Picture this: It’s 2003 and you have the better part of $80,000 burning a hole in your pocket, ready to be spent on an open-topped cruiser. The Lexus SC 430 is robust enough to pass on to your grandchildren in 20 years, the Jaguar XK8 is old but charming, the Porsche 911 is as iconic as ever, and the Mercedes-Benz SL 500 is a Mercedes. However, what if none of those cars hit the spot? What if you want something different, fashion-forward, and unashamedly American? Behold, the Cadillac XLR. Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, a series in which we recall all the crazy stuff GM got up to, and then collectively decide if they were good ideas or not.
The XLR wasn’t the first Cadillac to target Mercedes-Benz’s prestigious SL. Back in the 1980s, Cadillac rolled out a high-end convertible called the Allante which used one of the more convoluted manufacturing processes in the history of the automobile. See, GM contracted body manufacturing to Pininfarina, the same prestigious Italian design house that styled the Allante. After the coachwork was put together in Italy, every Allante body was flown by jet to America, where final assembly occurred in Michigan. This process helped contribute to an outrageous starting price that made the Allante a hard sell, even when compared to the then thoroughly-outdated R107 Mercedes-Benz SL.
To avoid making a similar mistake again, Cadillac decided to base the XLR on an existing GM platform, and the Corvette was just the right starting point. While Cadillac retained the Corvette’s hydroformed main chassis rails, much of the XLR was new compared to the C5 Corvette. The body panels were thicker than on the Corvette, the Chevrolet V8 was ditched for an overhead cam Cadillac unit, the wheelbase was altered, the vehicle was two inches shorter overall, and the Corvette’s choice of targa or fabric tops was ditched in favor of a folding hardtop. The result was an all-American Cadillac roadster made on its own line in Bowling Green.
Those wishing for Corvette performance, but with a decent interior, are sure to be disappointed because the XLR isn’t an out-and-out sports car. However, the XLR wasn’t aiming for lap records, and it hit the market at the perfect time. Back in 2001, Mercedes-Benz discontinued the phenomenal R129 SL in favor of the R230 SL. This new-generation crayon-scented cabriolet was very obviously a DaimlerChrysler product, displaying the cost when new of a Daimler product and long-term reliability more on par with a Chrysler product. Sure, it had a power-folding hardtop, but it didn’t have the brick shithouse build quality (that’s a good thing) of its predecessor. The SL hadn’t been in a weaker spot in more than a decade, so the occasion was right for GM to strike.
On paper, the Cadillac XLR offered some compelling reasons to go domestic when shopping for a two-seat grand-touring cabriolet with a folding hardtop and a silky overhead cam V8. It had dials by Bulgari, Corvette DNA, and all manner of fancy gadgets as standard.
I’m talking about a nine-speaker Bose stereo, bi-xenon headlamps, adaptive cruise control, a four-color heads-up display, cooled seats, and magnetorheological dampers. Pound-for-pound, the XLR’s spec sheet look pretty good compared to that of the Mercedes-Benz SL 500.
Arguably more important than tech was looks, and the XLR had them in spades. Born near the start of Cadillac’s brutalist Art & Science design phase, the XLR looks like it was milled out of a single iron ingot. From egg-crate grille to improbably sharp beltline to blunt rear fascia, everything about the XLR’s styling was as crisp and cool as a Manhattan vodka bar. Unlike most of its competitors, it still turns heads today, a remarkable feat for a mid-aughts GM product.
After launching to plenty of fanfare, early reviews of the XLR were full of praise. Car And Driver said that “there is no question that the XLR is a strong entry in the prestigious roadster class.” Road & Track said that “In this, Cadillac seems to have finally sidestepped the old criticism of giving us both more and less of what we want at the same time.” Comparison tests were also promising. While Car And Driver reckoned the XLR couldn’t vanquish the SL 500 or the Porsche 911 Cabriolet, the publication ranked the Cadillac ahead of the Lexus SC 430. Road & Track, on the other hand, ranked the XLR ahead of the SL 500, SC 430, Jaguar XK8, and Maserati Spider GT. Now that’s an impressive showing.
I briefly drove an XLR years ago and I can see what the road testers of the time were on about. While the C6 Corvette is a bit creaky over bumps and doesn’t pay too much mind to cabin noise, the XLR glides remarkably well over pockmarked streets. The 4.6-liter Northstar V8 isn’t gushing with off-idle torque, but it comes alive in the mid-range with satisfyingly smooth thrust. What’s more, the seats are really comfortable and the steering has a pleasing heft thanks to increased caster over a C5 Corvette. Sure, some interior plastics feel notably cheaper than what you’d find in a comparable Mercedes-Benz SL, but they’re nowhere near as nasty as the plastics on an early Cadillac CTS. There’s lots to love about the XLR so long as you take it easy and cast Corvette-like notions aside.
However, while timing made the XLR a credible competitor to the Mercedes-Benz SL, timing also undermined Cadillac’s flagship aspirations. See, the XLR was based on the Chevrolet Corvette and compared to the 2004 Vette’s 350-horsepower floor, the XLR had a reasonable 30-horsepower deficit. However, just one year after the debut of the XLR, Chevrolet dropped the sixth-generation Corvette. Here was a 400-horsepower sports car on a newer chassis than the XLR for more than $30,000 less than the flagship Cadillac. Ouch. What’s more, the C6 Corvette had a much nicer interior than that of the outgoing C5, to the point where it didn’t feel like it was made from melted-down Citations. Oh, and keen drivers could spec a Corvette with a six-speed manual gearbox while the XLR made do with an automatic.
Suddenly, Cadillac needed to distance itself from the Corvette, and the XLR-V attempted to do just that.
A supercharged 4.4-liter Northstar V8 similar to that in the STS-V found its way under the XLR-V’s hood, while a six-speed automatic transmission offered a leg up over the base car’s five-speed auto ‘box. The result was a 443-horsepower cabriolet with a zero-to-60 time of 4.6 seconds. That’s Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG territory. Unfortunately, the XLR-V was also priced like a Mercedes, with an MSRP of $97,485. That was a difficult pill to swallow in an era when the Escalade started at $53,850.
The stiff pricing and internal competition meant that although Cadillac expected to sell 5,000 to 7,000 XLR roadsters per year, only 3,730 were sold in America during the car’s most-popular 2005 model year. Cadillac eventually pulled the plug in 2009, yet the XLR was such a slow-seller that sales of new units were reported into 2011. By the time everything was tallied up, the XLR sold even fewer units than its Allante predecessor and is now little more than a footnote in Cadillac’s history.
So, despite not living up to Cadillac’s expectations, does the XLR deserve a better reputation? I’m going to say absolutely. The XLR still looks properly cool, and with used examples sliding under $15,000, they seem like neat vehicles to take a chance on. By the 2004, GM had largely fixed the Northstar engine, so aside from roof concerns, the XLR seems to be one of the better 20-year-old luxury drop-tops to own. Just don’t look up what a tail light costs on eBay.
What’s more, I believe that an XLR successor might actually succeed today. See, the automotive landscape has completely changed over the past 20 years. The Corvette is now a mid-engined machine doing battle against full-fledged supercars, so it’s conceptually far enough removed from a traditional roadster to open up some white space. Then there’s Cadillac’s electrified push upmarket. The Rolls-Royce-fighting Cadillac Celestiq electric sedan has seen interest outstrip supply, to the point where Cadillac may once again live up to its “Standard of the World” past. If there’s genuinely enough interest in six-figure no-holds-barred Cadillacs, I don’t see why an electric grand touring Cadillac cabriolet couldn’t be made. What do you think? Would a new Cadillac roadster be cool to see, or do you reckon I’m just talking nonsense?
(Photo credits: Cadillac, Chevrolet)
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I’ve always thought these XLRs looked Boss. Could possibly be tempted to squeeze that trigger were I in a position to afford a second vehicle just for fun. Even then though it probably wouldn’t be a first choice for that. At least a contender though
I also had one for many years. A 2008 XLR-V with the optional chrome wheels. Bought it less than a year old and drove it for the next 10 yrs putting on nearly 100k. The only thing I didn’t like were the run-flat tires … way too hard and took the “Caddy quiet” road feel away. After a couple years I switched tires to Goodyear Eagles all around and increased the front size to match the rears. There was no tire rub on tight turns and the road noise vanished. With no spare tire though, a nail can leave you on the side of the road. This V was a joy to drive … edgy, fast, nimble, yet “Cadillac” when you wanted. In 10 yrs I only had a couple sensor failures with the retractable roof and luckily my mechanic at the local GM dealership could troubleshoot and repair. Both were done under warranty. I still regret selling that car. I had recently finished restoring a 66 Corvette 427 roadster and decided to sell the V to force me to drive the 66. Bad mistake because I drove that V daily for 3 seasons each year. Rain and cold weather was no deterrent. Years later my 66 Vette has still never been wet. I’m driving my truck instead on less than perfect sunny days. I want my XLR-V back!
I actually got to see these coming hot and fresh off the assembly line in Bowling Green circa 2005. I was a freshly-minted Boy Scout at the time and we took a tour of the facility on our way to a camping trip. I had never even heard of the XLR until I saw them being built. It was ridiculously cool, and the C6 Vette had just launched too. We got to walk all around the plant, see the test track, and tour the museum nearby. To this day I have a soft spot in my heart for a Daytona Sunset Orange C6 coupe!
Edit: praise be! The edit button has arrived!
Our local Cadillac dealership got one in trade and after seeing it listed online ran over to test drive it. It was the metallic red. In the flesh, it had a lot wrong with it. There was an amber light in the headlight assembly that apparently would get too hot and melt inside the bezel. Looked like a fried egg sitting in there. The other thing was the rear view mirror coming unattached during the test drive and landing in our laps. This XLR just didn’t have much oomph compared to my C5. Yes, it was short 30 horses but the automatic didn’t help much and a manual option wasn’t available. Cadillac priced it too high and the Corvette price comparisons didn’t help. I love the way it looks, particularly in silver or the dark blue metallic.
I really thought these were good looking cars back in the day. I liked when car companies took swings at something off the beaten path.
And interiors made of melted Citations hit me as particularly funny for some reason.
One thing that isn’t mentioned is that this car was the production version of the Evoq show car, the very first Art & Science styled vehicle back in 1999. The car that said “Hey everyone, we’re still here, please give us just one more chance.” And the Evoq was a very handsome car. But it wasn’t really supposed to enter production but the reaction was so good that GM decided to go ahead and build it anyway, which means that you didn’t see the finished product for five years since it was never really a production design study in the first place.
When the XLR was first introduced, the overall spirit of the design was there but there was something lost in the translation with the front end. Perhaps the Evoq just couldn’t be built looking as pretty as it was but the XLR just didn’t look as daring as the show car. The thicker door and shortened wheelbase proved to be tighter interior dimensions to the point that I couldn’t sit in one although I could squeeze into a C5 Vette.
But like other GM efforts of the era and previous eras, the overall concept was great but execution had problems. I never understood why Cadillac felt they had to go with Bvlgari for branded gauges….it just felt strange. The wood trim was nice but it was marred by a piece of cost cutting most people don’t mention: the HVAC display. Any CTS owner (like myself at the time) would recognize it as the exact same piece. It was ok in a $30K vehicle but not in a $75K halo car. And it was placed really low on the center dash which made operating it a little tricky.
But the thing that I really didn’t like was the folding roof….not that it was a thing since that was cool. Cadillac had farmed out the construction of the roof to a company who also did the folding roof for Mercedes and other like vehicles. But the XLR’s roof was a single piece design reminiscent of the Ford Turnpike Cruiser of the late 1950s. Once it was stowed, there was no room for any cargo in the trunk. When the Mercedes R230 SL shipped a year later, it had a top with an extra fold point that took up far less space and has been the model for every folding hard top car since. How did Cadillac end up with such an old design when Mercedes’s car was literally being developed at the same time?
I liked the idea of this car. This car was really just a slightly modernized Allante though, they’d even put essentially the same North Star engine in it. I wanted one, but thought I’d be better off with the SRX with the North Star. The engine really was only okay by 2004. I’d get a Hybrid Lincoln Aviator today over one of these now. 500 horsepower with 640 lbs of torque. An air suspension. Massaging seats. 25 speakers. Towing. AWD… Although I think they start out at around $90k.
I had one. Great car for its time, but under the surface there were design decisions that bite, combined with GM (and especially Cadillac) history of quickly dropping support for abandoned models. The taillights, yes, but also the headlights. And then there’s the top control module, installed in a near-the-road compartment which could flood. And the initial year’s tops were a dealer’s nightmare to fix until Cadillac finally sorted out the issues.
But the Cadillac-ist bit of all was the Nav system. Same one as Toyotas of the time – except just at the XLR was released, Toyota was moving to a new generation. And while Toyota offers map updates for years and years even for older generations of nav systems, Cadillac, well, didn’t. In fact, the 2009 XLR’s nav came with already-outdated maps, and GM never offered any further updates.
Would I buy an electric version for a new XLR. Damn straight it would. If Audi made one.
Programs like this never generated profit and were basically done to satisfy egos in the Corp. The labor/resources expended on this kind of stuff could have been put to much better use making mainstream products better.
I have always loved these, but man looking at the picture while it’s lowering the top is just bad. Who in their right mind would make the trunk raise that high instead of just doing a rear hinge thing like every other hardtop convertible?!
Now I can’t get the image out of my head of Kelly Bundy doing the Allante commercial.
What’s wrong with that?
Well, at least it’s a pleasant image to have stuck in your head
After multiple comments on the taillights, I just had to look. First I saw was 2,500. Dayum.
Me too… that’s twice what I paid for my last Volkswagen.
Jason wrote about them back at Jalopnik
These cars looked Mean in person. It’s the craziest thing – most cars look better in the press pictures, but I never saw a picture that captured how good the XLR looked in person.