For months now, General Motors Vice-Chairman Robert Lutz has been on a crusade to prove that domestic cars -- especially those built by his company -- are just as good as imports. To prove it, he has challenged the motoring press to compare some of GM's new models with rival imports. In the spirit of competition, Cadillac unveiled its $76,000 XLR two-seat roadster in the Arizona desert last month and had rival models from Mercedes-Benz (DCX ) and Lexus available at the test track for a comparison.
I'll give Lutz and Caddy their due. The XLR makes a strong case that U.S. auto makers can run with the best in the world when they spend the money to make a car right. Against the Mercedes-Benz SL 500 and Lexus SC 430, the new Caddy does quite well. In ride-and-handling tests, the XLR is just as good as the Benz -- and $20,000 less. Both cars blew the Lexus off the track.
I first tested all three on a rough track at GM's Desert Proving Grounds in Mesa, Ariz. On the bumpy run, the XLR handled the raw pavement a bit better than the Mercedes. Even though GM built the XLR on the Corvette chassis, it's more of a smooth-riding cruiser than a sports car. It rolls over the rough stuff with aplomb, thanks to a new electronic suspension. The system reads the road and softens the ride when it's rough and stiffens up when the pavement is smooth. It can change stiffness every one inch of pavement even at 60 miles per hour. The SL 500 is tuned to drive a little sportier, so it takes tight turns better but is bouncier on unkempt roads.
That's not to say that the XLR rides like a boat. The Mercedes handles a little better, but I took the XLR into a few hairpin turns on desert mountain roads and it held its ground. Cadillac's 320-horsepower V-8 engine makes the car quicker than the competing Benz, which with 302 horsepower must push 300 pounds more weight than the XLR.
Like many domestic cars, the XLR still doesn't have quite the elegance and richness of an import. The light-toned eucalyptus wood and aluminum in the dash and around the center console gives the XLR a contemporary look similar to the new BMWs. One nice touch: The retractable hard top folds up or down quickly with the press of a button.
Still, the total package makes for a first-rate luxury convertible. It can lay down rubber when the driver wants it and cruise comfortably the rest of the time. And it definitely gives Cadillac a stylish flagship car that can compete with its imported competitors.
By David Welch