- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Though there’s hardly anything saintly about the automobile business, the manufacturers have almost always cherished a weakness for so-called halo cars.

In the early days, they mainly were convertibles, although a few sports cars occasionally made their way into the lineups. The idea was to present something interesting — and even sexy — to pull customers into the dealer’s store.

In the ideal scenario, the customer would salivate over the droptop, then wind up buying the four-door family hauler.

In 2004, there’s a proliferation of halo cars, both in the production and concept stages. Pontiac has the Solstice, a two-seater, Chrysler has shown an exotic midengine concept called the ME 412, Ford is toying with a new Shelby Cobra brute-force roadster, and even the humble Scion by Toyota has spawned the tC sports coupe.

Halo cars are particularly important for luxury-car manufacturers, partly because their customers can actually afford cars that are essentially toys with nosebleed price tags. Lexus offers the SC430 and Mercedes-Benz the SL500, both convertibles with folding hard tops; Jaguar offers the XK8; BMW has introduced the new 6-Series convertible, and Cadillac has weighed in with the slick new XLR.

This is the second two-seat halo outing for Cadillac. From 1987 through 1993, the company marketed the Allante roadster, a slick-looking but fatally flawed machine that eventually lost General Motors tens of billions of dollars before it finally was ignominiously dumped.

The Allante may have had the most expensive — certainly the longest — assembly line in the business.

The cars started out in the United States, then were shipped by air on specially modified 747 airplanes to Turin, Italy, where they were partially built by famed Pininfarina, which had designed them.

Then they were shipped back for final assembly before being sold.

Early Allantes were plagued by leaks and other quality problems, and most owners — even those who had been trained in the process — could not operate the complicated convertible top. Some simply gave up.

So now, more than a decade later, a resurgent Cadillac brings us the XLR, with a lot of lessons learned.

The new two-seater also is a convertible, but the top is steel instead of fabric and it converts a breezy open car into a tight coupe that is indistinguishable from a closed car.

Without question, the XLR is aimed at the top income classes. There’s only one model, which comes fully equipped for $76,200.

The test Cadillac had the only available option, an XM satellite radio, which brought the suggested delivered price up to $76,525.

At that level, it competes in a broad bracket with the likes of the Jaguar XK8, the Mercedes-Benz SL500, the BMW 6-Series convertible, the Lexus SC430 and even the Porsche 911 Carrera, though the Carrera is more of a sports than halo car because all Porsches seem to wear a halo.

The standard equipment is what you might expect on a car in this class: Traction, stability and ride control, antilock brakes, side air bags, heated and cooled seats, run-flat tires, tire-pressure monitor, adaptive cruise control, ultrasonic rear parking assist, rain-sensing windshield wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, a DVD-based navigation system, a high-zoot audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, GM’s OnStar communications system and, of course, leather upholstery and power everything with memory settings.

Likely the most intriguing piece of equipment for owners will be the keyless ignition system. It means never having to remove your key from pocket or purse.

It simply sits there, communicating via radio signals with the in-car computer.

Walk up to the car, and the doors unlock when you touch the handle. Sit down inside and simply touch a dash-mounted button to start the car, though you must have your foot on the brake and the shifter in “park.” When you want to get out, touch the button again and the engine shuts down.

Walk away, and the doors automatically lock.

Gripes are few. An excess of engine noise makes its way into the cabin when the engine is cold and under hard acceleration. And the seat belts are so hard to get at they could break some of milady’s nails.

Unlike its Allante predecessor, the XLR’s convertible top is simplicity itself. Touch a button and the top disappears under the rear deck in less than 30 seconds. It takes about the same amount of time to raise and lock in place, without any need for latches.

The only problem is that the trunk space with the top down is reduced to only about a third of the 12 cubic feet available with the top up.

The XLR gets its power from a new 320-horsepower 4.6-liter V-8 — the same size engine as on the last of the Allante models, but considerably different in execution.

It is linked to a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode. The transmission is mounted back near the rear-wheel drive differential, which helps the XLR attain a nearly ideal 50-50 weight balance for precise handling.

With a relatively light weight of 3,650 pounds, the XLR can clip off zero-to-60 acceleration times of under six seconds, with the top speed governed at 157 mph. Even at extra-legal speeds the XLR feels tightly planted and eminently controllable.

With its edgy avant-garde styling, the new XLR doesn’t look like anything else on the road. But it does look like a Cadillac, and that should be enough to keep the halo glowing.

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