Pros: Upscale ambiance; strong truck-based work ethic; extensive technology features
If the producers of Pimp My Ride were to select one vehicle that speaks to their production values and audience, that vehicle would be Cadillac's Escalade. The Escalade and its larger stablemate, the Escalade ESV, were originally intended for the country-club crowd, but their design, production and marketing have achieved huge resonance with the club crowd. The reasons for its success with that demographic are varied but would certainly include the Cadillac cachet, a strong mechanical package and dealers well distributed throughout this country's urban neighborhoods.
Regardless of its urban, suburban or rural applications, the Escalade's straightforward mechanical menu and last-century construction have been massaged into two beautifully tuned machines. Its 6.2-liter all-alloy V8 delivers horsepower and torque through GM's Hydra-matic six-speed automatic transmission. The Escalade has rear-wheel drive or available all-wheel drive. Although applying 403 horses to three tons (with passengers) doesn't make for neck-snapping acceleration, at legal speeds the Escalade is fully into its own laid-back rhythm. For the country club set, the Escalade can tow up to 8,000 pounds of horse and trailer.
Despite these many attractive qualities, the Escalade and its body-on-frame siblings are living on borrowed-from-the-EPA time. Having a body independent from the underlying platform may make for a better truck, but it creates inefficiencies in a world increasingly less tolerant of them. Although GM hasn't confirmed the design path the next Escalade and Escalade ESV will take, they will likely have unitized bodies, less weight and reduced capabilities.
Comfort & Utility
The Escalade's interior is thronelike. You need to step up to get in, and once perched either behind the thin-diameter wheel or in one of the other five stations, you have a commanding view of most of what's around you. To their credit, the team responsible for the Cadillac's interior has restrained itself. What a customer receives in today's Escalade is a mature, old-money interpretation of luxury and not the loose-pillow look you'd have received 25 years ago. You can interpret that luxury in one of four trim levels: Standard, Luxury, Premium and to-die-for Platinum.
The perforated leather buckets are attractive but provide no more lateral support than a piano stool. And should you want to open up the luggage compartment of the standard Escalade, for maximum cargo the rearmost seats need to be removed, rather than simply folded out of sight. The gods lie in the details, and the detailing is at least a decade old. Were you to need this extra capacity often, you'd be better served by opting for the Escalade ESV. Its stretched wheelbase (identical to the Chevrolet Suburban's) and overall length allow three-row seating plus a huge amount of cargo volume, or two-row seating and the ability to spend the weekend in it.
Where to begin? Cadillac's team may have started with the more pedestrian Chevrolet Tahoe 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. Magnetic Ride Control is also an option. Inside, the leather-trimmed front buckets are both heated and cooled, while tri-zone automatic climate control works to keep everyone comfortable. Navigation with touchscreen is standard on all models. On the entertainment side, there's MP3/CD/DVD, voice recognition and a USB port. Bluetooth technology is standard on all models.
Finally, GM's OnStar is provided on all trim levels. 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
Within the Escalade family (Escalade, Escalade ESV and Escalade EXT), there are two available drivetrains. Standard is the 6.2-liter V8, offering 403 horsepower and 417 lb-ft of torque. Opt for the Escalade Hybrid (only available with the standard Escalade), and you'll benefit from a two-mode hybrid system featuring an electrically variable transmission and a 300-volt nickel-metal hydride energy storage system, working with a 332-hp V8 displacing 6.0 liters. Both drivetrains are seamless in their operation, with prodigious torque, instant off-the-line response and sleep-inducing over-the-road relaxation. Despite the three tons of mass and the barn-door-like aerodynamics, both the Escalade and the Escalade ESV deliver an EPA estimate of 14 mpg city/18 mpg highway with rear-wheel drive; with all-wheel drive, it's an estimated 13/18 mpg. With the Hybrid, you'll enjoy roughly 50 percent better efficiency in stop-and-go driving and an estimated 23 mpg on the highway.
For a vehicle based on a pickup-truck chassis, the Escalade and Escalade ESV are remarkably composed, with steering, braking and cornering capability that generally disguise their agrarian roots. We would wish, however, for better on-center steering feel. And when confronted with a collision scenario, size does matter. At almost three tons, the Escalade will be bigger than most things it collides with. 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 StabiliTrak with rollover mitigation technology, standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and the 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 Trucks to Consider
Mercedes-Benz GL-Class: It's certainly more contemporary than the Cadillac, and the available BlueTec diesel makes it significantly more efficient.
Lincoln Navigator: Same (old) school of thought as the Escalade.
Infiniti QX56: An upscale derivative of Nissan's well-respected Patrol. Despite its whalelike proportions, it benefits from a unit body, a King Kong powertrain and a generally more responsive suspension than the Cadillac.
We'd equip a 2012 Escalade ESV with all-wheel drive, insist the dealer deliver it with a full tank of gas, and live happily ever after with a transaction price of around $70,000. Or, for a similar investment, we'd opt for Cadillac's CTS four-door at roughly $40,000 and find a good deal on a well-equipped Chevrolet Silverado. We'd enjoy the CTS's brand of capable luxury, and if it were necessary to perform trucklike duties, we'd have the genuine article - in the form of Chevy's well-executed pickup - in the other garage stall.