Heading out of our offices, located on the border of Los Angeles proper, and into Beverly Hills, we encounter all manner of high-zoot machinery: flocks of Ferraris, bevies of BMWs-even a pack of Rolls-Royces or Bentleys is common. To get a rise out of this crowd, you must be at the helm of something outrageous. Mission accomplished in the new Escalade. Adorned with Cadillac's newly designed discus-size "Wreath and Crest" fore and aft, the chiseled Escalade drew double takes from B.H. drivers, especially those who caught a glimpse of the massive grille. The Navigator, however, elicited little attention. No surprise, as the Cadillac's visage is new, while the Lincoln is effectively three years old. We'll all have to wait awhile for the first look at the Expedition/Navigator reskin due in the '03 model year. Lincoln plans to differentiate the two much in the same way GM separated the Yukon/Escalade twins this year, with brand-specific interiors and hardware such as independent rear suspension in the Lincoln version of the SUV.

On the highway, we expected these 3-ton SUVs to ride similarly. Only 63 lb of curb weight separate this pair, yet the Cadillac drives smaller than its size and heft would suggest. Its AWD system is permanently set to deliver a 38/62 front/rear power split, with no low range; a two-wheel-drive version is due next year. GM has done a tremendous job with its GMT800 chassis and bi-modal, electronically adjusted shock absorbers it calls road-sensing suspension. Banished is the floaty feeling we used to get over freeway expansion joints, and the impression that the back half of the truck was in a different zip code than the front. Plus, the Escalade is equipped with both traction- and StabiliTrak stability-control systems-neither is available in the Navigator. The first would be particularly handy on slippery boat ramps, the second in any expected or unexpected emergency maneuver.

The Lincoln's air suspension, once innovative (air shocks up front, air springs out back), is now out-teched and unable to compete with the Caddy's trick electronic setup. Yet the Lincoln is optionally equipped with an AWD system called Control-Trac that, in "A4WD" mode, continually varies front-to-rear torque distribution up to a 50/50 split. Even at speed, it's also switchable in order to lock the front and rear axles together in both "4H" high, and below 15 mph, in a 2.64:1 "4L" low range. It's clearly the off-roader's choice of the two (see sidebar), yet the Navigator is hampered in that it offers only 8.5-in. ground clearance compared to the Escalade's 10.7 in.

Out on the highway, we sampled the quality, variety, and extent of the trucks' interior features. Both luxurious SUVs offer the following impressive hardware as standard: powerful V-8 engines and four-speed automatics, dual-front plus front-side airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, self-leveling suspension, power accessories, cruise control, three rows of leather-surfaced seating, front/rear auto HVAC, illuminated running boards or puddle lamps, keyless entry with memory, and towing packages including augmented engine/transmission cooling.