Continuing a long-standing tradition as the everyday vehicle of choice among the Hollywood set and wannabes everywhere, the Escalade has also been embraced in hip-hop culture since its 1997 debut as the vehicular equivalent of a massive gold neckchain and medallion.

While hip-hop artists and their followers rarely make known the tone of their environmental consciousness, the recent spike in gasoline prices must have struck potential members of the Escalade posse in their pocketbooks, as sales have taken a steep dive. Escalade sales plummeted 49 percent in October 2005 and were off by 13 percent through the first ten months of the year. General Motors is hoping a fresh fleet of full-size sport utility vehicles that it's rushing to market (it was last revised for 2002), combined with a retreat in fuel prices, will help invigorate that segment's sales slump and the Escalade's fortunes.

Like its less glamorous corporate cousins, the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, the Escalade rides on a stronger and stiffer chassis and affords added sophistication, comfort and performance over the outgoing model. Available currently with all-wheel-drive, a rear-wheel-drive model is due later in the year and will cost $2,500 to $3,000 less than the base price of the current AWD version.

Exterior styling, though updated, remains familiar. Despite changes to improve aerodynamics, including a more steeply raked windshield, this is still a large, rectangular and imposing-looking vehicle. A massive egg-crate grille is flanked by high-intensity headlamps up front, with a multitude of chrome accents.

The vehicle's leather-clad, seven-passenger cabin has been upgraded and feels more luxurious, thanks to higher-quality materials and more attractive design. Escalade interiors come in one of two treatments: Ebony or two-tone Cocoa-on-Cashmere. A redesigned backlit instrument panel is lower and further forward than in the previous model to add a sense of space while diminishing the big-truck feel that some might find intimidating. A new power-folding second row makes getting into or out of the third row easier.

Under the '07 Escalade's massive hood is a new 6.2-liter, V8 engine that employs variable valve timing to generate an impressive 403 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of torque. This enables tire-smoking launches and strong pulling power on the highway, yet gets better fuel economy than before, now up to 19 highway miles per gallon. It's mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission that affords smoother shifts and better fuel economy than GM's four-speed gearbox in the previous model. Manual gear selection is possible via an up/down button on the column shifter.

Ride and handling benefit from a stiffer frame with a lower center of gravity and revised steering, suspension and antilock brake systems. GM's stability control, called StabiliTrak, is coupled with rollover mitigation technology that can deploy the vehicle's standard head-curtain airbags before a crash occurs if it determines a rollover is imminent.

Not lacking in the latest gizmos, the Escalade comes standard with such items as a power lift-gate, rain-sensing wipers with heated washers, rear-parking-assist proximity alerts and a remote-starting feature. Noteworthy options include a Dolby Digital Surround audio system, adaptive headlamps that pivot in conjunction with steering-wheel input to illuminate the road around curves, and a rearview video camera that can alert the driver to the presence of people or objects behind the vehicle.

Two Escalade derivatives follow later this year: the stretched ESV version derived from the Chevy Suburban and the Chevy Avalanche-based EXT model.

Is the Escalade for You?

Buy this Vehicle if: You need a full-size SUV for towing or hauling heavy loads but prefer and can afford a spruced-up luxury model; you aspire to be a Hollywood or hip-hop star; fuel economy rates low on your purchase-decision list.

Keep Looking if: You don't like to stand out; conspicuous consumption isn't one of your core values; luxury and clout are low on your list of purchase decisions, and you'd just as soon save the difference between a Chevy Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade.

Who Fits? Seven riders will find plenty of room in the Escalade, though it's less hospitable to shorter motorists than some smaller SUVs. While the third row is still best-suited for kids, power-folding second-row seats make getting into and out of the back aisle easier.

Options Worth Splurging On: Adding the 22-inch chrome wheels and oversized tires can really make a visual statement, while power-articulating running boards are both functional and fashionable.

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