Background: It took 96 years, but Cadillac, the ultimate name in American car luxury, finally began hawking a truck. A decade or two ago, the mere thought of Cadillac allowing a truck to grace showroom floors would of sent sales people and marketing mucky mucks laughing hysterically. But oh have times changed. The arrival of Cadillac's huge 1999 Escalade sport utility last fall may have taken even longer if not for the debut of the posh Navigator sport utility at rival Lincoln dealers. When Ford Motor Co. introduced the Lincoln Navigator (a rebadged version of Ford's Expedition) in the 1998 model year, some at Cadillac winced at the idea of a pricy, up-level sport utility. After all, SUVs are for off-roading through the backwoods; an activity uncommon to most of Cadillac's target market. But when Cadillac's parent, General Motors, saw Navigators being sold as fast as factories could churn them out, and Ford getting top dollar for a luxury-appointed, behemoth sport utility, laughter turned to envy. The luxury sport utility segment has exploded during the last couple of years, growing from 35,258 units in 1996 to 92,032 in 1997. Since Cadillac came late to the dinner table, General Motors, the world's largest automaker, decided to add a truck to Cadillac's marketing mix as quick as possible, turning to its GMC division for a little help; actually it stole from Peter to pay Paul. For the last couple of years General Motor's GMC truck division waited patiently for an upscale version of its big Yukon sport utility. The GMC division's wish came true when GMC introduced the 1999 Denali, the poshest Yukon yet. But soon after Denali's arrived at Pontiac-GMC dealers, General Motors decided to pump Escalade into the mix and steel some of Denali's thunder and production time. Both Denali and virtually identical Escalade are built at the same Arlington, Texas plant. Both the Yukon Denali and Escalade are automotive twins to the less dressy Chevrolet Tahoe.
Safety features: Reduced force dual front air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, daytime running lamps, remote keyless entry, theft deterrent system and 24-hour roadside assistance come standard. Every Escalade also includes OnStar, General Motors' in-vehicle cellular system linked to a satellite network. The system utilizes a three-button keypad located in the overhead console that puts drivers in 24-hour contact with a manned center in Troy, Mich.
Price: Escalades come in one fully loaded trim level; options are hard to find. Manufacturer's suggested retail price start at $45,875. After factoring in the $650 destination charge, the bottom line of our silver sand test-drive vehicle totaled $46,525. By comparison a fully loaded Navigator tips the scale at about $50,000 while the Lexus LX 470, an upscale Toyota Land Cruiser, inches closer to $60,000.
Engine: The sole powertrain offering is General Motors' 5.7-liter, 225 horsepower small-block engine with a towing capacity of 6,000 pounds. It's the same engine in Chevrolet's Tahoe and GMC's Yukon Denali; although Tahoe offers a diesel engine optional. Escalade also offers AutoTrac, an easy, convenient way for drivers to switch from two-wheel to four-wheel drive via well-marked dashboard switches. For traveling on dry pavement, two-wheel rear drive suffices. If rain or snow enters the picture, drivers simply push a Auto 4-wheel drive and the system automatically shifts between two-wheel to four-wheel drive thanks to computer sensors. A four-wheel high gear can be engaged for equal split of front and rear axle power. Finally, a four-wheel low gear can be summoned during slow travel down slippery slopes or in heavy snow and mud.
Standard equipment: Escalade's luxury status means such items as front and rear air conditioning; four-speed automatic transmission, power window, mirrors and locks; stereo with six-unit compact disc player; luggage rack; tinted glass; cruise control; rear windshield wiper; speed sensitive power steering; tilt steering wheel; leather-wrapped steering wheel; rear window defogger and intermittent front wipers come standard.
Interior: Wood grain trim abounds throughout Escalade's inside. The ventilation system centrally located on the dash includes three large, easy-to-grab dials controlling fan speed, temperature and direction. Above is the stereo system with large preset buttons. The all-analog instrument cluster includes a large centered speedometer flanked by a tachometer left and fuel and temperature gauges right. Cruise control functions are built into the turn signal stalk while the automatic transmission shifter situates on the right side of the steering column. The headlight dial is left of the steering column on the dashboard. All four doors have large chrome interior handles. The driver's door also includes large, gray buttons controlling all four windows and a power lock button. The rear view mirror includes a combination outside temperature/compass digital display in the upper right corner. Also in the region situates a ceiling caddie with interior lights and sunglass storage area. Between the heated front bucket seats is a two-tier storage bin with a multi-unit compact disc occupying the bottom region. Two permanently-molded cup holders situate in front of the bin and two additional beverage holders retract out from the central dashboard. The rear windshield wiper, fog light and four-wheel toggle buttons are left of the dashboard cup holders. If your counting, this vehicle includes a total of eight cup holders. Back seat passengers have air conditioning controls and vents in addition to audio jacks, where headsets plug into so back seat riders can listen to their own brand of music or change stations.
Seating: Unlike luxurious SUV rivals including LX 470, Navigator and Range Rover Discovery, Escalade seats only five passengers; no third row seating is offered. But keep in mind, optional third row seating in the Range Rover Discovery consists of side-mounted, fold down seats best suited for children. The LX 470 also includes third-row seats best left for preteens. Navigator offers the best third-row travel for adults, but maneuvering to these seats takes a bit of contorting. All five Escalade seating positions feature nothing but leather. In front, both bucket seats offer side-mounted power controls. In back the 60/40 rear seat split folds relatively flat after seats bottoms are folded up and the seat backs, with headrests removed, fold down. When seats are up, a large, square bin/arm rest with dual cup holders folds down. Escalade's high stance provides drivers with decent views in all direction, although when backing up, care must be taken. As with its main competitors, getting in and out is not as easy as entering or exiting smaller SUVs or minivans. Even with standard running boards, it takes some familiarization.
Exterior: Escalade's exterior presents a conservative appeal at first glance. The full-size spare tire stows under the vehicle; an ideal location. Some manufacturers place the tire in the cargo bed, reducing interior volume or mount it on the outside hatch door, blocking rear view mirror perception. The circular, non-locking fuel door is found on the driver's side rear quarter panel. All four doors feature flush-mounted, body-colored door handles. Large, breakaway, heated side view mirrors are body colored as well. Rear side windows include a deep dark tint. In front, Escalade displays Cadillac's familiar crest logo centered within a black checkerboard screen surrounded by a chrome frame. Sixteen-inch, all-season, six-spoke alloy wheels are also standard. In back, large vertical taillights are easily spotted by trailing commuters. Exterior colors include white, black, Bordeaux and sand.
Wheelbase: 117.5 inches Overall length: 201.2 inches Overall height: 74.3 inches Overall width: 77.0 inches Overall weight: 5,572 pounds
Target audience: The average age of Escalade buyers falls in the 40 to 55 year range with a household income of $125,000 and up. College graduates with professional positions also make up a majority of the profile.
Fuel economy: The large, potent V-8 engine coupled with a large, heavy frame translates into not-so-great fuel economy readings. Escalade averages 12 miles per gallon in city driving and 16 m.p.g. on the highway. While not spectacular, these are the same figures Navigator boast. The fuel tank holds 30 gallons of regular, 87-octane unleaded gasoline.
Final thoughts: Don't let the fact that Cadillac rushed Escalade into production detour checking it out. General Motors invested time and money developing the 1999 GMC Yukon Denali, which Escalade is cloned. It's a roomy, competent vehicle with all the trappings of large, heavy SUVs. Expect body sway during hard cornering, slow starts and stops and poor gas mileage. But Escalade's suspension delivers a very smooth ride while traversing on-road. Current plans call an Escalade revamp in the 2001 model year to better differentiate it from Denali. Since Cadillac nameplate carries more cache than GMC, General Motors is applying more marketing muscle to Escalade. A Chevrolet Tahoe carries less posh, but includes a smaller price tag. But at least GM offers Cadillac loyalists an answer for Lincoln Navigator's strong showing.