The Cadillac Escalade is big and powerful, capable of towing trailers of 7600 to 8300 pounds. In its most popular configuration, the Escalade seats seven. It's a stylish truck, with a bold yet smooth, integrated, sculpted look.
Built on GM's full-size truck platform and equipped with a 403-horsepower 6.2-liter V8, the Escalade, ESV, and EXT make good tow vehicles. They share their platforms with the Chevy Tahoe, 1500-series Suburban and Silverado, as well as the GMC versions.
The 2009 Escalade Hybrid is notably easier on fuel than the standard Escalade, with EPA ratings of about 20 mpg.
New for 2009 is the Platinum version with every amenity Cadillac offers, including color-contrast-stitched Tehama leather with French seams and embroidered logos, a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled cupholders, multiple DVD entertainment systems, and LED headlamps.
Also new for 2009 are a Side Blind Zone Alert system to warn of vehicles in potential blind spots, the latest 8.0 version of OnStar, XM NavTraffic with real-time traffic advisories, a light cashmere/cocoa interior color scheme, power-tilt steering wheel, automatic up/down front windows (very handy for toll-booths and drive-thrus), and rear seat audio jacks. Mechanically, the 6.2-liter V8 can now run on E85 (EPA 11 combined) and Escalades with 22-inch wheels get Magnetic Ride Control automatic suspension damping.
The Escalade offers comfort and convenience features of a luxury sedan, including automatic climate control, navigation, rear camera, a premium Bose sound system, ultrasonic parking assist, power adjustable pedals, and heated leather seats. DVD entertainment systems and a moonroof are optional.
Escalade comes in three body styles: Escalade, ESV, and EXT. The standard Escalade is a full-size sport utility sharing the same architecture and roughly the same dimensions as the Chevy Tahoe; it's the only one offered as a hybrid. The Escalade ESV is a long-wheelbase version, similar to the Chevy Suburban. The Escalade EXT is a combination five-passenger luxury SUV with a short bed; it is Cadillac's version of the Chevy Avalanche and was characterized by a leading truck magazine as better as a Cadillac than a pickup.
All Escalades are roomy and luxuriously appointed, letting them haul family or friends or business associates in real comfort. The engine supplies serious power for surprisingly quick acceleration. On the road, all Escalades are smooth and stable. They ride smoother than a standard Tahoe or Suburban; but are at the same time taut and well-controlled for surprisingly good handling by full-size SUV standards.
The front end of every Escalade is dominated by a traditional Cadillac egg-crate grille draped in chrome. The grille is flanked by three-element, vertical headlamps that tie the vehicle more closely than ever to the rest of Cadillac's lineup; LED headlamps on the Platinum are a first in trucks or SUVs. The bumper and front trim are cleanly integrated so the Escalade looks more like a massive car than a truck.
Similarly, the side-view styling is smoothly contoured, with no clunky side cladding. As with the front end, there is abundant chrome, including on the door handles, the exterior mirrors, side moldings, full-length roof rails (which provide anchor points for accessory crossbars for securing cargo on the roof) and Venti-ports above the front wheels, an emerging trend but not functional like those on some Land Rovers.
Another clear response to market trends are the optional 22-inch chrome wheels, which visually plant the vehicle, completely filling the Escalade's huge wheelwells and making the standard 18-inch wheels look positively puny by comparison (though for reasons beyond cosmetics we prefer the 18-inch wheels).
Particularly appreciable in colder climates are the pull-type door handles that are easy to grasp, even with gloves on. They're also more comfortable, less likely to snap away from your fingers and less likely to break a fingernail.
The rear view features a modern interpretation of Cadillac's classic slim, vertical taillights, which recall the dramatic tailfins of Cadillacs of the 1960s and '70s, but are now rendered in crisp LED strips. A high-mounted, horizontal brake light with LED illumination crosses the top. But the dominant feature of the Escalade's tail is the enormous badge set within a chunky block of chrome trim.
The liftgate opens and closes by pushbutton as a hatch, or glass-only for lighter items. Since the Escalade is based on a truck chassis the cargo load floor is 32.3 inches off the ground. The Class III tow hitch that comes standard is covered by a trim panel that is removable when not needed, and which easily can be refitted once a trailer is detached.
The Escalade's interior was designed to provide luxury both in terms of space as well as features. Escalade comes standard with seven-passenger seating, with second-row bucket seats separated by a center console, with a three-passenger, third-row bench behind it.
The five-passenger EXT and eight-passenger Hybrid are offered only with a three-across bench seat in the second row, which is available on some other Escalades at no charge.
Escalade ESV adds more than a foot of space between front and rear axles, so the rear side doors are much longer. This allows the side windows to go all the way down into the doors, and makes entry to the third row much easier; second row riders will still have to turn their feet to get them between seat and door post. Third-row legroom and cargo area are similarly improved.
Though step-in is somewhat high, expected for a full-size SUV, running boards ease the process and the reward is a high seating position. Outward visibility over the open dash is very good, although the side pillars are an inch or two thicker than some luxo-utes and make blind spots large enough for a motorcycle or small car on approaching bends. Rear visibility is good as well with decent wiper coverage and no center seat headrests.
Interior fit and finish is very nice. The mix of soft, padded materials, genuine aluminum accents, chrome details and relatively convincing faux wood combine with soft leather seats for an ambience on par with other luxury-brand SUVs in this price range. Stepping up to the Platinum models upgrades the existing leather, adds more of it, real aluminum and wood trim, and details right down to unique door sills and floor mats.
The Escalade's LED-backlit gauges are clear and bright, featuring white markings and blue pointers on a black background. Between the speedometer and tachometer lies an information display that cycles through several menus via buttons on the steering wheel. The stalk controls for the turn signals and wipers have a tactile feel, as do the buttons and knobs on the radio and climate controls.
Escalade comes standard with a 10-speaker (eight-speaker on EXT) stereo that features a six-disc changer that plays both CDs and audio DVDs. Bose designed the speaker system, outfitting the vehicle with 5.1 surround sound, an eight-channel amplifier and a subwoofer. XM radio comes standard.
On vehicles without the navigation system, the radio panel presents audio information clearly. On vehicles with the navigation system, the radio features are incorporated into the touch screen-based interface. The latter takes a bit of familiarization to operate smoothly, but offers more functionality and fine-tuning capability once you're comfortable with it all and you won't have to consult the owner's manual to get home. OnStar route guidance is also included, for those times when getting directions from a live person is preferred or your mapping software hasn't kept up with development. The navigation system is competitive in terms of clarity and simplicity, the Cadillac-versus-Lincoln battle moving to electronics and infotainment with Lincoln's new Sync system.
A rear-seat entertainment system is available, utilizing a flip-down eight-inch screen that folds down from overhead. The DVD driver itself is mounted in front, but does not play the movie in the front seats. Rear seat passengers can listen to the audio portion of their DVDs via all 10 speakers in the vehicle, the rear speakers only, or infrared wireless headsets. Order DVD entertainment in the ESV and you get a second eight-inch screen for the third seat, as well as an additional set of headphones. On Platinum models each front seat headrest houses a DVD screen and each can be controlled independently.
The front bucket seats are quite nice: Comfortable, supportive, myriad power adjustments, heated, and for the driver side, his/hers memory. These are generously-sized seats for a generously-sized truck so narrow-framed drivers may find them a touch wide; the Escalade has the widest cabin of luxury SUVs. The power-tilt steering wheel may be heatable, and it is curiously offset to the right with the instrumentation.
Leather (nuance in Cadillac-speak) upholstery is standard on all three rows on all models, which also covers the four-spoke steering wheel equipped with redundant controls for the audio system and cruise control. The Escalade's huge cabin benefits from triple-zone automatic climate controls: One zone for each front occupant and another tending to the rear-seating area.
In the middle row, full-size adults can enjoy plenty of space in the second-row buckets; in most dimensions the Escalade is within an inch or two of competitors, with Mercedes' G and GL-Class leading in head and legroom and the Cadillac the widest. The EXT with the second-row bench seat offers roomy accommodations for two adults and adequate space for three; the EXT alone has a center position rear headrest because of the window immediately behind the seat. Escalade and ESV come standard with heated front and second-row seats while EXT gets heated front seats only.
The third-row bench on the standard Escalade sits on the cargo floor and has marginal legroom, from 3-12 inches less than other luxo-utes; the standard-length Navigator has nearly three inches more third-row legroom than the extended-length Escalade ESV, so unless it's a short trip, save the third row for kids.
Interior storage space is abundant. The glove box is large and the space under the armrest of the multi-level center console takes advantage of the wide cabin. Additional storage is found in pockets in the doors. The Escalade has four 12-volt power points, including one near the tailgate (EXT gets three) as well as cupholders galore.
Cargo space behind the 50/50-split third row in the Escalade is on par with other luxury SUVs with three rows of seats; in other words, hauling anything but groceries will likely require the third-row seat to be folded. And while some competitors have power third-row seats that fold into the floor, the Escalade's seats must be removed for a flat floor but it has the edge in overall space. Removing the seats requires only a tug on one handle, but they are quite bulky and heavy and must be left at home to get the big cargo space.
Loading cargo requires a 32-inch lift to the load floor, where tie-down hooks ease securing the load. A power liftgate is standard on Escalade and ESV.
Apart from a lower tow rating of 7,500 pounds, the EXT's cargo flexibility matches that of the Chevy Avalanche.
On the road, the nimbleness of the Cadillac Escalade is a pleasant surprise. The steering is light and reasonably precise, a nice compromise between the weight of the BMW X5 or Audi Q7 and the lightness of the Lincoln Navigator. In spite of having a live-axle rear suspension (as opposed to an independent rear suspension, as found on all the competition save Mercedes G-Class and Lexus LX570 with Land Cruiser off-road performance), the Escalade manages bumps very well, thanks to three-ton mass and the road-sensing Autoride system.
Handling and body control are impressive given the Escalade's bulk, not as tight at one extreme as an X5 or GL550 in Sport mode nor as supple as an LX570 or Range Rover. Arch-nemesis Navigator doesn't offer such aggressive tires as the Escalade but works well, especially on marginal road surfaces, because its independent rear suspension is much lighter than the Escalade's.
Newly optional on 2009 Escalade is Magnetic Ride Control, a system that uses a variety of sensors to measure road surface and vehicle parameters 1000 times per second and adjust the shock damping accordingly. That adjustment is done magnetically, changing the thickness of the shock fluid filled with tiny magnetic particles for maximum control of the shock. This system has been used advantageously on expensive imports and the Corvette for a few years, and is usually paired with the 22-inch wheels.
The interior is very quiet, enhancing the ability to hold hushed conversation as well as hear the surround-sound system without extraneous noise. Also noteworthy is the plushest ride of almost any truck. On the optional 22-inch wheels and low-profile tires you'd expect more harshness and sharp things like parking lot speed bumps and lane divider dots, but they're muted because the sheer size of the tire means there is still some usable sidewall, the first point of any suspension system. Those vehicles with the 18-inch wheels offer even gentler ride characteristics without a corollary drop in grip, and on many trucks low-profile wheels also lower the tow rating and make winter tire or chain fitment a nuisance.
All Escalades but the Hybrid are powered by a 6.2-liter V8 that produces 403 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration is brisk for a truck, ahead of the Navigator, Range Rover, Audi Q7 and a Police Tahoe, but behind the equally practical Mercedes GL550. Other poser-mobiles like the BMW X6 V8, Infiniti FX50, and Mercedes G-wagen are all quicker. The engine has a pleasant growl under acceleration, but with the tall gearing that's about the only time you hear it.
Towing is aided by this prodigious power. The Escalade models are rated to tow trailers of 7600 to 8300 pounds; that's lower than the ratings for the Lincoln Navigator and Infiniti QX56.
Hitching up a trailer is made easier by the Escalade's rearview camera, which mounts in the liftgate to provide a view behind the vehicle when backing up. What the camera sees is projected onto the navigation screen. It eliminates jumping out of the truck repeatedly to get the ball lined up under the trailer tongue and useful when backing up close to another object. It can also help the driver spot a child behind the vehicle when backing up, potentially avoiding a tragedy.
The six-speed automatic transmission shifts imperceptibly except during full-throttle acceleration; it's tuned for mileage so it up-shifts quickly and needs a firm shove on the gas pedal to downshift. A Tow/Haul mode holds gears longer, or the driver can select gears manually via a button on the column-mounted shift lever. The multi-information display in the instrument cluster clearly displays the selected gear.
All-wheel drive is available. It's a full-time system oriented around sure-footed traction on slippery pavement, rather than creeping through boulder fields or climbing steep grades. There is no low-range gearing. It works well in slushy conditions with inconsistent grip, improving handling stability and traction and helping the driver better control the vehicle. We demand it for winter weather, but it's a great aid in hard rain or on oily pavement or wet leaves or on gravel or dirt roads or in mud.
The brakes are powerful and quite responsive, more than up to the task of bringing the big truck to a halt with little drama and surprisingly little dive because of the Autoride damping. The pedal feel was good, if not as pleasingly firm as its German competitors. ABS and electronic brake force distribution come standard for stable braking while turning or when the grip is inconsistent.
StabiliTrak electronic stability control system manages wheel slip by applying the brakes at the slipping wheel without interrupting power deliver to the wheels with grip. StabiliTrak also helps maintain stability in corners by braking individual wheels when the vehicle's path doesn't match the driver's intentions. It works well and is not as intrusive as some Japanese systems or the G-Class that can not be defeated at more than 37 mph; it is also no substitute for common sense and doesn't make the Escalade any lighter.
Excepting the Hybrid, every 2009 Escalade tested to date scores EPA ratings of 12/19/14 on gasoline (city/highway/combined). Some of the competition have slightly better combined ratings but they're all thirsty and will dip into single digits in urban crowds, working hard or towing.
The Escalade Hybrid features GM's two-mode, gas-electric hybrid propulsion system developed in conjunction with other automakers. It combines a 6-liter V8 tuned specifically for hybrid use with a 300-volt battery pack and dual electric motors encased in a common housing with a conventional four-speed automatic transmission. When the full V8 output is not required the engine can operate on four cylinders to save a nominal amount of fuel, and if power requirements are very low the truck may run up to 30 mph on electric drive only.
In most instances the gasoline engine stops whenever the Escalade does; electric drives run the power steering, air conditioning and so on so the only driver clues are the auto stop indication on the tachometer, lack of engine noise, and the truck does not try to creep while sitting in Drive. Essentially the hybrid system takes energy otherwise turned into heat by the brakes and stores it as electrical energy, to be used later to help get the vehicle going again. It is all fully automated and which part(s) are being used to drive the truck can be monitored on the navigation display. This is why the Hybrid's primary fuel economy advantage is in the city cycle (20/21 2WD).
It drives much like a regular Escalade in some respects, same twist-key to turn it on, same steering feel, same gasoline fill-up, and markedly different in others. The engine doesn't automatically start when the car is on and when it does it is quieter and felt as a small momentary vibration, the brakes are more responsive (plan on some bobble-head initial test drives) because they are a trigger controlling the rate of battery pack recharging, and you're being most economical when the efficiency gauge is on the left, or lowest side, of its scale.
The Hybrid adds thousands of dollars and roughly 450 pounds to an Escalade, lowers tow rating by about a ton (figure 4,500-4,700 pounds if the Escalade is loaded), and comes standard with 22-inch wheels and Magnetic Ride Control. Driven back-to-back with a non-hybrid you may notice the Hybrid feels heavier. Hybrid Escalades are also offered with 4WD that has an auto setting for on-road use like the standard Escalade's all-wheel drive system but also has low-range gears for maximum effort like deep sand or rocky terrain. Frankly, we can't see any Escalade Hybrid owner testing the front air dam in such a manner, and unless you're towing something there are plenty of more efficient people carriers but they don't make a fashion statement.
If you are in need of towing ability and good mileage all around, the diesels from Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and VW offer EPA ratings up to 18/25 and tow ratings up to 7700 pounds. When we drove the Escalade's sister-hybrid Tahoe, a standard gasoline Yukon (GMC's Tahoe) and a Mercedes-Benz GL-class back-to-back over a mixed course of city stoplights to freeway cruising, the hybrid averaged 19.8 mpg, the non-hybrid in the mid-16s and the diesel 23.4. At the time, diesel fuel was the cheapest at the Southern California pump, about 5% less than gasoline.
The Generation 8.0 OnStar system, with a one-year Directions and Connections service plan, includes the Advanced Automatic Crash Notification system, making crash data available to emergency services so they can potentially dispatch the appropriate life-saving personnel and equipment to crash scenes faster. If the vehicle is in a crash that activates an air bag, the OnStar system automatically notifies an OnStar Advisor, who will check on the occupants and summon emergency help if no one responds. OnStar also can assist authorities in locating a vehicle if it is reported stolen or is off a paved road but still in contact with the satellites.
The Cadillac Escalade is an impressive vehicle in more ways than looks. It drives like a smaller vehicle while accommodating adults in unbridled luxury. It offers one of the segment's most powerful engines, which will make it a great vehicle for drivers who tow or simply like the feeling of strong acceleration. As long as one has enough space in their driveway or garage for this big truck, and can afford its thirst for gasoline, we expect the new Escalade will make many drivers very comfortable and happy for the long haul.