Cadillac ELR

A day before the Los Angeles Auto Show press days, I enjoyed the rare opportunity to drive both the Cadillac ELR luxury EREV and the futuristic BMW i3 EV (with optional extended range). Both are distinctive looking, technically fascinating and fun to drive, and both are clearly aimed at upscale EV intenders. Yet they are totally different.

Think of the ELR as Cadillac's new Corvette, a "halo" car that helps elevate the brand.

First came the ELR. Based on the Chevy Volt architecture and propulsion system, the ELR distances itself from Volt through its sexy coupe styling, luxury Cadillac interior, impressive dynamics and a bevy of unique features - plus a price tag nearly twice as high at $75,995. Its mission is not volume sales (the 2014 target is just 3,000) but to further boost a brand striving to earn perception parity with BMW, Mercedes and Audi. The compact ATS (2013 North American Car of the Year), mid-size CTS (2014 Motor Trend Car of the Year) and full-size XTS have raised Cadillac's sales and perception in recent years, and the ELR's job is mostly to dot the "i" on that image. Think of it as Cadillac's new Corvette, a "halo" car that helps elevate the brand appeal of its more conventional stablemates.

Cadillac ELR

Like Volt, the ELR's 1.4-liter four-cylinder ICE drives a 5.5-kW generator that feeds its drive motor once its 16.5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack runs down. Unlike Volt, it boasts Continuous Damping Control with selectable driving modes, "Regen on Demand" steering wheel paddles (which slow it when you want to, while pumping energy back to its battery), configurable displays, active aero shutters, LED blade lighting front and rear, a leather-lined cabin, BOSE premium audio, big 20-inch all-season tires on chromed alloy wheels and a bunch more.

The ELR has four driving modes: Tour, Sport, Mountain and Hold.

Its motor spins out a healthy 295 lb.-ft. of torque, and the propulsion system lets it dig deeper (than the Volt) into its battery voltage for added performance when you want it. Its athletic suspension is GM hi-per struts front and multi-link rear. Its four driving modes are Tour (the default, for best efficiency), Sport (stronger torque response, tighter steering and suspension), Mountain (saves battery energy for long, steep grades) and Hold (saves charge for later usage). The only options are 20-way adjustable seats in Semi-aniline leather ($2,450), full-speed-range Adaptive Cruise Control ($1,995), Crystal Red Tintcoat paint ($995) and a $1,695 Luxury Package of driver assistance features.

The power button brings up a pleasing display with a battery state of charge curve and EV range on the left, a matching fuel-level curve and fuel range on the right, instantaneous power usage on top and useful information in between. My fully-equipped test car's projected EV range was 33 miles (at roughly 90 percent SOC) and its fuel range was 256 miles. I drove about 18 miles from Santa Monica up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in Tour, then switched to Hold at 15 miles EV range, which (imperceptibly) fired up the engine to keep me going.

I went to Sport mode for a delightfully fast, aggressive charge up a twisty canyon road to a lunch stop on Mulholland Highway, north of Malibu and arrived with zero EV range (no surprise) and 232 miles of gas range remaining after 30.9 total miles. Following a brief talk by chief designer Bob Boniface on the ELR's design (which almost perfectly duplicates Cadillac's gorgeous 2009 Converj concept car), I had 30 minutes left for a spirited two-lane romp - making good use of the much-appreciated Regen on Demand paddles (instead of friction brakes) to slow for curves - before departing to join BMW in Marina del Ray.

The ELR is easily the best-looking, best-handling, most fun-to-drive EV.

That 18.2-mile run left 177 miles of gas in the tank and 16.2 mpg indicated fuel economy on the A trip odometer, but my Trip B composite gas/electric economy (counting my earlier electric-only driving) was a more respectable 31.9 mpg. Bottom line: the ELR easily established itself as the best-looking, best-handling, most fun-to-drive EV in my experience.

BMW i3

The i3 is a whole different animal, beginning with its controversial (but EV-appropriate) exterior and interior designs and its unique, lightweight "LifeDrive" architecture - Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) passenger cell over an all-aluminum chassis - and extending to its more affordable $42,275 sticker price. Its 170-hp, 184-lb.-ft. motor is powered by a 22-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which accounts for 450 pounds of the i3's svelte 2,635-pound curb weight.

The optional 34-hp, 650cc two-cylinder range-extender gas engine - which BMW says roughly doubles the battery-only i3's 80-100 mile range - adds 330 pounds of weight and $3,850 to the sticker. It mounts in the rear, probably reducing cargo capacity, but we couldn't see or drive it, since none of the available test cars had one. I'm guessing it might be less transparent from a noise and vibration standpoint than the ELR's four-cylinder, and that it won't provide sufficient generator power for sustained hard driving, but won't know until I get to try it.

The i3's suspension is designed and tuned for great curvy-road handling, but the downside is a brittle rough-road ride.

Like the ELR's, the i3's suspension (MacPherson strut front, five-link rear) is designed and tuned for great curvy-road handling, but the downside is a much more brittle rough-road ride, which is not helped by its aggressive low-profile tires. On the positive side, its rear cabin is roomier and much more accessible than the ELR coupe's (thanks to rear-hinged doors that latch into the front doors with no pillar between them), its turning circle is a tight 32.3 feet, and its performance is pleasingly strong (7.2 second 0-60 time). Its three drive modes are Comfort, Eco Pro (which adds roughly 12 percent of range) and Eco Pro+ (another 12 percent).

BMW i3

With a journalist friend co-driver, I departed with an indicated 67 miles of range and headed north (again) up the PCH to Sunset Boulevard, several miles east on that, then up Beverly Glen to Mulholland Drive. The range meter showed 36 miles after driving 22.5, the last four mostly uphill, to a driver-change stop. We then drove along Mulholland, down a canyon road to the 110 freeway, then to our downtown LA hotel (final indicated range: 31 miles). In a nearly 42-mile mix of uphill, downhill and level two-lane roads and some freeway, driving aggressively when we could, we used just 36 miles of range, partly because of the car's always-on, very strong (and too-often annoying) regenerative braking whenever you lift off the accelerator.

Bottom line: I love the ELR, the way it looks, the way it operates and drives. I would love to have one, but can't afford it unless a friendly lease deal appears down the road. I have mixed feelings on the more affordable i3, but I would need the extended range option, which bumps the price and may have NHV and other issues. I would have to experience it first.