. It's called the XLR-v, the second most powerful production Cadillac ever and in many ways the most fun to drive.

The XLR-v starts with the many strengths of the XLR, fixes some flaws, and makes the car even better. The XLR was a great vehicle for its combination of light weight, best in class base power, good materials, comfortble ride and sporty grand touring handling...and did we mention it has a retractable hardtop? It was flawed in that it was too soft to be a really athletic grand tourer, at least when the turns are tight and close together, and there was a bit too much plastic for it being a $76,000 car. Stiffer suspension, more power, and the same three stages of assistance we expect of StabiliTrak from the Corvette (everything on, traction control off but anti-spin and yaw control from StabiliTrak, and Competition Mode which just about lets you do as you please) all add up to an excellent, aggressive grand tourer. Oh, and there's more power too (are we repeating ourselves already? well, at least you know we have our priorities straight).

 

 

The exterior looks more aggressive for the screen mesh replacing plastic inserts in the grille and lower fascia openings. These openings are also enlarged for increased airflow to those more aggressive and harder working mechanicals in the front of the car. Right off the bat you know this car means business.

Slip your fingers inside an opening in the rear fender, just behind the door, and find the little touch pad inside the composite door. Press it gently and hold and, as long as the key fob is on your person, the solenoid will retract the door latch and voila, welcome to paradise. Paradise here is an interior so fully bathed in leather from the dashboard to the doors to the seats that it will make you remember the days before injection molded plastics met the automobile. This extended leather coverage area versus the XLR is such a welcome sight. Che bella.

 

 

The rest of the goodies from the base model - the easy to use and pretty controls, the gauges designed by BVLGARI, the leather-wrapped steering wheel, as well as the leather and polished metal shift knob offering up an automatic or aggressive shift mode are all there.

What's really new is the supercharger that sits on top of the Northstar V8. This is essentially the same powerplant that we found in the STS-v, which is appropriate as the XLR and STS shared a 4.6-liter V8. This 4.2L powerplant has a significantly different rating, however, in the XLR-v than when installed in the STS-v - as a result of either aggressiveness in spark timing from the engine computer or because of peripherals like intake and exhaust. We didn't notice much difference in power despite a rating approximately 25 hp different. What we noticed was a bit of a difference in throttle response and especially the aid of the more aggressive shift mode in the XLR-v. The throttle response is definitely not sharp at low throttle, which can be bothersome. And what is more, this electronic slugishness is amplified by a great acoustic signal of the exhaust that ratifies the throttle's quickness or slowness to comply with your inputs; vacuum-actuated baffles at the rear open up access to the second pair of exhaust tips and change the tone from a whispy luxury car to a full-bore beast. We have seen these before on exotics like Ferrari others - they're neat, but a bit of a problem because the return springs on the vacuum-actuated valve housings tend to wear quickly and light bits of the assembly begin to rattle like a baby toy. Not a sound you want to associate with a luxury car...maybe Cadillac has a more robust system. Time will tell.

 

 

For open roads the XLR-v is great. It maintains a very plush albeit stiffened ride for great long-term comfort - once you're in you won't want to get out. It handles well and it is a bit bumpier of a ride than the XLR. It is still very much a soft and floaty car more suited to high-speed grand touring through wide, smooth turns than to being flicked left and right aggressively down a twisty highway. It is a bit disappointing that the handling characteristics don't match the powertrain's strength, but it is still very much appropriate given the intended audience of the XLR-v buyer. The average age of Cadillac buyers is still well into the middle age, which includes people interested in driving quickly and fast, but not too fast, and are not willing to sacrifice long term comfort for street racer handling. If there are any of those wanting to buy this car setup for more track oriented use then they are a minority.

But, hold up just a moment. There's more to it. Because we spent a significant amount of time autocrossing this car. And it was a surprisingly more-fun-than-we-expected time. One of the major issues with the soft suspension is undulating roads - the car gets unweighted maybe too easily and the large amount of vertical suspension movement can make the car seem a bit uneasy at speed (the flipside of this coin is that it it feels great over rough roads because it handles bumps and potholes quite well). But when you move to flatter, more smoothly transitioning pavement on an autocross course, any unweighting of tires is more planar - side-to-side occuring in transitional body roll to set up for a corner, and fore-aft from throttle on/off and any braking. And yes transition time is too long for a full autocross car. Yet the XLR-v surprised with great handling on the autocross course. You begin to accommodate for the soft suspension as you become more smooth at the wheel - so when you are more fmiliar with your road or course from having driven the same turns at the same level of speed, you begin to find that rhythm between yourself and your machine.

Chassis stability is very high through varying radius turns and while throttling up for corner exit. With all stability programs on you can learn the car's limits by feeling where and when the brakes are applied and fuel is cut out/timing is retarded as you try to maximize cornering speed and get on the gas at exit as quickly as possible. Moving to traction control off but StabiliTrak still on mode, you have the training wheels pulled up off the ground a bit as you learn to work with the car's great balance. When you slip up, the brakes come in (and throttle cutout if necessary) and keep you front-end forward. When you are smooth, you just feel a few taps of individual wheels' brake pad pairs on rotors while tires screech and claw for grip through the corner. When you nail it at the exit of a corner, however, the tail end will snap out on you before StabiliTrak comes in, so there's still room for you to play with and learn the car.

 

 

When you have stages one and two mastered, you can fully tame the XLR-v with all stability programs (except ABS when you're braking) essentially fully disabled. Understeer and oversteer are fully up to you to generate, to dissipate, to control. When you come in too hot there will be no automatic braking to keep your skid and plow under control - that's all up to your hands and feet. When you setup right, the XLR-v displays good balance with progressively increased throttle leading to understeer and quick throttle to easy oversteer, so you have a lot to play with in determining how this beautiful convertible will behave.

The frustration lies in bringing all the torque to play all the time and smoothly. With the transmission in sport mode - lever back and to the left - kickdown comes quicker but still demands more prodding than desired and can lead to you getting too much torque by the time your foot is down far enough to get kickdown. So you have to get your mind out of auto-mode and actually grab first gear by tapping back, but even that has a delay which you have to get accustomed to and account for. There is also more delay in the throttle response in this electronically controlled throttle than we would like, especially in lighter throttle. Things stack up against you when you just need a little more oomph - and you can easily get too much torque when all delays are finally overcome, thus unsettling your cornering balance. When you find your groove, however, the XLR-v provides great torque and balance such that an autocross can be properly enjoyed with little no braking and attitude adjustments made by simple rotations of the right foot about the ankle joint. It suddenly becomes a beautiful vehicle that screams like the all-American V8 machine it truly is into a wide-entry right-hander with decreasing radius handled by quick lift-off leading to light drift with accompanying scrubbing off of speed and quick transition left into the next corner without much understeer when setup right. Tight turns are exited beautifully with the rear end making a jibe accross the wind and sliding out a bit as you turn about on the tiller and then let go for a bit to let the car correct itself, then straighten out, grab hold and nail the throttle and listen to that V8 rage down the straight with supercharged ferocity; what an animal. And when the slalom comes, the XLR-v displays surprising nimbleness when flicked back and forth at optimum speed.

The XLR-v is a great car and cheap per horsepower versus the competition. It has a great retractable hardtop feature and is still a lightweight despite the added mass of mechanicals. The powertrain offers great torque, although delivered with a bit too much softness and sluggishness for true sporting applications; it's a perfect grand tourer, with soft throttle response contributing to smooth getaways. The suspension is setup with a flavor similar to that of the powertrain electronics - sturdy, sporty, but above all smooth. And the additional leather in the interior makes a huge diffrence in the look and feel of this car - it is now more completely a luxury gradn tourer, Really, for what it is, the XLR-v is perfect.

 

Autocross lap 1

 

Exhaust rumble

 

Working the wheel in autocross - note the nice wood and leather!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Copyright 2005 by MotorSportsCenter.com

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