"It's overkill. It's very well done overkill, but it's still overkill. "
Good: luxury, space, power
Bad: gluttony at its worst

 

It's not that we didn't enjoy this vehicle. We did. Our rear ends and backs were coddled; our ears treated to a hushed ride, our eyes offered the commanding view of the underprivileged peons in their Audis and BMWs. It's just that we can't, in good conscience, recommend a vehicle as gluttonous as this one. This is what the rest of the world points to when they say that they hate those wasteful Americans. That said, we'll tell you all about it, in case your gluttony threshold is a lot higher than ours.

This vehicle was conceived right after the Lincoln Navigator came out. The Navigator was nothing more than a dressed up Ford Expedition with a bigger grill and a much larger profit margin. Right after it started flying off the lots, there was a giant smacking sound over at GM (marketers smacking their foreheads in unison saying, "Why didn't WE think of that?").

Well, Cadillac designers have caught up, significantly dressing up their decent Chevrolet Tahoe to create the luxury sport utility Escalade. In the process, Cadillac added a larger engine and a plethora of coddling enhancements. The result is a full-sized, four-door, luxury SUV with a cars.com base target price of $48,700 (The vehicle we drove had a sticker price of about $55,000).

The 2002 model is the second-generation Escalade. Cadillac has redesigned the Escalade, sharpening the styling and introducing two new, more powerful engines. The new Escalade is less of a carbon copy of the Tahoe, although the two vehicles still have a lot in common. It can be had with two-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. Cadillac's stability control system, Stabilitrak, is standard on the all-wheel-drive version of the Escalade.


Driving Experience

We have to admit, the gluttonous sides of our personalities enjoyed the Escalade. In many ways, the Escalade is a throwback to the glory days of classic American boulevard cruisers, with their powerful V8 engines and cushy rides, yet improved handling. It's been a while (the first energy crisis) since we can remember having much more power than you need to pull your car. The all-wheel-drive version has an enormous 6-liter engine that produces 345 horsepower, which, even in a 2 1/2-ton vehicle, is a bit excessive. On the plus side, it feels like there's plenty of power in reserve for, say, accelerating up a hill at highway speeds. Press your right foot down, and the car just moves, no matter what kind of driving you're doing. The engine and four-speed automatic transmission are an extremely smooth combination.

For a vehicle with this much mass, the Escalade handles decently. Okay, it's no Porsche Boxster. But it doesn't wallow in corners quite as much as you might expect, given the softness of the ride. We did think the steering could have been a little more self-centering -- the wheel had a tendency to stay cranked over after a turn, even after we'd loosened our grip on it.

Put the gearshift in reverse, and you'll get a pleasant surprise: an obstacle warning system that's actually useful. Too many of these annoying systems start beeping as soon as you're in reverse, even if the nearest obstacle is in the next area code. The Escalade's system spares you the false alarms, staying silent until you actually get within striking range of the car or street lamp behind you. Nice job, Cadillac.


Interior

Did we mention that this is a big vehicle? Well, it's big inside, too, with a bit more headroom, shoulder room and leg room than before. We don't know about Cadillac's claim that it can hold eight people, but there is a third row of seats that can be folded down to create more storage space. It's very peaceful inside, with gobs of sound deadening to isolate you from the riff raff out on the street.

We thought the front seats were wonderful -- wide, soft, and supportive, and covered in tasteful leather. For independent-minded rear-seat passengers, the Escalade has separate controls for the stereo and climate control, and even rear-seat heaters.

 

We weren't so pleased with the heavy lift gate, which is easy to raise with the built in assist, but a struggle to lower. Smaller people, or those less physically inclined, may have a problem with it.

Front and side air bags are standard. In fact, about the only thing on the options list is a power sunroof.


Ergonomics

Most of the controls are just about where you'd expect them to be. Our hearts sank when we saw that GM had reached into its parts bin for the chintzy control stalk on the steering column -- it just seems out of place in a vehicle like this.

Remember the days when vehicles had full instrumentation? Well, the Escalade's got it all -- an oil pressure gauge, tachometer, voltmeter, and gauges for the coolant and the transmission temperature, handy for when you've got your mothers-in-law hitched to the rear bumper. The only gauge missing is the one that shows the world's oil reserves ebbing as you hit the gas pedal.

Ray and our producer, Doug Berman, encountered a problem getting the climate control to hold a comfortable temperature. When they turned the temperature down a bit, the air conditioning tried to do its Frostbite Falls impression, then switched to Death Valley when they nudged it up a bit. But it may have been a problem with our test car only.


Styling

The Escalade is bold looking. Cadillac apparently felt the need to make the Escalade look like anything but a Tahoe -- especially since they're charging $14,000 more for it. They succeeded by sticking on a set of big, square headlights and putting sharp creases in the front fenders. Frankly, we weren't crazy about it, but it is bold and distinctive. People will know you're not driving a Tahoe, but it still looks like what it is -- a humungous SUV.


Reliability {C}

We'd expect the Escalade to be about average in terms of reliability.


Maintenance {C}

Even with the big six-liter V8 engine, there's loads of room under the hood, which bodes well for any mechanic who has to venture there. There are such a plethora of bells and whistles on the Escalade, though, that something's going to be breaking on a regular basis once the lease ends. And, when that happens, expect to pay top dollar at the Cadillac dealer for the repair.


Overall comments

In the luxury SUV market, the Escalade is vehicle that's hard to beat. In our humble opinion, it's better than its most obvious competitor, the Lincoln Navigator, for about the same price.

The GMC Yukon Denali (another Tahoe based vehicle) is essentially the same as the Escalade for about $4,000 less, with different styling and without the 345-horsepower engine (it has to make do with a mere 320 hp). At about the same price as the Escalade is the Toyota Land Cruiser, while the full-tilt, knock-yourself-out Lexus LX 470 starts at around $61,500 and runs up to $67,000 or so. And while both of those offer proven off-road capability, they can't match the Escalade's luxury.

This is a very luxurious vehicle, worthy of the traditional Cadillac name. It's comfortable, powerful, and roomy. It's probably the best luxury SUV on the market. That said, we can't recommend it. With a six-liter engine, its gas mileage is in the teens... on a good day. And if you're like most people, you really don't need a vehicle this size. It's overkill. It's very well done overkill, but it's still overkill.

{C}{C}

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