My First Hour in Cadillac's Tesla-Fighter

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- A week ago, I got to spend some time in the Cadillac ELR, which enters volume production in November. No, I didn't get to drive it, but I performed a detailed examination of the interior.

Besides, it shouldn't drive too dramatically differently from the Chevrolet Volt -- except better, faster, better suspension, etc. But more about that later.

The Cadillac ELR is General Motors' ( GM) third electric car, following the Chevrolet Volt and the Chevrolet Spark, which just started selling in California and Oregon. It is based on the Volt, with much of the drivetrain hardware the same.

The history behind the ELR is this: At the Detroit Auto Show in January 2009, Cadillac showed the Converj concept car, based on the Volt, which had yet to enter production but whose design had been 99% completed and shown the previous September.

However, GM was on the ropes and went bankrupt. The Cadillac version of the Volt was put on ice. Once GM was back on solid footing, having seen its major debts and obligations being pushed on to the US taxpayer (among others), the electric Cadillac was revived two years later.

Engineering the ELR -- which would normally take over four years -- took only two years for two reasons:

1. It's based on the Volt. The hard parts of the drivetrain -- battery, generator, inverter, electric motor, all the electronics -- had already been developed, and all that was needed was some refinement, mostly software tuning.

2. The exterior design was defined from Day One (late Spring 2011): Make it look as close to the 2009 Converj concept car as possible! So no need for elaborate debate or design studies.

Let me first get to the point that we don't know: The price. It has been rumored that GM will set the price in time for the Pebble Beach Concours that's held in mid-August. That sounds reasonable and logical, given that the car will enter production in the week or two after Thanksgiving 2013.

You can equip a Chevrolet Volt up to $46,000-something, with a reasonably loaded configuration having an MSRP of $44,000. GM and its dealers offer approximately $5,000 off, for a $39,000 price. Tax incentives are up to $9,000 if you live in California, and will be the same on the Cadillac ELR.

What kind of premium would the ELR warrant over the Volt? If GM doesn't want to sell it below MSRP, the premium needs to be calculated on the Volt price after the $5,000 discount.

If GM wants to sell the Cadillac ELR in the many thousands, I don't see how they could set an MSRP over $50,000 and expect to sell it without discounts after the first wave of enthusiasts have been burned off. Perhaps a nice round $50,000 even is the answer. Keep in mind that the all-new 2014 Chevrolet Corvette starts under $52,000.

There has been plenty of speculation that GM will price the ELR much higher -- around $60,000 or perhaps even over $65,000. If they do, expect sales of the ELR to be very rare.

You also have to keep in mind that as I wrote recently, the Chevrolet Volt 2.0 will be launched in 2014 and it will be much-improved over the current Volt. I'm not going to rehash what I wrote in the June 11 article, but that leaves only a short window for the Cadillac ELR to fetch a premium price.

After examining the interior and exterior of the Cadillac ELR in person for a few hours, here is my verdict:

1. Exterior: While taste is subjective, I'm convinced that most people will find as I did -- that the Cadillac ELR is one of the most stunning designs in the automotive world right now. It will turn heads more than a Tesla ( TSLA) and almost every other car, certainly those below $200,000.

If you buy your car mostly on exterior design, the Cadillac ELR will be on top of your list.

2. Interior: Let's start with the back seats. They are two fixed buckets, just like the Volt, but it's harder to get in and out given the lack of four doors. Once you are there, you can sit behind yourself if you are almost 6 feet tall and barely fit your feet and knees by the skin of your teeth.

Headroom? That's another story. What is adequate headroom in the Volt for a person at least 5-foot-11 tall is simply not there in the ELR. I don't know how short you would have to be in order to be okay in the ELR. Perhaps 5 feet, perhaps not?

I found the front seats to be a little better than the Volt's. They are also electrically adjustable, if anyone cares about that. The seating position is almost identical to the Volt, but on the margin I found that the tiny variances were in the ELR's favor.

The dashboard controls and electronics have been refined from those in the current Volt. In the end, I don't think most of the improvements are important, but the instruments look better for sure. It's a lot more classy and beautiful.

The one fundamental change that's noteworthy are the paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel. In the ELR, they perform the "heavy regen" function of the L position in the gear shifter. In the Volt, you have to move the coarse gear shifter to accomplish this, which is not the refinement worthy of any of these cars. The ELR solution is brilliant, and is in fact similar to what we experienced in the Fisker Karma.

The interior materials are very nice -- suede, leather and wood everywhere. In particular, suede. It is a major step-up from the Volt. However, is it ahead of the interior quality of the major $50,000 car competition from the major German and Japanese brands? I think it is approximately equal to, but not necessarily better than, many of those.

What else is different with the ELR when compared to the Volt? Two things:

1. Power. While the ELR is mostly based on Chevy Volt powertrain hardware, the parts have been tuned and refined -- much of it being in software -- too eke out a few more percentage points of power. If for no other reason, this enables GM to say that this isn't a Volt underneath. Technically it isn't. It's just 97% so.

2. Suspension. For those of you who have driven the Volt, you know the suspension has an odd feeling to it. Also, the car could use some soundproofing, especially from the front wheel wells. All of this has been reworked on the Cadillac ELR, and we will learn more about it when we get to drive it, hopefully very soon.

What about the inevitable comparison with Tesla? Gee, where to begin? There are two ways to look at the issue:

1. They don't compete. The Tesla is a car with huge luggage space and can fit at least five adults, with an optional two-seat situation in the trunk for small kids. The Tesla is faster, is all-electric, etc. etc. Fine! Clearly some people will not cross-shop the two.

2. Some people just want a car that's cool. And the Cadillac ELR is very cool, because it looks like no other car on the road, except another extreme Cadillac. The Cadillac has the inherent flexibility of the Volt, which can work on gasoline just like a regular car. No need to plug it in if you can't or won't. Drive to Vegas on a moment's spur without batting an eye; no need to stop and recharge -- just spend four minutes refueling, once.

The truth is that both approaches are true. Some prospective Tesla buyers would never consider the ELR; others will. I think the latter category is a minority, but it's not zero. Some will depend on price. If GM keeps the ELR's price below $50,000, they could take away more sales from Tesla; otherwise likely minimal.

One thing is clear: When you see a Cadillac ELR, your jaw will drop. It's that beautiful.

At the time of publication, the author had no position in any stock mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

If you liked this article you might like

Why Does Tesla Have Such a Hard Time Making Cars?

Why Does Tesla Have Such a Hard Time Making Cars?

Ford Revs Higher After Rare 'Double Upgrade' From Morgan Stanley

Ford Revs Higher After Rare 'Double Upgrade' From Morgan Stanley

Buy General Motors as It Becomes More Like Facebook and Apple?

Buy General Motors as It Becomes More Like Facebook and Apple?

Jim Cramer: Trump's Broadcom Move Really Means 'China, Stay Out!'

Jim Cramer: Trump's Broadcom Move Really Means 'China, Stay Out!'

General Motors Stock Buyers Should Wait for the New Models

General Motors Stock Buyers Should Wait for the New Models