It’s now been two decades since the very first Cadillac Escalade arrived on the scene. Initially, it was little more than a GMC Yukon Denali with different badging — and the Yukon Denali itself was really just a decked out Chevrolet Tahoe. The first Escalade even used the exact same wheels as the Denali, but with different logos on the center caps. It was fairly obvious that the first Escalade was thrown together in a rush to compete with the Lincoln Navigator.
Fast forward to today and the Cadillac Escalade is a sought-after status symbol that’s synonymous with American luxury. I don’t think it reached the status and name recognition that it has today because of the first-gen Escalade. I think the second-gen model that ran from model years 2002 to 2006 is really the one that kicked off the nameplate’s legacy.
The second-gen Escalade was the first one that wasn’t an aesthetic carbon copy of another GM product. Yes, it still had an awful lot in common with the corresponding generation of the other full-size GM SUVs, but it had a classy and distinct design that was different enough from its Chevrolet and GMC brethren to stand out.
You still see these things all over the place — and I think they’re aging pretty well. What I like about this generation of the Escalade is that it is both unapologetically a truck and unapologetically a Cadillac. I especially like the dinner-plate-sized Cadillac emblem on the back. From every angle, there’s no confusing this Escalade with a Yukon or a Tahoe. Also, let’s not forget that this was the generation that introduced the Chevy Avalanche-based Cadillac Escalade EXT (endearingly nicknamed the "Escalanche") pickup truck thing. A lot of people hate the EXT — but to me it’s a beautiful marriage of weirdness, functionality, luxury and in-your-face style, and I really wish it were still around.
When the Escalade came into its third generation for model years 2007 to 2014, the longest-running Escalade generation so far, some genius at GM said "let’s make the Escalade look just like the Yukon again" — and the Cadillac was less distinct. It may have been a better SUV in a lot of ways, but I think the third-gen Escalade was a step backward in terms of design. Aside from the current generation, the second-gen Escalade is the only one that you can really, truly tell is an Escalade if you take the emblems off.
Full-size luxury SUVs have come a long way since the early 2000s, but I still think the second-gen Cadillac Escalade is a classy brute that is aging nicely and has no qualms about it is. Just a fancy Tahoe? Maybe, but is that a bad thing?