R.I.P. Cadillac ELR: what went wrong with luxury electric coupe?

After a long and tortured development process and a short life, GM has quietly euthanized its Cadillac ELR range-extended electric luxury coupe.

The derivative of the first-generation Chevrolet Volt was intended to sell at a higher price, to help recoup some of the development costs of the Voltec plug-in hybrid technology.

But the small two-door coupe, while striking, launched in 2013 carrying a price of $75,000—and massive sticker shock doomed its chances.

DON’T MISS: $75,000 Cadillac ELR Coupe Price Was ‘Overestimate’, Chief Marketer Says

GM didn’t announce the death of the ELR; it was uncovered and confirmed by HybridCars.com, which got Cadillac spokesman David Caldwell to acknowledge that production had ended in February.

Total sales to date of the ELR’s two models years—2014 and 2016—stood at just under 2,700 units since the electric car first went on sale in December 2013.

The history of the car that became the Cadillac ELR dates all the way back to the Cadillac Converj concept car that debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2009.

The sleek, wedge-shaped coupe’s design won rave reviews, and it was slated for production and then canceled during GM’s bankruptcy and government-backed restructuring that year.

A series of on-again, off-again decisions followed, until this site broke the news in August 2011 that the Converj had been approved for production by the GM board of directors.

Named the Cadillac ELR, it went on sale at the breathtaking price of $75,000, fully $35,000 higher than the 2013 Volt whose basic powertrain it shared.

CHECK OUT: 2014 Cadillac ELR: $75K Electric Coupe Gets Five-Figure Discounts, Already (Jul 2014)

Cadillac hoped to sell several thousand ELRs a year, but nothing of the kind happened. It was offered with five-figure discounts just months after launch.

Its best sales month was August 2014, when 196 ELRs found buyers. Over the car’s life, sales averaged a mere 93 cars a month.

So what went wrong?

Post-mortems on the ELR are easy to conduct, in retrospect, but we’ve formatted ours as a series of lessons.

(1) Small two-door coupes are a tiny market segment to begin with.

Sure, Mercedes-Benz and BMW sell tens of thousands of two-door, four-seat cars every year. But two-door cars in general are a tiny, tiny piece of the U.S. market, regardless of powertrain.

Worse, Cadillac hasn’t been known for two-doors since the 2002 demise of the Eldorado—and that’s hardly a model whose image a rebooted Cadillac would want to revive.

Had the ELR been a “four-door coupe” of the sort the Germans have spread throughout their lineups, it might have done better.

Given where the market is today, however, Cadillac could have made its biggest splash by launching a small plug-in hybrid crossover SUV. That was, in fact, the pre-bankruptcy plan.

But the stillborn Saturn Vue Two-Mode Plug-In Hybrid powertrain proposed for a version of the Cadillac SRX (now replaced by the XT6) couldn’t deliver enough electric range or performance, so it never saw the light of day.

detail of spy shot showing GM Two-Mode Plug-In Hybrid being tested in Saturn Vue mule

detail of spy shot showing GM Two-Mode Plug-In Hybrid being tested in Saturn Vue mule

Enlarge Photo

(2) It’s very, very hard to sell any compact car for $75,000

And even more so if you’re Cadillac, which has struggled to sell its excellent compact ATS sedan at prices more than $30,000 lower.

Add to that the small volumes and necessary buyer education of all plug-in electric cars, plus the fact that the ELR really had only two usable seats.

What you get is a vehicle in a subsegment of a subsegment, never mind the price.

Tag that vehicle with the same sticker price as a Tesla Model S, at the time, and you get gaping eyes, dropped jaws, and a general reaction of, “What the …?”

(3) The idea that the ELR competed with the Tesla Model S was delusional

Tesla’s biggest accomplishment to date may be creating a global luxury car brand with advanced technology allure out of nothing in less than 10 years.

Even if Cadillac had offered a car that competed straight across with the Tesla Model S–a fast, attractive electric luxury sedan with a range of more than 200 miles and seats for four to seven passengers—its brand would likely have hindered it in early-adopter markets like California.

The idea that a small coupe with only two usable seats and an electric range of just 37 miles, no matter how attractive, could compete with the Model S was insane.

Or ludicrous.

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