Ever since it debuted in 1999, the Cadillac Escalade has been the benchmark for full-size luxury SUVs. Few vehicles have been as polarizing over four generations. What some see as a symbol of success and elegance, others view as a show of arrogance and excess. During Escalade’s most recent (third) generation, Cadillac made some attempts to straddle the line, offering a smaller V8 engine and even a hybrid version of the SUV. For 2015, the fourth generation Escalade gets a new platform, a new 6.2-liter V8, new exterior styling, new interior design and a bold, unrepentant attitude. The 2015 Cadillac Escalade starts at $72,690 for the Standard rear-wheel drive model up to $86,790 for the Premium ESV (long wheelbase) four-wheel drive model, plus options and destination charges.
Escalade’s exterior design, while all-new, is still recognizably Escalade and distinct from the new Chevy and GMC SUVs, especially in the front and rear elevations. A big Cadillac crest sits on the wide horizontally-barred grille. Vertical headlight arrays dress the corners, with full-function LED headlamps and LED cornering lamps. Around back, full LED taillamps define a vertical space that echoes the old Cadillac fins. Escalade’s profile is the least distinctive view, with a lot of sheet metal covering that big body. 20” wheels dress the Standard trim level; 22” wheels come on the Luxury and Premium trims.
Inside the Escalade, things have definitely been turned up a notch. Cadillac is rightly proud of the cut-and-stitch interior, which is further enhanced by real wood trim in true luxury style. Technology is an essential luxury feature to most buyers, and Escalade’s loaded with visible examples. A 12.3” high-resolution screen with a highly configurable driver information center handles instrument panel duty. A head-up display is included with the Premium trim level. The 8” screen in the center console is the headquarters for Cadillac User Experience (CUE), the brand’s infotainment interface. I could have used an extra week or two to dive into all of the intricacies of CUE. Tech-savvy buyers will find the system very rewarding, especially with new Text-to-Voice features and Siri Eyes Free, one of the first automotive applications of Apple’s sophisticated virtual digital assistant. I honestly did not have enough time during my one-day drive of the Escalade to fully evaluate the system, but a cursory use showed much promise. I was less impressed with the capacitive buttons and controls below the touchscreen, however – they were way too finicky and reactive for my sausage fingers. Give me a plain old rotary volume knob any day, and I’ll be able to keep my eyes on the road.
GM finally addressed a big complaint in the Escalade and its other full-size SUVs by engineering a fold-flat third row seat. Previous generations had a bulky, removable third row that took up cargo space or garage space when not in use. An unintended consequence also made the Escalade a vandalism magnet, as the third row had significant value on the used market, and was easily stolen. Power fold flat third (and second) rows have solved that concern – maybe the most significant positive change in the whole generational makeover. Escalade’s second row is executive transport worthy – comfortable and feature-laden, especially in the Premium trim level. Luggage capacity in the regular wheelbase is 15.2 cubic feet. Fold down the second row, and you can get 51.6 cubic feet of cargo in; flop the second row, and 94.2 cubic feet of space opens up. The long wheelbase ESV improves those figures to 39.3/76.7/120.9 cubic feet, respectively – more space than you’d get in a Japanese capsule hotel room. Bring on the stuff!
General Motors recently debuted its revised full-size SUV and pickup platform, K2, which underlies the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups and Chevy Tahoe and Suburban and GMC Yukon and Yukon XL SUVs, so we knew that the Escalade would follow not far behind. Like the previous platform (GMT900), K2 is a body-on-frame setup with independent coil-over shock front suspension and a solid axle five-link rear with coil springs in the rear. The frame is fully boxed and made of 75% high-strength steel for increased rigidity. Escalade gets stabilizer bars front and rear, and GM’s Magnetic Ride Control system as standard equipment. Magnetic Ride Control, which is a high-tech system that continuously varies shock damping based on road conditions, is a feature that delivers a more controlled ride. It debuted on the 2003 Cadillac Seville, and has been a high-end feature on several GM vehicles ever since, most notably on performance vehicles like the Corvette and CTS-V. Escalade handles better than ever before, with agility that belies it size and weight (between 5,594 and 6,040 lbs depending on configuration). New electric power steering does a great job of delivering road feel, with nicely weighted steering effort and good turn in. There’s none of the tippy feeling that can plague a big SUV. Still, it’s good to know that Escalade comes with a full array of safety features, both passive and active. Most impressive is a new front-seat center airbag that can help keep front-seat passenger and driver from injuring each other in a side collision. Look for this segment-first to spread to other luxury SUVs soon.
Escalade needs power for performance, and the new direct-injected 6.2-liter V8 delivers a healthy dose: 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. There’s active fuel management and cylinder deactivation technology at work to squeeze a few more miles out of each gallon, but fuel economy is unimpressive at 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway for the 4WD ESV (15/21 for the 2WD standard wheelbase version). Cadillac is responding to market forces here – the hybrid option and smaller V8 versions of previous generations sold poorly. It seems that Cadillac buyers care less about fuel economy than the ability to get up and go. Filling the 31-gallon tank to the brim can space out fuel stops, but it won’t be cheap, because the big engine demands the premium juice to get full power. A six-speed automatic transmission helps propel the Escalade from a stop to 60 miles per hour in under six seconds, according to Cadillac. Rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive versions are available in each trim level, with a bump of about $2,600 for the additional drive.
Escalade provokes a reaction in people, and is not a casual purchase. If you’re at all interested in stealth luxury, you might want to consider one of GM’s other full-size SUVs. You can get very close to the same levels of equipment in the GMC Yukon Denali, and even the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban can be kitted out pretty fully, and they’ll come close to flying beneath the radar. Lincoln’s Navigator is getting a cosmetic refresh for 2015, but its underpinnings are less refined than Escalade’s. Lexus’s LX is worth driving, but lacks the Escalade’s presence.
For Escalade fans, the 2015 edition is the best version yet. It’s unlikely to convert aspirational Prius drivers, but it will sail past them with serenity and confidence – until it’s time to find a parking space at the mall or fill up that cavernous gas tank.