The flashy fractalism that girds the Cadillac XLR has a name. General Motors Corp.'s luxury division calls it "Art and Science" design. The name always reminds me of Raphael's great painting "School of Athens," in which Plato and Aristotle are seen debating whether to clean out the attic or the basement.
People in art history classes are now falling out of their chairs.
When it first appeared on the Evoq concept car at the Detroit Auto Show in 1999, the cut-glass edginess of Art and Science looked pretty extreme -- futuristic in a "Fahrenheit 451" sort of way. A lot of people just couldn't wrap their eyes around the strange and slightly threatening shape, like a malevolent crystal grown in zero gravity. But to their credit, the designers at Cadillac -- in particular GM head of design Wayne Cherry -- remained committed to Art and Science, and eventually the public came around. Today's Cadillacs seem to live quite comfortably inside their geometric skins.
Which isn't to say that they are all great-looking vehicles. The hot-selling Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicle looks like an enormous Chinese kite mutated by gamma rays. The style's unforgiving angularity has proved hard to scale up to bigger vehicles.
The 2004 XLR -- a compact, two-seat roadster with a retractable hardtop and a $76,525 price tag -- is closest to the well of Art and Science, and perhaps that's why it's the most successful expression of Cadillac's new brand styling. Based on the next-generation Corvette platform and built in Bowling Green, Ky., alongside Corvette, the XLR is a low, wide and wedgy car, with a severe, nose-down profile that from certain angles makes it look like a Sharper Image stapler. It is roughly the same size as its competitors, including the Lexus SC 430, Mercedes-Benz 500SL and Porsche 911 cabriolet, but the Caddie has proportionally a much longer wheelbase, which gives it a very athletic stance.
The thing practically smolders with visual heat: the recessed rear glass between the roof pillars; the wide trapezoidal stop lamp integrated into the trailing edge of the trunk; the chiseled LED taillights; the pagoda-like angularity of the front fenders as they sweep up to meet the shoulder line. Yikes.
Is it a beautiful car? Honestly, I can't tell. It looks fussed over to me, and there are enough dissonances to keep it from being a classic. But it sizzles.
Not surprisingly, the XLR plays great in Los Angeles -- a town that loves art and science so much it named its favorite academy in honor of them. I spent a day tooling around Beverly Hills and West Hollywood with the top down, listening to -- though pretending not to hear -- people react to the XLR. Conversations around the tables of open-air bistros stilled; people pointed and waved. One guy took a picture of the car with his cellphone.
The buzz at street level could be attributed to many things. I didn't see another XLR on the road during my time with the car. In L.A. car culture, the first one on the block is the winner. But it may also be due to the car's patent audacity, its gleeful showiness that is the automotive analog of star power.
The interior is as swank and formal as the exterior is brash and provocative. This is GM's best interior to date -- think midnight supper club with a steering wheel. The leather bucket seats (multi-adjustable with heating and ventilation) are separated by a broad center console surfaced with golden eucalyptus wood, matching the wood trim on the steering wheel and door handles. The pop-up panel on the right side of the central console conceals two excellent cup holders. The palm-shaped shifter controlling the five-speed automatic-manual transmission slides in a J-shaped shift gate with a light, precise action. The shifter falls perfectly at hand.
The black-faced instrument cluster, with "Bulgari" written circumferentially above the speedo, is bright and instantly readable -- but Bulgari's connection to the car is anything but obvious. The climate control console is intuitive and easy to read, a fuss-free design some Europeans would be well advised to copy. The switchgear has a clean, well-damped feel to it. Quality all around.
The interior's least lovable texture is the silk-screened printing on the metal surfaces -- the center console surround, the door-mounted panel and various switchgear. And while I'm complaining: the oversize sun visors block views of traffic signals and look rather like beagle ears flapping around when the top's down. And if I were Cadillac product planning, I might have another bash at refining the Bose Infotainment unit. The multi-function system, centered on a 7-inch LCD screen, is quite hard to see in bright sunlight and would benefit from a glare-proof screen.
But these are minor issues. The ambience of the car is well executed, sophisticated and technical, and full of surprise and delight.
For instance: The XLR employs a proximity locking and starting system. Drivers simply keep the key in a pocket or purse, and the car -- by means of radio signals -- recognizes the key holder as he or she approaches and unlocks the doors. To start the car, you put your foot on the brake and press a toggle start switch to the right of the steering column. To lock the car, all you have to do is walk away.
The XLR has lots of fun technology. There are no exterior door handles: You hook your fingers inside a cutout at the top of the door and press a rubberized pressure pad. Likewise, to get out you push a button adjacent to the door pull. On the practical side are systems like the adaptive cruise control that, once set, uses radar to maintain a set distance between you and the car ahead. This system, though not as fluid as Mercedes-Benz's Distronic system, is nice for long-distance commuters.
Also standard on the XLR are a heads-up display system that projects speed and other information on the lower windshield in the driver's field of view; rain-sensing wipers; Xenon HID headlights with automatic activation; and a DVD player integrated into the 250-watt Bose system (mercifully, the DVD system works only when the car is in park).
Suffice it to say that GM put everything that its Tier 1 suppliers had to offer on this car. Which accounts for the car's price tag, considerably more than the exquisite Lexus SC 430, for example.
Can Cadillac play in these Elysian fields? Perhaps, but it will have to rely on its styling star power, because the car lacks the refinement and polish of its German, British and Japanese competitors.
For starters, the car's levels of noise, vibration and harshness -- NVH, in the parlance -- are comparatively high. Despite a new suspension technology -- magnetorrheic damping -- which actually changes the viscosity of the fluid in the shocks to adapt to changing road surfaces, the suspension is constantly atwitter with fine vibrations that are transmitted through the steering column and seats. Also, when the car hits a big road defect, such as a manhole cover, the suspension delivers a crashing report.
The XLR and sixth-generation Corvette -- C6 -- were developed together. They share the same hydroformed steel chassis overlaid with composite and aluminum body panels. The XLR (3,647 pounds) is at least 200 pounds lighter than every class rival but the Porsche 911. In the search for weight savings -- and because of acute lack of space -- the XLR dispensed with a spare tire and instead uses Michelin ZP run-flat tires, which by dint of reinforced sidewalls can withstand routine punctures and continue for up to 100 miles. The sidewall stiffness of these tires -- though not a problem in the rawboned Corvette -- robs the XLR of the suppleness befitting a luxury convertible.
The demands and compromises required from the retractable hardtop, which the Corvette doesn't have, causes some awful packaging problems for the XLR. The trunk is small (12 cubic feet), and when the hardtop is retracted the storage space virtually disappears (down to 4 cubic feet), so that you cannot load groceries and then drop the top for the ride home without, to coin a phrase, breaking some eggs. In-cabin storage is pretty scant too, limited to the glove box, small door bins and a hard-to-access compartment in the bulkhead between the seats.
The XLR is a sporty car, no doubt about it. Under the hood is a free-revving Northstar 4.6-liter V-8, with dual overhead cams and variable valve timing, good for 320 horsepower. The car launches with authority, but it's no bracket racer -- zero to 60 mph hovers around 5.9 seconds -- and it's at its best splitting cross-town traffic with bursts of mid-rpm torque or cruising at supralegal speeds. The five-speed auto shifts with oily smoothness and -- with its wrist-flicking action -- is one of the few auto-manuals that's fun to manually shift.
As in the Corvette, the transmission is rear-mounted in order to give the car a 50-50 weight distribution. This makes the XLR stable and balanced while cornering but -- like an ice skater with her arms out -- slow to rotate, giving it a less-than-nimble feel in the canyons.
The steering, with its speed-sensitive variable assistance (in other words, the power steering boost rises at slower speeds to make city driving and parking easier) is heavy and fairly numb, but it's accurate. The four-wheel disc brakes are excellent. Anti-lock braking and traction and stability control are standard.
Overall, the Cadillac XLR is a great image car that needs some seasoning to measure up to its transglobal rivals. More Dionysian than Apollonian, more Platonic than Aristotelian, the XLR is sumptuous piece of art that yet needs tutoring in the science of luxury GTs.
2004 Cadillac XLR
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 177.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,647 pounds
Powertrain: 4.6-liter V-8, dual overhead cam, variable-valve timing, five-speed automatic with driver shift control, rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 320 at 6,400 rpm
Torque: 310 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm
Acceleration: zero to 60 mph, 5.9 seconds
EPA rating: 17 miles per gallon city, 25 highway
Price, base: $75,385
Price, as tested: $76,525 ($815 delivery included)
Competitors: Mercedes-Benz SL500, Jaguar XK8
Final thoughts: Power crystal
Sources: GM, Car and Driver magazine
Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at email@example.com.