2004 Cadillac XLR
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by Greg Wilson

The Corvette of Cadillacs?

If there was a Corvette for old guys, the Cadillac XLR would be it. Why? The XLR is essentially a kinder, gentler, quieter and better-equipped version of the Corvette with Cadillac’s edgy styling and a Northstar V8 under the hood. Built in the same Bowling Green, Kentucky factory as the 2004 Corvette (not the 2005 one), the XLR has a slightly modified Corvette chassis and suspension, and composite body panels – but the XLR has a quieter 320 horsepower 4.6 litre Northstar V8 engine (vs the Corvette’s 350 horsepower 5.7 litre V8), a standard 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode (a 6 speed manual transmission is not offered), a softer ride, a more luxurious interior, and a one-touch, fold-away convertible hardtop that provides a more serene, secure environment when the top is up.

Then there’s the price. While the 2004 Corvette convertible starts at $75,940, the XLR has an MSRP of $110,000. Not surprising then that the XLR is designed for “exceptionally wealthy individuals who have achieved great success and who, as a reward to themselves, demand the best in life.” The intended customers, says GM, are mostly male with an average age of 46 and a median annual income of $220,000. Hm. There must be at least two people in Canada that fit that description! My guess is that the typical XLR buyer is a retiring executive with some disposable cash who wants something sporty – maybe like the Corvette he used to own – but more comfortable and equipped with a full load of creature comforts.

What you get for $110,000

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR
Click image to enlarge

In this price range, you’d expect to get all the toys, and the XLR delivers here. DVD navigation system, keyless locking/unlocking and keyless push-button starting, head-up display, adaptive cruise control, rear back-up sensors, Bose premium sound system, heated/cooled leather seats, driver/passenger automatic climate control, magnetic fluid-based real-time damping system, run-flat tires and tire pressure monitoring system, StabiliTrak vehicle stability system, and of course the power retractable hardtop.

The XLR is equipped with an improved Northstar 4.6 litre V8 engine which now has variable valve timing and puts out 320 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 310 lb-ft of torque at 4400. With aluminum block and cylinder heads, the upgraded Northstar engine features four-cam continuously variable valve timing; electronically controlled, hydraulically actuated intake and exhaust cam phasers on all four camshafts; electronic throttle control; low restriction intake and exhaust manifolds and cylinder head ports; and a new air induction system. It also has a new engine-mounting system and more rigid block structure for improved operating smoothness and quietness.

Of note: this is the first time the Northstar has been positioned longitudinally in a rear-wheel-drive car.

A 5-speed automatic transmission with manual “Driver Shift Control” is the standard, and only transmission offered. As in the Corvette, the transmission is positioned at the rear for better (50/50) weight distribution and more foot-well space.

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR
Click image to enlarge

The chassis consists of steel hydroformed perimeter frame rails, enclosed structural “tunnel,” aluminum cockpit structure, and balsa-cored composite floors. The suspension uses double wishbones at each corner, and a transverse-mounted, composite leaf springs front and rear. The XLR also includes Magnetic Ride Control: four sensors measure wheel motion over the road surface and respond by adjusting the shock damping in about one millisecond, five times faster than previous “real time” damping systems. The XLR offers maximum lateral G-force of more than 0.9, says GM. Tires are Michelin ZP run-flats that eliminate the need for a spare.


In my opinion, the XLR’s interior doesn’t reflect the car’s price. The two-seat cabin is rather ordinary – the designer Bvlgari gauges look plain to me and the wiper/headlamp stalks look like they’ve been taken out of a Cavalier. I liked the Eucalyptus wood trim on the top of the steering wheel, console and doors, and the aluminum trim on the steering wheel and doors is nice – but for over a hundred thousand dollars, I would have expected something that looks a little more expensive.

Getting in to the car and starting the engine is entirely keyless, as long as you have the key in your pocket or purse. To unlock the driver’s door, just touch the rubber pad inside a slot at the top of the door. In the driver’s seat, put your foot on the brake and push the top of a tilting button on the dash to start the engine. Push the lower button to stop the engine. The doors have no inside door handles, just buttons to open the doors. Locking the car from the outside can be done by touching the door handle. This is all very convenient, but everything depends on power, and it’s easy to conceive of yourself locked inside the car if the battery failed.

It’s easy to find a comfortable driving position: the driver’s seat is multi-adjustable and the steering wheel has an electric tilt/telescoping feature. Perforated seat inserts allow cool air to be piped through the seats in the summertime, and Hi/Lo heaters are standard for cold winter mornings. One thing bothered me about the driving position: the visor support that droops down from the windshield header always seemed to be in my peripheral vision.

A head-up display projects a green digital speedometer reading onto the lower left windscreen. Personally, I find HUDs distracting so I turned mine off. A driver information display, just below the speedometer, provides info such as tire pressure, oil life remaining, distance to empty, instant fuel consumption, and so on.

The standard stereo is an AM/FM stereo with in-dash 6-disc CD changer and nine-speaker Bose stereo system. The sound is truly wonderful.

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR

2004 Cadillac XLR
Click image to enlarge

Adaptive cruise control uses radar to determine how close you are to the car in front of you and maintain a safe distance by automatically decelerating if the car ahead of you is going slower, and resuming the set speed when the road ahead is clear. It’s only useful on the freeway, and it won’t brake if a car suddenly stops in front of you. The system does what it’s supposed to do, but it takes a lot of trust to let it take over your car.

XLRs include a park sensor that uses a series of small lights between the seats to tell you how close you are to objects behind when backing up.

The convertible hardtop is a marvel of engineering. Made of aluminum, magnesium, and composite panels with a heated rear glass window and glass rear-quarter windows, the top latches and unlatches itself automatically and folds into a well inside the trunk in about 30 seconds. When lowering the hardtop, people often stop and watch, it’s so entertaining.

The hardtop has an inner lining, and is almost indistinguishable from a real hardtop. It keeps out street noise, provides security against car thieves, and keeps passengers warm in colder months. Its disadvantage is that when retracted, it takes up about 75% of the trunk, leaving only 4.4 cubic feet of cargo space. Still, inside the cabin there are two large vertically-stacked bins between the seats, and a centre console storage bin.

The 6.5-inch navigation screen in the upper centre dash area displays a colour map of the area you’re in with a moving cursor showing the location of your XLR. The map always places North at the top of the screen unlike some navigation maps which turn depending on which way the car is going. The touch-screen allows the driver to change settings by touching the face of the screen, however this leaves fingerprints on the glass – it must be cleaned now and again. The system also accepts voice commands. The one thing I didn’t like about the screen was that sunlight glare from the rear made it impossible to read the screen, top up or top down. Not sure what the solution to that is. The navigation screen is also used to display radio stations, time, and outside temperature. And apparently, you can play DVD movies on it when the transmission lever is in Park.

The XLR includes driver and passenger airbags (with an off button for the right passenger airbag), and seat-mounted side airbags that protect the head and torso in a side collision.

The trunk is power-operated. A button on the dash or the remote key fob opens the trunk, but you have to press a button on the inside of the trunk lid to close it. With the top up, there’s a roomy 11.2 cu. ft. trunk, but with the top down, there’s only room for a couple of small overnight bags.

Driving impressions

The XLR’s 320 horsepower 4.6 litre V8 has tons of power – 0 to 100 km/h takes about 6.7 seconds according to the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, but unless you press it, this engine is quite happy to loaf along in the 1500 to 2500 rpm rev range, confident of its 320 foot pounds of torque to maintain momentum. On the freeway, the engine does just 1700 rpm at 100 km/h in top gear, and 2100 rpm at 120 km/h.

2004 Cadillac XLR
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When you do press that accelerator to the floor, it lets out a muted but sporty exhaust note that quickly fades as you back off the pedal. Unlike the Corvette, which always seems to be burbling and growling, the XLR is more subdued, not really wanting to draw attention to itself. My one complaint about this engine is that it’s bit noisy at idle.

The 5-speed automatic transmission slides smoothly from gear to gear, and can be shifted manually by flipping the lever to the left into the shift gate. Push forwards to change up, pull back to change down – which it does quickly. However, there is no gear indicator to tell you what gear the transmission is in.

2004 Cadillac XLR
Click image to enlarge

With a Corvette-based suspension, a very wide track and low centre of gravity, Magnetic Ride Control, and Michelin ZP Extended Mobility run-flat P235/50WR-18 inch tires, the XLR has terrific handling and extremely high cornering limits. That was expected. But what surprised me was the comfortable ride, and a tight body that exhibited very little flex or cowl shake. A sports car this may be, but it the ride is neither stiff nor uncomfortable.

Standard stability control and traction control is a good thing in a 320 horsepower, rear-wheel-drive sports car – on rain-slicked roads, snow or ice, stability and traction control can prevent sudden oversteer or loss of rear wheel traction. Because of this, it can be considered a major safety feature.

Steering is GM’s Magnasteer power-assisted rack-and-pinion with variable assist which is neither sharp nor sloppy, and easy to manage at slow speeds. The XLR’s turning diameter of 11.9 metres (39 feet) is rather wide for a mid-size, rear-wheel-drive sports car. Brakes are standard four-wheel discs with 4-channel ABS, and braking distances from 100 km/h to 0 km/h average 135 feet, according to AJAC – a good stopping distance.

2004 Cadillac XLR
Click image to enlarge

At night, the XLR’s standard HID headlamps provide excellent low beam lighting with a wide, bright coverage and a sharp upper cut-off, while the high beams add distance and height. These are very good headlamps.


Primary competitors for the XLR would be the Mercedes-Benz SL500 ($127,500), Jaguar XK8 convertible ($104,950), and Lexus SC430 ($86,800).


A halo car for Cadillac, the XLR sports car is based on the Corvette, but is quieter, more refined and better equipped – and offers a convertible hardtop. Great performance and many features, but the interior is rather plain.

Technical Data: 2004 Cadillac XLR

Base price $110,000
Freight $1,050
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $111,150
Type 2-door, mid-size sports car
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 4.6 litre V8, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder, four-cam continuously variable valve timing
Horsepower 320 @ 6400
Torque 310 lb-ft @ 4400
Transmission 5-speed automatic with manual mode
Tires Michelin ZP Extended Mobility run-flat P235/50R-18 inch
Curb weight 1654 kg (3647 lb.)
Wheelbase 2685 mm (105.7 in.)
Length 4513 mm (177.7 in.)
Width 183 mm (72.3 in.)
Height 1279 mm (50.4 in.)
Cargo Volume Top up: 328 litres (11.6 cu. ft.)
  Top down: 125 litres (4.4 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 14.2 l/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.6 l/100 km (32 mpg)
Recommended fuel Unleaded premium
Warranty 4 years/80,000 km

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