Whenever a critic speaks of garish, oversize sport-utility vehicles, Cadillac's Escalade is among the first to come to mind. First introduced as a 1999 model, the Escalade soon became the stereotype of motoring excess, presumed to be driven by flamboyant criminals and flashy entertainers as well as ordinary folks with fat wallets and a yen for big SUVs.
That first-generation Escalade lasted only two seasons. Then, after skipping the 2001 model year, Cadillac was back with a second-generation (2002-06) model. All-wheel-drive models used a 6.0-liter V-8, while rear-drive versions made do with a 5.3-liter V-8.
Redesigning of the Escalade for 2007 gave it more power and fresh styling. Essentialy, though, it was again a premium version of the Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon. The Escalade EXT car/pickup was a close cousin to Chevrolet's Avalanche. Prime competitor all along in the full-size sport-utility vehicle market has been the Lincoln Navigator, but Escalade also competes against the likes of the Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz GL-Class.
Sole engine in the current generation has been a 6.2-liter V-8, generating 403 horsepower and mating with a six-speed automatic transmission. The 6.2-liter V-8 now incorporates Active Fuel Management technology, which shuts off half of the cylinders under certain driving conditions as a fuel-saving measure. Also new for 2010 is a locking steering column. The clock that was formerly only in top-end Platinum models is now in all Escalades. A USB connection has been added to the center console to play audio files. Outboard front seats have gained side thorax airbags. A new battery-saver mode shuts off power when the battery gets low due to extended accessory operation.
Three body styles are on sale again: regular Escalade, extended-length Escalade ESV, and Escalade EXT sport-utility truck. Cadillac also offers an Escalade Hybrid, billed as the world's first hybrid-powertrain large luxury SUV and claiming 50-percent gas-mileage improvement in city driving. The top-rung Escalade Platinum model also has returned for 2010 with such features as LED headlights (claimed to be a first in this segment).
Regular Escalades ride a 116-inch wheelbase and measure 202.5 inches long overall. The Escalade ESV and EXT sit on a 130-inch wheelbase and are 222-223 inches long. All Escalades are 79.1 inches wide, with 9.2-inch maximum ground clearance. They're also heavyweights (no surprise), weighing a minimum of 5490 pounds. An all-wheel-drive Escalade ESV comes close to the three-ton mark, as does the Escalade EXT. Weight distribution is a nearly even 52/48 (front/rear).
Like its oversize competitors, including the Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac's Escalade obviously belongs in another era. This is hardly the vehicle for a period that emphasizes fuel-efficiency and sensible motoring. Yet, after a while behind the wheel, that vast expanse to the rear starts to appear almost normal.
It's quite a climb up into the Escalade. Running boards are wide enough to help, but also annoying because they close with a clunk after you're inside, and stand ready to assult shins if you're just leaning toward the vehicle. Certainly, the third row is easier to access than in most vehicles, due to the ESV's great length - but do all Escalade buyers really need those extra two seats?
Acceleration is strong enough, but the engine is pushing too much weight for anything approaching effortless takeoffs. The ride is generally satisfying - sort of. Truck-like stiffness is usually subdued, but it's there, waiting to resurface over rougher pavement spots.
An Escalade is easier to drive than some may expect, once you realize how much vehicle you're piloting and cranking around corners. There's always a good chance of having the back wheels climb the curb a bit, due to the ESV's long wheelbase. Handling is not quite as cumbersome as expected, but it definitely falls in that direction.
Spacious? You bet. Controls are a problem, though, because too many buttons have undecipherable icons, which demand study of the owner's manual to determine what's happening with all the accessories. Visibility is acceptable, though at one point a child crossing near the right front was almost obscured by the windshield pillar and the bulkiness of the Escalade's front end. Trucky sounds are noticeable at times, detracting from the luxury accommodations.
So, what does it take to drive home an ESV Platinum edition of the Escalade? The Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price is a whopping $87,630 (including the $950 destination charge). Now, that's enough to take anyone's breath away, if all the gaudy brightwork on this luxury SUV hasn't already triggered a bit of impaired breathing due to excitement. Without question, the Escalade ESV is the wrong vehicle for today's market. But in reality, it still draws an awful lot of attention from envious onlookers.
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