The Cadillac Escalade is good looking, charismatic, and larger-than-life -- both literally and figuratively. People we encountered wanted to be in it, and one of the most common refrains heard was, "You're driving." We were happy to oblige.
If you were to compare the gaggle of new GMT900 utility vehicles to the Rat Pack, Escalade, without a doubt, would be Sinatra. It's fully aware of what it is, and it makes no apologies; this is perhaps its most endearing quality. So many vehicles nowadays bend over backwards to be non-controversial that it makes things boring after a while. The Escalade embraces its excesses, and does so in a manner that one can't help but enjoy. The idea of a truck-turned-luxobus is no longer a new concept, but it's one that's executed very well in Cadillac's latest high-profile, leather-lined blingwagon.
Unlike the other GMT900s (Yukon, Tahoe, Suburban, and Avalanche), selecting the big Caddy is a choice that's made specifically because of its substantial cachet – cost be damned. If price was really a consideration, a fully-loaded Yukon Denali will give you just about everything the Escalade has -- minus some of the glitz and around 20 horsepower – for $10,000 - $15,000 less.
So there you have the setup. Follow the jump for our detailed impressions after having one in the garage for a week.
The Escalade is nothing if not attention-grabbing. Our tester was the standard-length SUV, which strikes us as being better looking than its longer ESV sibling thanks to more "compact" proportions. Compactness, in this case, means an overall length of 16.8 feet, a width of just over 6.5 ft, and a height of 6.1 feet. In person, those measurements can be distilled down to a single word: Big. What else would you expect from a Cadillac built in Texas?
Actually, we take that back. The Escalade's proportions can be distilled into two words: big and imposing. That's the only way to describe the front end of the 'Slade. Large, jewel-like headlamps frame the (appropriately) sizeable grille, which is made of sixteen chrome-ringed cutouts. Step to the side and you see that the Escalade makes the most of its GMT900 roots. The faster windshield angle makes it look (a little) sleeker than it really is, and unlike its corporate brethren, the 'Slade appears always dressed for a night on the town. That's made plain by the chrome fender vent (which, as a styling element, works beautifully here), the glitzy foot-long nameplate, and the equally bright rub strips, door handles, side mirrors, integrated running boards, and roof rails. Continue to the rear, and you'll find that the power rear hatch is adorned with a large chrome plate and a jumbo-sized Cadillac crest.
Finally, while the Escalade comes with 18" wheels standard, our loaded tester was equipped with the excellent-looking chrome-finished 22" wagon wheels – a $2,995 option. Despite the rather substantial surcharge, we'd recommend the double-deuces because they fill the wheel wells and their enlarged size is actually proportionate to the rest of the vehicle. Plus, their highly-polished finish is in keeping with the standard brightwork and complemented our tester's Blue Chip paint very nicely. Face it, the Escalade welcomes flash like a politician relishes camera time.
Speaking of cameras, there's one discreetly mounted in the rear of the truck to help you see any children, pets or small automobiles that you might otherwise miss just peering back through the rear windows. The image is displayed on the navigation screen that came as part of our truck's $2,495 Information Package. The rearview camera works in conjunction with the package's Intellibeam system, which not only warns you of possible rear obstructions with an audible tone and indicators at the back of the cargo compartment, but also highlights said obstructions on the video screen – a handy feature, given the big truck's limited rearward visibility. (There's plenty of space below the back windows that you wouldn't ordinarily get a look at otherwise.)
The aforementioned video screen is the centerpiece of an attractive and well-laid-out dashboard that's about as big a departure from what was available in the previous generation Escalade as possible. All the other GMT900s get upgraded interiors, too, but the Escalade's is unique among them. It, like the rest of the interior, was finished in a light Cashmere color, which served to only enhance the sense of airiness already afforded by the large cabin. A twist of the key brings the 403-horsepower 6.2L V8 to life, and a satisfying burble is emitted from the single exhaust pipe as the Caddy settles into an idle.
While that happens, the dashboard comes alive, as the backlit instrument cluster illuminates and the blue-lit gauge needles make their now de rigueur test sweep. As is the case with many other current GM products, an easy-to-read driver information display resides beneath the two primary gauges. The heated, wood-trimmed steering wheel is home to controls for the audio system and cruise control, and the column-mounted shifter features a rocker switch that lets the driver manually select the gears on the standard 6-speed Hydra-matic 6L80 tranny. Why anyone would want to do so is beyond us, because we tried it and decided that it was incredibly awkward, unnatural, and best left to masochists. If you plan to use the Escalade to haul a trailer, there's a tow mode button at the end of the stalk, too.
A glance to the right reveals the center stack, which is topped by an attractive analog clock and dominated by the navigation/entertainment system and the climate controls. The former included Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround sound, a 6-disc CD/DVD changer and AM/FM/XM radio.
The supremely loaded nature of our Escalade actually worked against it when it came to the climate controls. Driver and passenger get dials to select their individual temp settings, but the rest of the buttons, including the fan control, all feel the same, and you can't adjust settings without looking down and away from the road. More than once, we turned on the seat heaters when we wanted to change the fan speed. It's the Achilles heel of an otherwise very complete system, which includes seats that are both heated and cooled. We learned that it was better to just set it and forget it, because adjustments underway were a hassle.
The center console is wide enough that there's no danger of the driver and passenger bumping elbows as they share the leather-covered, woodgrain-trimmed armrest. Excellent cupholders (seriously) keep beverages secure, and the storage bin is felt-lined, dual-leveled, and spacious. It had room for the rear seat headsets, DVD remote, Owner's manual, plus smaller items in the shallower top section.
Seating is very comfortable in rows one and two, and the backseat passengers' seats are also heated. Our tester had the optional 2-seat 3rd row, which featured floor-mounted captain's chairs. They looked more comfortable than they were, because the lack of a real footwell forced adults to sit somewhat awkwardly. We wouldn't want to be back there for a trip of any length. Kids would likely be fine, though.
If we owned the truck, we'd probably remove the third row seats and leave 'em in the garage, as they eat up the truck's usable cargo space. -- even when they're flipped forward, they're taking up room that's unlikely to be used , for the most part. Granted, doing so turns the escalade into a pure 4-seater, but we'd rather have the extra capacity for day-to-day usage. This is one area where the Lincoln Navigator has it all over the Escalade. The Navigator's IRS and power folding third row are a killer combo -- one that'll sway a certain number of consumers. In a vehicle this expensive, it's somewhat of a sin to have the live axle and ancient seats that need to be tugged out like a stump in the ground.
Despite it's formidable mass, the Escalade is easy to drive. The steering struck us as being somewhat overassisted, but we became accustomed to it very quickly. That said, a little less assist would make the driving experience a lot better. With 402 horsepower under your right foot, power delivery is smooth and effortless. Escalade accelerates briskly and without commotion, holding its own at left-lane highway speeds. Its size makes the speed at which it's moving seem slower than it really is, and in every situation we drove in, the truck felt completely stable from our perch behind the wheel. Not that you'd want to autocross the thing, but it handles curvy stretches without causing your knuckles to whiten along the way.
Of course, with all that size and power, you're ultimately going to have to pay the piper. The Escalade's 13 City/19 Hwy EPA fuel economy rating is optimistic at best. It's safe to say that in normal local driving scenarios, you're going to get mileage in the 10-12 mpg range. We saw the insta-mileage indicator drop into the single digits more than once, too. The thing is, if you can afford to hand your dealer $65 large for an SUV, chances are that you're not overly concerned about what it's going to cost you to run it.
In suburban settings, it's a snap to live with. Parking lots abound and big SUVs are anything but a rarity. We drove the Escalade into Manhattan one night to take in a concert, however, and things got interesting. On the city streets, the high driving position and 400+ horsepower are nice-to-haves. You can see over all the cabs and get the holeshot at stoplights. Parking's not so easy, though. We didn't even bother looking for a street spot in Midtown, and instead started sizing up garages. We were turned away from three because the truck exceeded their size limits. In one of them, we were forced to perform a three-point turn in a very tight space while at the same time avoiding an Aston Martin DB9 convertible parked in the "glory" spot behind us. This is how we learned that the 'Slade's turning circle is quite impressive for a large SUV, and that the rear camara/radar setup is a very good thing, indeed. We finally found a garage that welcomed us with open arms...and hit us with a $15.00 "large vehicle" surcharge on the way out. The drive home that night was a snap; and the Escalade shrugged off potholes and other road hazards such as the Cross Bronx Expressway with ease. and in relative quiet, thanks to good sound insulation in the cabin.
In summary, we have to say that we enjoyed our time with the Escalade. It's powerful, exceedingly comfortable and great to look at. Yes, it consumes gasoline at a prodigious rate (premium recommended but not required), it's no bargain at $65,685, and the third-row is less useful than you'd ever think, but it wins you over with its compelling and well-executed interpretation of what modern, opulent American motoring is. Make no mistake: this is very much a niche luxury vehicle, and in that role it succeeds resoundingly.
All photos ©2006 Alex Nunez / Weblogs, Inc.