First Drive: 2002 Cadillac Escalade
Over the top in every measure: the world's most powerful SUV
At the Pebble Beach golf course in picturesque Monterey, California, Cadillac launched its new-for-'02 Escalade luxury sport/utility, and pulled the wraps off its highly anticipated, production-spec '03 "luxury roadster," based on the Evoc concept car ("News" Nov. 2000). This "art and science" presentation gave us the opportunity to drive a preproduction version of the all-wheel-drive Escalade, and to get a glimpse of where the manufacturer intends to go in the very near future. We can't divulge much about Cadillac's upcoming model lineup, but we can tell you big things are on the way for GM's premium brand-and what it's like to drive its new, full-size SUV.
The Escalade's capable foundation is the new GMT800 platform shared with the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Yukon Denali. Built in Arlington, Texas, the Escalade's chassis structure features an all-welded, fully boxed, ladder-type channel-frame design with hydroformed front and rear sections. Thanks to this structurally stiff platform, the new Escalade is rock solid, yet whisper quiet and supple to drive.
In terms of "art," we've criticized the previous Escalade for looking way too much like a badge-engineered GMC Yukon Denali-which is exactly what it was. It even used the same wheels as its luxo GMC twin. This time around, the designers created acceptable model differentiation by giving the Escalade unique-and decidedly Caddy-esque-sheetmetal. Its face is a little too "in your face" for us, but it gets noticed, for sure. And the 17-in. seven-spoke alloys are also all its own.
Cadillac was pleased to announce that its version of the 6.0L Vortec motor-also a brand exclusive-allows the Escalade to claim the title of "World's Most Powerful SUV." At a whopping 345 hp, it outdoes the former holder of that title, the Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG-though by a mere 3 hp. Unfortunately, despite this boast, Cad's 5800-lb luxo-cruiser will fail to beat the all-sport ML55 in a sprint to 60 mph (8.4 sec versus 6.3). Perhaps more important, the '02 Escalade does soundly outrun its 5.7L 2000-model predecessor by two full seconds. Note that there'll be no '01 model Escalade, as the '02 will be available in January 2001. A 5.3L/285-hp two-wheel-drive version will be available sometime later in the year.
For now, the Escalade will be offered in all-wheel-drive form only; this full-time system operates transparently, as there is no transfer case or low range offered. Its 3.73:1 differential ratios help make 8500-lb towing possible, turning hard launches into a decidedly visceral experience. An improved 4L60-E HD four-speed automatic transmission has been fully recalibrated to take advantage of the Vortec 6000 engine's increased horsepower. On the road, the Escalade is much faster than its comfy accommodations and proportions would suggest. It's one of those vehicles in which you find yourself accidently exceeding the speed limit.
Anyone can claim to make the most luxurious, best equipped, techno-packed sport/utility, but they've really done it with this Escalade. Its leather-lined interior (larger in all dimensions over the previous model) is as comfortable as you'd expect from a Cadillac the size of a college dorm room-only better furnished. Said dorm room would also benefit from the 11-speaker Bose Acoustimass audio system with in-dash six-disc CD changer. And those who live in chilly climes will appreciate its heated front and second-row seats.
Cadillac has included Premium OnStar service with a new voice-activated, Internet-accessible "Virtual Advisor" (automated reports on sports scores, stock prices, etc.), multi-zone climate control, and a redesigned instrument panel. Seating for eight is now available with standard third-row accommodations that are easy to remove for maximum cargo space (being two 38-lb seats instead of a single, heavy bench that requires a forklift to move).
The "science" part of the equation is where you can't see it-the ghost in the machine. For the first time, Cadillac's StabiliTrak control system has been applied to an SUV, as has "road-sensing" suspension composed of semi-active, bi-modal shock absorbers linked to several sensors, and a computer to keep the overall ride level, taut, smooth, and comfortable. It really works: We were shocked at how the Escalade drives much "smaller" than it really is. An electronic throttle control system links cruise control, throttle progression, and brake torque management, while rear parking sensors keep you from marring the bumper.
Exterior styling issues aside, Cadillac's taken the luxury SUV to the inevitable extreme. It's loaded with technology, comfort, performance, and attitude. It remains to be seen whether the market for this type of vehicle is as hungry as the maker predicts, although sales of its obvious competitor, Lincoln's Navigator, remain brisk. However, for those who wish to project an ultimate, over-the-top SUV statement, the Escalade is ready.