by Bob Storck

What do Cadillac buyers want? I asked each of the last three Cadillac general managers about their SUV plans and was told in no uncertain terms that Cadillac buyers did not buy trucks.

Then the Lincoln dealers started puffing their chests out at country clubs and bragging about Navigator profits. Suddenly the plush Denali model, which GMC's brass had fought so hard to obtain, was regrilled and rebadged into a Cadillac.

For years now, GMC has been treated as the poor stepsister among the GM divisions. Relegated to a service function, it was used to provide GM's car divisions with a dealership partner that could round out a car division's product line. Of the thousands of GMC dealers, only a handful are stand-alone stores. Nearly all are partnered with another division and fighting for showroom space. And now that GMC has been merged with Pontiac, all GMC franchises will be coupled with that car line.

Escalade takes the GMC Yukon to a new level, however, using the now accepted practice of taking a proven product, packing all the top line features such as standard offerings, and then wrapping them inside a distinctive exterior.

When the smaller sport-utility vehicles began going to four doors, everyone asked when the big critters (other than Suburban) would get the extra access. Probably the success of the compact trucks held the development back, but GM responded first with its GMC Yukon and the Chevy Tahoe.

Planners have equipped the four-door Escalade with all the luxury bits from the GMC parts bins and added unique sheet metal and cladding, especially on the front end. The bold oval front opening contains the traditional egg-crate grille and the readily recognizable wreath and crest badge. Add tough touches like hefty tow hooks, and the Escalade becomes quite purposeful-looking.

Aerodynamic running boards and roof racks are standard, and six-spoke chrome wheels carry on another Cadillac tradition. Uniquely designed Nuance leather seats with perforated inserts differentiate the interior from those of lesser GMC products. The rear seat contains independent audio controls, allowing front and rear passengers to satisfy their divergent listening habits.

OnStar is integrated and standard. It not only provides the navigation and convenience features, but creates a shell of personal and theft security for the vehicle and occupants.

We have driven the Yukon all over a variety of Arizona ranching and mining roads, and these were suitable venues based on the anticipated driving habits of expected buyers. However, expect few Cadillac owners to round up cattle with their Escalade. My point is, this is a working truck, but it's bound to be used more by urban cowboys and as a conveyance to the country club.

The Cadillac pricing is on par with up-level models of other full-size, four-door luxury trucks and below that of some luxury brands. The four-door Escalade is not an abbreviated Suburban or stretched two-door Yukon. It uses a completely different platform with unique suspension tuning. The front suspension is completely different and uses torsion bars with a new mounting that improves geometry and reduces interior noise.

Escalade is about two feet shorter than the Suburban, and the difference is almost entirely in the rear storage area. One disappointment is that the front seat has limited rear travel. It fit my 5'10" legs, but taller persons should be wary. This seems to be done to insure rear seat leg room. Head room is not a problem in any seat. There will not be seats available for the rear compartment, at least from GM. Look for this to be addressed by aftermarket suppliers. The garageability and turning radius are obviously much better than the Suburban's.

Only the 5.7-liter gasoline V-8 will be available, mated to GM's seamless and capable AutoTrac AWD system. Look for the trademark Cadillac Northstar engine and features like StabiliTrak handling enhancement to be added as quickly as Cadillac can get the sluggish GM truck group to respond.

As you might expect, the interior is stylish and plush, with aromatic leather and Zebrano wood wrapped around Bose audio systems, security systems, copious storage consoles, and power everything. When GM reworked its large sport-utes, Ford did the same with the Bronco. As most consumers probably know, the Ford version is called the Expedition, Lincoln's the Navigator.

Dodge had flirted with offering a large SUV version of its hot Ram truck, but limited capacity and competition may have cooled its interest. Given the huge success of the Ram, Chrysler already has trouble supplying Grand Cherokees with V-8s. A full-size SUV would drain away even more engine production. So Dodge dealers are relying on the Durango version of the new Dakota pickup to fill their customers' hunger for an SUV.

GMC builds the Yukon and image-enhancing Denali versions in the Janesville, Wisconsin, plant where the Escalade will also be built, alongside the Suburban. Given the recent boom in the popularity of full-size SUVs, GM has been forced to add capacity.

When it became evident that Janesville was going to run short of the demand, GM chose to shift production of the Suburban and some of its big trucks to the Fort Worth plant. This meant the elimination of the Caprice, Roadmaster and Fleetwood models a couple of years ago. Reasoning was simple: there is about twice the profit on big pickups and SUVs as there is on the modestly priced sedans. And now that Cadillac has an SUV of its own, they'll work at providing even more profits -- and sales -- to a GM division that's hungry for both.

Expect Escalade prices to start around $45,000 -- and escalate from there.

© 1998 The Car Connection

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