The Cadillac Escalade is big and powerful, capable of towing trailers of up to 8300 pounds. Escalade seats seven in its most popular configuration. It's a stylish truck, with a bold and sculpted look. 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.
Escalade ESV is a long-wheelbase version of the Escalade. Similar in size to the Chevrolet Suburban, the ESV is 21 inches longer than the regular Escalade. That adds up to more third-row seating room and nearly triple the cargo space behind the third-row seats. Plus, middle passengers get windows that roll all the way down. The wheelbase is 14 inches longer, which makes for a smoother ride.
Escalade EXT is a five-passenger luxury SUV with a short pickup bed. The EXT is Cadillac's version of the Chevrolet Avalanche and features the clever Midgate that converts the rear seats into additional pickup space. A removable window and Midgate behind the rear seat make for versatile hauling options, including a pair of dirt bikes, 101 cubic feet of lockable space, or 4×8 building materials. Its combination of luxury and capability makes for an interesting hauler or tow vehicle.
All Escalade versions 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 yet at the same time are taut and well-controlled for surprisingly good handling by full-size SUV standards. The Escalade models deliver the comfort and amenities of a luxury sedan, including automatic climate control, heated leather seats, navigation, rearview camera, premium Bose audio, ultrasonic parking assist, and power-adjustable pedals. DVD entertainment systems and a moonroof are also available. For 2011, the standard OnStar system has upgraded voice recognition software.
Built on GM's full-size truck platform, the Escalade comes with a 403-horsepower, 6.2-liter V8 with Active Fuel Management, which shuts off half the engine's cylinders in certain conditions in order to reduce fuel consumption. All Escalade models make excellent tow vehicles. They share their platforms with the Chevy Tahoe, Suburban, Avalanche, and Silverado. Escalade gets an EPA-estimated 13/18 miles per gallon City/Highway.
The Escalade Hybrid is notably easier on fuel than the standard Escalade, with EPA-estimated fuel economy of 20/21 mpg City/Highway. Available only in the standard Escalade body style, the hybrid gas-electric powertrain shares technology with the Tahoe/Yukon two-mode hybrids.
Meanwhile, a luxurious Platinum option is available for all three Escalade versions that includes 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. Towing trailers doesn't get any more luxurious than this, and it offers luxurious cruising for passengers, as well. Our 2011 test vehicle was the ultimate: an ESV AWD Platinum, which explains the big price.
The 2011 Cadillac Escalade comes standard with a 403-hp 6.2-liter V8 engine, a 6-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, and Autoride suspension. The Escalade Hybrid features a 6.0-liter V8 that develops 322 horsepower linked to two electric motors that take stored energy from the battery system and use it to power the vehicle in certain conditions.
The Cadillac Escalade is a full-size SUV. It looks like the Cadillac version of the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban and GMC Yukon and Yukon XL and that's exactly what it is though there are many styling and equipment differences.
The front end of the 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 to the rest of Cadillac's lineup; LED headlights on the Platinum are a first in trucks or SUVs. The bumper and front trim are cleanly integrated so the Escalade almost 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 ventilation ports above the front wheels; the latter is a styling trend, but on the Escalade they are not functional.
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. The 22-inch wheels look great, though for reasons beyond cosmetics, ride quality among them, we prefer the puny-looking 18-inch wheels.
The pull-type door handles are easy to grasp, particularly appreciable in cold climates when wearing gloves. This type of door handle is more comfortable, less likely to snap away from your fingers and less likely to break fingernail than the more stylish, more aerodynamic kind.
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. On the Escalade they are 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 rear is the enormous badge set within a chunky block of chrome trim, reminding everyone that they are following a Cadillac.
The liftgate opens and closes by pushbutton as a hatch or glass-only for lighter items, a convenient feature. The Class III tow hitch that comes standard is covered by a removable trim panel, so things look clean and tidy when you're not pulling a trailer.
Because the Escalade is based on a truck chassis the cargo load floor is 32.3 inches off the ground, meaning you'll have to lift those 40-pound bags of dog food a little higher than is required for a crossover SUV such as the GMC Acadia.
The Escalade cabin is roomy and luxurious. Interior fit and finish is very nice. The mix of soft, padded materials, genuine aluminum accents, chrome details and convincing faux wood combines with soft leather seats for an ambience on par with other luxury SUVs. Stepping up to the Platinum upgrades the existing leather and features details such as unique door sills and floor mats.
The Escalade comes standard with seven-passenger seating: front bucket seats, second-row bucket seats separated by a center console, and a three-passenger bench for the third row.
The Hybrid seats eight and the EXT seats five because they come with a three-passenger bench seat in the second row. This second-row bench seat is available on the other models at no charge, turning them into eight-passenger vehicles.
The ESV adds more than a foot of space between the 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 the seat and the door post. Third-row legroom and cargo area are similarly improved. If you often have more than four aboard, then the ESV is the more comfortable vehicle. The ESV also features substantially more cargo space.
Passengers must step up to get into an Escalade. This relatively high step-in height is expected in a full-size SUV, however. Running boards ease the process and the reward is a high seating position from which to view the traffic.
Outward visibility over the open dash is very good. However, the side pillars are an inch or two thicker than those of some other luxury SUVs and can make blind spots large enough to conceal a motorcycle or small car. Rear visibility is good, with decent wiper coverage and no center-seat headrests.
The driver is presented with clear, bright gauges, LED-backlit with white markings and blue pointers on a black background. Between the speedometer and tachometer is an information display that cycles through several menus via buttons on the steering wheel. To get specific information on the most useful of those menus, however, you must push a button on the dash; but because it only cycles forward, to click back and forth between average fuel mileage and distance to empty, for example, you have to click seven times forward, which is inconvenient.
The Escalade comes standard with a 10-speaker (eight-speaker on EXT) stereo that features a six-disc changer that plays 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 satellite radio comes standard.
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, with many power adjustments, heated, and with memory for the driver's side. These are generously sized seats for a generously sized truck so narrow-framed drivers may find them a bit wide; the Escalade has a very wide cabin.
Leather upholstery (called Nuance) is standard on all three rows. Leather covers the four-spoke steering wheel equipped with redundant controls for the audio system and cruise control. A heated steering wheel is available, nice when it's cold. The Escalade's huge cabin benefits from triple-zone automatic climate controls: One zone for each front occupant and a third zone for the rear-seating area.
In the middle row, full-size adults can enjoy plenty of space; in most dimensions the Escalade is within an inch or two of the competitors. 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. The 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 offers quite a bit less legroom than other luxury SUVs; 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 (the 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. The EXT's cargo flexibility matches that of the Chevrolet Avalanche. (See our review of the Avalanche for details on the GM's innovative Midgate.)
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 like that on the Navigator), the Escalade manages bumps very well, thanks to its three-ton mass and the road-sensing Autoride system.
Handling and body control are impressive given the Escalade's bulk. The Escalade suspension feels more supple than that of the BMW X5 or Mercedes GL550 but firmer than that of the Lexus LX570 or Range Rover. The Lincoln Navigator works better than the Escalade on marginal road surfaces due to the Lincoln's independent rear suspension.
Magnetic Ride Control uses a variety of sensors to measure road surface and vehicle parameters 1,000 times per second and adjust the shock damping accordingly. That adjustment is done magnetically, changing the thickness of the shock fluid (that's 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 often paired on the Escalade with the 22-inch wheels.
In addition to seat time in a standard Escalade, we drove 335 miles in a long-wheelbase ESV. We weren't surprised by the ride that's even better than it is in the standard-length Escalade, but we were further impressed by the cornering. We almost couldn't believe how well it got around corners at a spirited pace.
With sound-deadening improvements in the glass in 2011, the interior is exceptionally quiet, enhancing the ability to hold hushed conversations as well as hear the Surround Sound system without extraneous noise. Also noteworthy is the plush ride. On the optional 22-inch wheels and low-profile tires you'd expect more harshness and sharp impacts from 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. On many trucks low-profile wheels reduce the tow rating and make winter tire or chain fitment a nuisance.
All Escalades (except 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. The Escalade is quicker than the Navigator, Range Rover, Audi Q7, and even a Police Tahoe, though the equally practical Mercedes GL550 has the edge here. The BMW X6 V8, Infiniti FX50, and Mercedes G-wagen are quicker, but they are smaller and less practical with much less cargo and passenger space. The 6.2-liter V8 engine has a wonderful throaty growl under acceleration, making you feel like you've got a hotrod underneath.
Towing is aided by this prodigious power. Depending on how they are equipped, Escalade models are rated to tow trailers of up to 8,300 pounds.
Hitching up a trailer is made easier by the Escalade's rearview camera, which provides 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. As with other vehicles, the rearview camera is useful everyday when backing up close to another object. It's very helpful for parallel parking and a great safety feature as it can reduce the chance of backing over a child.
The 6-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 for the Escalade. 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 particularly well in slushy conditions with inconsistent grip, improving handling stability and traction and helping the driver better control the vehicle. We strongly recommend it for winter weather, and it's a great aid in the rain or on any slippery surface.
The brakes are powerful and quite responsive, more than up to the task of bringing this big truck to a halt with little drama and surprisingly little dive because of the Autoride damping. The pedal feel is good, if not as pleasingly firm as that of its German competitors. ABS and electronic brake force distribution come standard for stable braking while turning or when the grip is inconsistent.
The StabiliTrak electronic stability control system manages wheel slip by applying the brakes at the slipping wheel without interrupting power delivery to the wheels with grip. StabiliTrak also helps maintain stability in corners by providing braking force to individual wheels when the vehicle's path doesn't match the driver's intentions. It works well and is not as intrusive as some of the systems used by some competitors.
The Escalade Hybrid features GM's two-mode, gas-electric hybrid propulsion system developed in conjunction with other automakers. It combines a 6.0-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. The V8 has Active Fuel Management so, when its full output is not required, the engine can operate on four cylinders to reduce fuel consumption, 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 you come to a stop in the Escalade Hybrid; electric drives run the power steering, air conditioning and so on so the only clues that there's anything unusual going on are the auto-stop indication on the tachometer, the lack of engine noise, and that there's no creeping. 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 can be monitored on the navigation display. This is why the Hybrid's primary fuel economy advantage is in city driving. The government says the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid gets 20/23 mpg City/Highway.
The Hybrid drives like a regular Escalade in most respects but markedly different in others. To turn it on you twist the ignition key just as you do in a regular vehicle, but the engine doesn't automatically start and when it does it is quieter and is felt as a small momentary vibration. The steering feels the same, but the brakes are more responsive (plan on some bobble-head initial test drives) because the energy they generate is used to recharge the battery pack.
Driven back-to-back with a non-hybrid you may notice the Hybrid feels heavier, and in fact it is by about 450 pounds. 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, for dealing with such conditions as deep sand or rocky terrain, for example. Tow ratings for the Hybrid are down by a ton compared with the standard Escalade.
When we drove a GMC Yukon, a Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, and a Mercedes-Benz GL-Class with diesel back to back over a mixed course of city stoplights and freeway cruising, the gas-powered Yukon got mid-16s, the Tahoe Hybrid averaged 20 mpg, and the Mercedes diesel 23 mpg.
The Cadillac Escalade offers one of the segment's most powerful engines, which will make it a great vehicle for drivers who tow and like the feeling of strong acceleration when not towing.
Sam Moses contributed to this report from Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, with New Car Test Drive staff reports. Steve Siler contributed to this report.