What do you get when you take a Corvette, wrap it Art and Science sheet metal, swap the LS1 for a less powerful Northstar, and charge a nearly fifty-percent premium? My good people, I give you the Cadillac XLR.
In the early-2000s, Cadillac was on an upswing, hastily revitalizing its aging lineup with newer models in an attempt to be more competitive with German luxury brands and attract younger buyers. As part of its restructuring plan, someone thought it was necessary for Cadillac to have a flagship roadster, that would be aimed squarely at the Mercedes-Benz SL. Sound familiar?
Of course, I’m referring to the Allanté, Cadillac’s first open-aired roadster, which the brand sold from 1987-1993. Introduced in attempt to go after yuppie Mercedes SL buyers, the Allanté’s body was designed and built by Italy’s Pininfarina, and famously shipped across the Atlantic on special 747 aircraft, where it was then attached to a shortened version of the Eldorado’s platform. Initially powered by Cadillac’s infamous HT-4100 V8, the Allanté would soon be upgraded with the better HT-4500, and ultimately, the very same engine found in the XLR, the 4.6L Northstar V8.
The Allanté featured clean styling, a modern and sumptuous interior, and competitive power (at least in its final season). Despite its front-wheel drive layout and heavy nose, handling was generally cited as good thanks to a fully-independent suspension with speed-sensitive shock absorbers and variable-assist steering. But the Allanté failed to hit its initial sales target of 8,000 units per year, finding just over 21,000 buyers over the course of seven years, most of whom were likely the most elite Cadillac faithful rather than Mercedes conquests.
One could nitpick at a number of reasons to why the Allanté failed to make a fortissimo presence, but the most grande reason for failure was likely its price. By 1993, the Allanté retailed for over $61,000 USD (just under $100,000 in 2015). Although this was still a relative bargain compared to the base $85,000 300SL, it was nearly double what the next-most expensive Cadillac was going for at the time.
But as the old saying goes, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. It took Cadillac a decade, but in 2003 that’s just what the brand did. Naturally, most fine details would be different, but looking at the big picture, the XLR was largely the same old song with the same old meaning since the Allanté had been gone.
Possibly the XLR’s greatest improvement over the Allanté was its choice of platform. Instead of riding on a chopped version of the El-vier-nado’s unremarkable E-body, the XLR rode on the Y-body, the platform of General Motors’ most serious sports car, the Corvette. Although the XLR used the 1996-vintage C5 Corvette as a basis (the C6 wouldn’t arrive for another year), it was still a perfectly competitive chassis for Cadillac’s luxury sports roadster.
From here, Cadillac stretched the wheelbase one inch, and reduced overall width and length by one and two inches, respectively. Weight, however, was up some 600 lbs. largely thanks to the Caddy’s power-retractable hard top. While power-folding hardtops may have been all the rage, the XLR’s met criticism for its lengthier and clumsier lowering process than chief rivals.
As previously mentioned, the XLR was fitted with Cadillac’s familiar 4.6L Northstar V8, although now mounted longitudinal and making 320 horsepower in the XLR. Although output was lower than the Corvette’s LS1, this 4.6L Northstar did have a small horsepower advantage over the heavier SL500 (which did have more torque). Transmissions were automatics only, initially a 5-speed unit, and beginning in 2007, an all-new 6-speed.
The 4.6L was capable of propelling the 3,840+lb. XLR from zero to sixty in a semi-decent 6.25 seconds. Thankfully for the speed demons, an XLR-V arrived in 2006. With a supercharged 4.4L Northstar V8, the XLR-V packed 443 horsepower and 414 lb-ft of torque, good for a 4.6 second 0-60.
One of the car’s biggest weak points was its interior. Although obviously plusher than any Corvette’s, the $75,000 XLR’s interior used most of the same austere surfaces that were questionable in a $30,000 CTS. Compared to competitors from Mercedes, Lexus, and Jaguar, the Cadillac’s interior was laughable. This was only made worse towards the end of the XLR’s run as interiors of lesser Cadillacs were becoming much nicer.
Most contemporary reviews throughout the XLR’s run were generally positive, crediting Cadillac with a solid entry in an exclusive club. However, when compared to the benchmark Mercedes SL, the XLR always managed to come up short, earning demerits for greater body roll, cheaper interior, cumbersome folding hardtop, and a less solid feeling of construction. Still, more customers would’ve likely been able to see past these faults, if it wasn’t for one glaring issue.
Like its dearly departed Allanté ancestor, the XLR had one monumental force working against it. Price. Beginning at $75,387 in 2004, that figure had climbed to $86,215 by 2009. For the XLR-V, base prices in ’06 were initially $97,485, reaching an astronomical $104,215 by 2009. For what it’s worth, actual buyers probably paid somewhat less due to dealer discounts and negotiating, but those who were expecting a bargain relative to the foreign competition were sadly mistaken. It should also be noted that XLR-V sticker prices were several thousand more than a comparably-equipped Mercedes SL550 or Jaguar XKR.
Never intended as a high-volume model, Cadillac’s initial sales projections were 5,000-7,000 vehicles annually. Yet after six model years, the XLR found less than 16,000 buyers globally. In that same period of time, the SL sold nearly 50,000 units alone in the U.S. and Canada.
Like the first-generation CTS and SRX, the Cadillac XLR was a respectable step in the right direction, but in most key areas it wasn’t quite up to the same levels of refinement as European rivals. 2009 saw GM shed a multitude of cars and brands from its portfolio, and without much fanfare, the XLR was one of them. Just like the Allanté, the XLR was indeed an exciting venture for Cadillac, but neither cars were ultimately successful enough for GM’s luxury marque to continue its investment in.