Pros: Standard all-wheel drive; flexible, do-everything utility; one of the great V8 powertrains
Cons: Conflict between trucklike capability and showy luxury
If someone told me I had my choice of one vehicle for the next ten years, I'd probably narrow my choices to three: the Honda Ridgeline, the Chevrolet Avalanche and the Cadillac Escalade EXT. All three feature a variation on the pickup bed, and all three promise years of durability. Interestingly, all three are only niche products within their brand portfolios, yet they're the absolute best bet for doing anything and everything you might ask of a one-vehicle fleet.
Cadillac's Escalade EXT was crafted from both the long-wheelbase Escalade ESV and its donor, the Chevrolet Suburban. For the extra $20K above a similarly specced Chevrolet Avalanche, you should expect an extra dollop of luxury; we're happy to report you will get it. Cadillac dubs it the "ultimate luxury utility vehicle," and with the demise of the civilian Hummer H1, we're inclined to believe it. The Escalade EXT is capable, and its interior is carlike, but there's no hiding the reality: this is a 20th century SUV competing in a 21st century marketplace.
Comfort & Utility
To fully appreciate Cadillac's Escalade EXT, you first must get in. And if you drew the short straw when it came to inseam measurement, the ingress is that much more difficult. There are, thankfully, handholds available to assist, but without a running board or side steps, the EXT's cockpit requires extra effort to access.
Once inside, you're greeted by legible instrumentation, a comfortable, though thin, steering rim and a control center that gives a new dimension to the word "control." Here the driver or passenger has access to the EXT's navigation system, Bose 5.1 10-speaker surround sound system and automatic dual-zone climate control. It is also the point of access to the Driver Information System. Information found there is accessible, reasonably intuitive and comfortably restrained. We wish the seats enjoyed a bit more sculpting for lateral support and the steering wheel didn't feel as if it had been pulled from a GM parts bin dated 1982.
The essence of the Escalade EXT and its Avalanche cousin is the Midgate panel, which converts the five-passenger EXT with short bed into a two-passenger luxury truck with an eight-foot bed and more than 100 cubic feet of secure storage. If you and the spouse have Home Depot on your weekend agenda, you don't need to rent their truck; with the EXT, you have your own. There is also underfloor lockable storage to hold small items out of sight, and top box storage for items you don't want floating around in the interior. In short, for utility this almost matches a regular-cab pickup while providing real comfort for five people when you don't need or want a truck.
Cadillac's team may have started with the more pedestrian Avalanche as its base, but thousands of engineering hours later, you'd barely recognize the brown roots within this very blonde confection. Under the hood is Cadillac's Active Fuel Management technology, which has computers to monitor the engine's load; if all eight cylinders aren't necessary for forward movement, four are dispensed with. The leather-trimmed front bucket seats are both heated and cooled, and dual-zone automatic climate control works to keep everyone comfortable. Navigation with touchscreen is standard. The entertainment side of that installation includes MP3/CD/DVD, voice recognition and a USB port. Bluetooth technology is standard.
GM's OnStar is provided with every EXT. Whether you're using it for turn-by-turn navigation, concierge service or an on-road emergency, it can prove invaluable at no cost - other than a modest subscription fee - down the road.
Performance and Fuel Economy
The Escalade EXT is offered with but a single powertrain, a 6.2-liter V8 delivering 403 horsepower and 417 lb-ft of torque. The V8 is seamless in operation, with prodigious torque, instant off-the-line response and sleep-inducing over-the-road relaxation. Active Fuel Management deactivates four of the eight cylinders if the on-board computer detects they're unnecessary. With all of the above, and despite the three tons of mass and its barn-door-like aerodynamics, the Escalade EXT delivers an EPA estimate of 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway with all-wheel drive. Towing capability is 7,600 pounds.
For a vehicle based on a pickup-truck chassis, the Escalade EXT is remarkably composed, with steering, braking and cornering capability generally disguising its agrarian roots; we would wish, however, for better on-center steering feel. Integral to the behavior of the chassis is GM's StabiliTrak, an electronic stability control system that improves stability by detecting and minimizing skids. It also offers head curtain side air bags with rollover protection for all seating rows, dual front side-impact airbags and pretensioners to minimize passenger movement during a collision.
Helping to avoid collisions are standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, along with the established safety of a responsive, albeit thirsty, V8 powertrain.
From his elevated Escalade perch, the driver enjoys a commanding view of what's going on around him. Regrettably, with steering feel that can best be described as muted, he'll have little idea of what's going on beneath the chassis - until the available 22-inch rims transmit road imperfections through the vintage feel of the steering wheel. The ride and handling balance of the 2012 Escalade is arguably better than it deserves to be (even without the available Magnetic Ride Control), but it lags behind that of several more contemporary competitors.
Other Cars to Consider
Ford F-150 Platinum - This high-end Ford pickup credibly matches earlier efforts by Lincoln. After all, Cadillac introduced the Escalade EXT as a counter to Lincoln's ill-fated Blackwood. More recently it was kept in production as a response to Lincoln's Mark LT, another F-Series with Rodeo Drive (rather than mere rodeo) aspirations.
Ram 1500 - The Ram brand will throw as many upscale accoutrements at their Ram 1500 as you'd care to buy. But it's not quite the truck/SUV blend you get with Cadillac's EXT.
We'd take a 2012 Escalade EXT in standard form, adding little more than a bed mat for protection. We'd insist the dealer deliver it with a full tank of gas and live happily ever after with a transaction price of around $65,000. Money saved by not checking every option box could be spent on pursuits you bought the EXT for in the first place: mountain biking, kayaking, snowboarding or, of course, the rodeo.