King of the Hill: Cadillac Escalade vs. Lincoln Navigator
The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Well, almost. To say there's been, and continues to be, a Lincoln versus Cadillac luxo rivalry is obvious. But who would've imagined it'd ever come to this? Not even Motor Trend dreamed we'd be comparing truck-based luxury vehicles when we documented this natural comparison several times during the '70s (see Editor-in-Chief C. Van Tune's "Historical Perspective"). Of course, this feud goes back even farther than a mere three decades, but lately the term "luxury vehicle" has begun to manifest itself in different products, namely trucks and SUVs.
When Lincoln launched the Navigator in '98 (a variation of the '97 Ford Expedition; itself derived from the F-Series pickup), people laughed-until they saw the sales numbers and profit margins Ford soon enjoyed. Less than a year later, GM quickly rebadged its GMC Yukon Denali as the '99 Cadillac Escalade. Its sales figures and profits also steadily climbed, and everyone finally took notice.
Keep in mind both Cadillac and Lincoln plan to bridge the gap and reverse this evolution by producing the missing links they skipped over: Both makers have revealed luxury pickup truck versions of their successful SUVs, the Escalade EXT and the Blackwood, available by next year. While the Escalade is effectively all-new this year, the Navigator has remained largely the same since its introduction, while Lincoln has refined equipment levels here and added options there to keep it fresh in this ever-growing segment.
In the simpler, more definitive era of 1970, our Motor Trend predecessors eloquently said of their test subjects, the Continental Mark III and the Eldorado: "Where material wealth reposes beyond well manicured lawns and shrub-lined drives, faint nuances of afternoon tennis and evening cocktail parties by the pool float delicately on the air. That's when you see them parked in the drives, at dusk. A symbol of how and how well a man has it made, his car is a mobile status beacon flashing the word to one and all." Ah, things really haven't changed after all. Of the '02 Cadillac Escalade (technically, there is no '01 model) and the '01 Lincoln Navigator, we ask the same question we did back then: Who's King of the [Luxury SUV] Hill?
This task of elevating one rolling status symbol over another nowadays can be approached more scientifically than when Nixon was President. We wouldn't presume to say what a vehicle says about you; that's for you to decide. What we can do is aim our observations, testing data, and day-to-day experiences to focus on several key elements that we feel are the must-have pieces in the lux/utility puzzle: Attitude, Power, Positioning, Human Engineering, Details, Vision, Sound Systems, Handling, and Off-Road Prowess.
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.
However, the Cadillac is clearly the winner here with its more tasteful presentation and tour de force gadget list: premium hands-free OnStar concierge service (driving directions, hotel/restaurant reservations, an Internet-accessible Virtual Advisor), dash-loading six-CD changer with a 250-watt 11-speaker Bose Acoustimass audio system, power folding mirrors, reverse sensing with audio and visual cues, Driver Information Center (offering a multitude of mileage, fuel, and trip data, as well as personalized lighting, seating, locking, and alarm option choices in no fewer than four different languages) and so on-all standard equipment. Our as-tested price was $49,990, with the only current option available being a $1550 power moonroof (which was not on our test vehicle). Bargain is a subjective term, but in this realm, it's like getting every option you could think of-and a few you might've missed-for the price of an entry-level vehicle.
Hard performance numbers are cold indicators of a vehicle's raw abilities, and as we've already mentioned, the two SUVs couldn't be more disparate here, as well. With a more powerful engine and better chassis dynamics and brakes, the Escalade soundly outdoes the Navigator. Besides the obvious bragging rights, these numbers also indicate an increased level of on-road control, comfort, and confidence. And there's nothing quite like hurtling to 60 mph in a 5800-lb SUV in just 7.4 sec. It makes you feel powerful and important, to be sure, and sounds wonderful doing it.
In the '02 Escalade, Cadillac has taken the luxury SUV movement to the pinnacle of the form. It's loaded with fresh, innovative technology, pampering comfort, and exceptional performance-in anybody's book. In two short years, the Escalade went from rebadged GM full-size SUV to definitive luxury sport/utility. What once was an "also-ran" in this relatively new category has cast a huge shadow over its nearest domestic competitor and earned its rightful title: King of the Hill.