Detroit takes on Tesla Motors with an electric Cadillac

Fighting climate change is optional.
Fighting climate change is optional.
Image: Todd Woody
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There are more and more ways for the global elite to use going green as an excuse to splurge on luxury.

Since Tesla Motors began production of its Model S sports sedan last year, the Silicon Valley automaker has dominated the luxury electric market, basically because the market consists of one car—the Model S. (There were two until investors pulled the plug on Fisker Automotive.)

Now Detroit is jumping into the game with the Cadillac ELR, a stylish plug-in electric hybrid sports coupe that goes on sale in January. General Motors has essentially taken the electric drive train that powers the more proletarian Chevrolet Volt and transplanted it into the higher-performance ELR, adding myriad high tech gizmos like adaptive cruise control, forward collision alert and LED headlights.

Not surprisingly, Cadillac’s marketing for the car isn’t focused on saving the planet.

“The electric drive is the ultimate luxury attribute—the absolute smoothness of the driving experience, the quietness of the driving experience, the acceleration,” Pamela Fletcher, General Motors’ executive chief engineer for electrified vehicles, told Quartz when she was in San Francisco this week to unveil the ELR. “Some people won’t care about the green thing but will really like the driving experience. Later they’ll start to notice they’re not having to go to the gas station anymore.”

Fletcher took great pains to avoid positioning Cadillac as a direct competitor to Tesla. Regardless, Cadillac will soon have to contend with other high-end automakers like Audi, BMW and Mercedes, which are all vying for a relatively small pool of well-heeled buyers. High-performance electric cars are one more way for them to differentiate themselves with a next-generation status symbol—similar to when they all piled into V-8 engines.

BMW plans to start selling its i3 electric sedan in 2014, as does Mercedes, which is launching its B Class model powered by a Tesla electric propulsion system.

The Cadillac ELR isn’t likely to scare Tesla chief executive Elon Musk. The car shares the Model S’s fashion-forward design and high-tech cabin (barring the Model S’s 17-inch iPad-like video screen). But Cadillac has a major weakness: it only lasts for about 35 miles or so on battery charge before its small gasoline engine kicks in to recharge it. That compares to the Tesla’s 265 miles on battery charge.

As for the ELR’s sticker price, Cadillac hasn’t revealed specifics but expect it to be comparable to a Model S. But when you’re in the market for an exclusive luxury good, price is rarely the chief concern.