Cashing in by way of four-wheel drive.
by Robert Ahl
Eighteen months ago, Ford took its huge Ford Expedition SUV, slapped a big chrome grille on the nose and a leather interior inside, raised the price by $10,000, and put a Lincoln badge on the hood.
The Lincoln Navigator was born. It was a controversial move. Critics called it a mistake for a domestic luxury carmaker to offer a truck of any kind. They also thought the Navigator looked over-styled and tasteless. But Lincoln had the last laugh. The luxury sport-utility market in the United States exploded from 35,258 sales in 1996 to 92,032 sales in 1997, thanks in part to the Navigator, which made up 47 percent of that increase.
When the Navigator was rolled out at the 1997 Detroit auto show, Cadillac huffed that there would never be an SUV wearing a Cadillac badge. But the shocking success of the Navigator forced GM’s luxury division to eat its words, and an SUV with a Cadillac badge bowed as a 1999 model. Called the Escalade, it’s based on the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon/Denali and is built at the same GM plant as those models, in Arlington, Texas. Obviously, the Escalade is meant to go head to head in the market with the Navigator, as well as with other luxury sport-utility vehicles like the Range Rover and the Lexus LX470 (and Toyota Land Cruiser).
Cadillac boasts that it took just 10 months to bring the Escalade from program approval to the start of production. But that's really a reflection of what little effort Cadillac put into this truck. Other than some lower plastic body cladding, the Escalade's body is otherwise unchanged from that of the Tahoe/Yukon/Denali. What few changes there are include body-colored bumpers and a big grille that "drops" down on top of the front bumper - a styling cue all Cadillacs share. The headlamps are from the GMC Denali. Projector-beam fog lamps are standard, as are new aerodynamic side steps under the doors. The look is handsome and clean, particularly in dark colors. But we think this Cadillac still will be mistaken for a Chevy or GMC.
It’s a similar story inside. With the exception of a thin loop of wood surrounding the instruments, the dashboard is otherwise unchanged from the one fitted to the Tahoe/Yukon/Denali. That’s too bad, because there’s already too much plastic on the dashboard, even for a truck. The switches and controls are scattered about, making for a cluttered appearance, but at least they’re easy to find. Wood accents on the steering wheel, doors, and center console break up the sea-of-plastic look. The doors have soft leather padding, and the five seats are covered in tasteful perforated leather. The power front seats are comfortable, but they lack lateral support.
Not that you’ll need it anyway. On its Goodyear P265/70R-16 passenger car tires, the hefty Escalade can generate only 0.70 g of grip in a corner. The Cadillac has a retro chassis, at least by car standards. Its body is bolted to a separate ladder frame, with control-arms and torsion bars up front and a live rear axle with leaf springs in the rear. The recirculating-ball power steering isn’t at all sloppy, but it doesn’t provide much feedback of the road, either.
On the plus side, the Escalade does ride almost as smoothly and quietly as a Cadillac sedan, thanks to its Bilstein shock absorbers, which are standard. Front and rear anti-roll bars keep body roll from becoming excessive, and the Escalade’s chassis retains good balance even when pushed to the limit. The disc-drum anti-lock brakes have acceptable feel and fade noticeably only under extreme conditions. Truthfully, if we were in a hurry, we would probably choose this Escalade over a Range Rover.
That’s assuming we were driving only on the road. On rough, off-road terrain, the Range Rover, with its superior suspension compliance, would walk away from this Caddy. The Escalade uses the same “Autotrac” four-wheel-drive system as the Tahoe/Yukon/Denali. This system has a rear-wheel-drive mode, and two four-wheel-drive modes (low and high ratio.) Each is selected by a switch on the dashboard. The four-wheel-drive system can be used on all surfaces - the front wheels are engaged with a viscous clutch only when there’s a difference in front-to-rear wheel speed. The system operates smoothly and can be safely used off road, but it’s really designed for driving in bad winter weather.
Only one engine is available on the Cadillac - Chevy’s age-old 5.7-liter cast-iron V-8. With all of its engineering updates over the years, it has become a smooth and healthy-sounding engine. It also makes a very respectable 255 horsepower, which is enough to push the big Escalade to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds. This long-lived engine will be replaced soon, though, by one of GM’s new truck V-8s (based on the new Corvette V-8) that were first introduced on Chevy’s new Silverado pickup truck. That new engine should help improve this Cadillac’s terrible fuel economy - just 13 miles per gallon in the EPA city cycle, and 16 mpg in the EPA highway cycle. Top speed of the Escalade is governed to 110 mph.
The transmission needs no improvement. GM’s 4L60-E automatic has electronically controlled shifting and torque-converter lockup. Its shifts are smooth but quick, and it never seems to be in the wrong gear. GM offers manual transmissions on base versions of some GM trucks but not a luxury truck like this one.
As you would expect, the Escalade comes with a full complement of features, many of which you can’t get in the Tahoe and Yukon. A sophisticated and powerful Bose sound system is standard, with a CD player in the dashboard, and a CD changer. Rear-seat passengers have separate controls, and Sony headphones, stored in the center armrest. A rear climate control system is also standard. The four outboard seats are heated, but can only be turned on if the seatbelt on the seat is fastened, which prevents the heaters from being left on.
The Escalade also comes with GM’s OnStar communications system, controlled by three buttons on an overhead console. Through this system, which uses GPS satellites and a cellular phone connection, a driver can be directed to a destination by an OnStar operator. If a warning light flashes in the instruments, the operator can uplink data from the car, analyze the problem, and tell the driver what’s wrong. If the keys are locked in the Escalade, OnStar can unlock the doors, and it can track the vehicle for the police if it is stolen. It will also place a call to the driver if the dual airbags are deployed - if the driver doesn’t answer, emergency services are called to the vehicle’s location.
Base price of the Escalade is expected to be about $45,000. That’s $1,000 more than a four-wheel-drive Lincoln Navigator but more than $10,000 less than a Lexus LX470 or a Range Rover 4.6HSE.
It’s probably tempting to dismiss the Escalade as yet one more example of American automotive excess. But Cadillac’s motivation with the Escalade is understandable. Dealer surveys found that of all customers that left Cadillac for another car make in 1997, 21 percent of them bought an SUV. Those are too many customers for Cadillac to ignore. Petrol prices are the lowest they’ve been since the 1920s in this country, too, which means that there’s no incentive here to buy small vehicles. It’s hard to fault Cadillac for cashing in with the Escalade while the market is hot.
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