The year is 1999, a time of bliss and abundance for SUVs. The rectilinear giants roam the land, stopping only to drink deeply at roadside springs and billabongs. It is a mid-Jurassic golden age, and conditions are ripe for the emergence of an alpha-beast, which they would call Escalade.
In a product-planning masterstroke, Cadillac brought luxury sedan equipment levels to a General Motors full-size SUV, a move that would generate a new vehicle type – and massive profits for the corporate parent. Though the Ford F-150-based Lincoln Navigator crawled out of the swamp a year earlier, the Escalade, through its robust sales, imposing presence and lusty embrace by influencers in pop culture, would come to define this emerging breed of large premium vehicle.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the ranks have thinned. Among the first casualties was the Ford Excursion, a four-tonne thumb in Greenpeace’s eye. Though no extinction event is on the near horizon, these vehicles are firmly in their third act, buffeted by volatile oil prices, buyers’ post-recession pushback against ostentation and the sense – not unfounded – that lumbering American SUVs are a bit déclassé. The token refresh granted the 2015 Navigator has done little to suggest large SUVs were ascendant.
Perhaps that’s because the Escalade had yet to speak.
The 2015 Cadillac swaggers into frame with more chrome, more power, more leather, more wood, more LEDs, more cargo room and – surprise – less thirst, yet it is still unabashedly, unapologetically a colossus. Even Cadillac gives its flagship SUV a wide berth. “Escalade is almost a brand unto its own,” said Andrew Smith, head of Cadillac design, at the vehicle’s US media launch. That said the 2015 model toes the Caddy party line more than past generations did, to its benefit.
All Escalades receive Magnetic Ride Control, the key ingredient in Cadillac’s growing reputation for building drivers’ cars. So adept is the suspension at reading the road and filtering out garbage inputs that Ferrari also uses it for its 458 Italia supercar. Potholes register as acorns beneath the Escalade’s standard 20-inch chrome wheels shod with all-season Continental tires. (Twenty-two inch rims are optional.) Thankfully, this isolation is not attended by a marshmallowy ride; damping has more in common with the plush yet firm Cadillac XTS mid-size sedan than with the Chevrolet Silverado truck on which the SUV is largely based.
Outside, the Escalade remains effectively a box, with slab-straight sides and nary a curve from snout to tail. Instead, Cadillac makes lighting its canvas. Headlamp LEDs are stacked like camera flash bulbs, with foglight elements arrayed in a reverse “L” pattern. Out back, red vertical light bars bear discreet “Cadillac” scripts beneath their lens covers. Discretion may seem at odds with an Escalade, but Cadillac has heard your whispers and would rather you use their car to go antiquing. (Drivers can load “a mid-century chaise lounge or a Pewabic vase” in the Escalade’s “cut and sewn” interior, the brand graciously suggests on its website.)
Inside, Cadillac has modelled the Escalade’s environment on that of its newest siblings – the ATS, CTS and XTS sedans, as well as the ELR plug-in coupe. Where a pickup truck’s drab centre stack once stood is the glossy black faceplate and Cue infotainment display of those aforementioned models. For all its well-documented histrionics, Cue is an acceptable mousetrap, offering intuitive submenus and hassle-free integration for peripheral devices. As a playlist heavy on circa-1983 Detroit electro pumped through the speakers, the standard Bose Centerpoint Surround Sound audio system delivered rich, distortion-free bass. Not a single plastic panel or slice of open-pore wood veneer was sent abuzz by the low frequencies either, a testament to the 2015 Escalade’s build quality. Toggling to Baroque concertos, however, revealed frustrating vagueness in the Bose system’s midrange.
The same could be said for the carried-over 6.2-litre V8 engine, which, despite rises in horsepower and torque – from 403hp/417lb-ft to 420hp/460lb-ft – delivers strong but not crisp power. Highway onramps are dispatched quickly enough, yet a driver might want for more immediacy. Cadillac could have taken a cue, as it were, from the woebegone Navigator and offered a turbocharged V6 for 2015 at a buyer’s premium. Cadillac already manufactures such an engine, a brand-new, 420hp, 430lb-ft honeypot that would improve low-end grunt, fuel economy and maybe even public opinion.
As with most luxury goods, making a near-6,000lb metal box read like a hand-wrought bauble is about image management. The Escalade’s minders have worked to soften their creation’s brutish tendencies, and have succeeded in marked ways. A heart transplant, however, would demonstrate the freakish adaptability of the beast, and perhaps ensure its survival long after its peers have shrunk back into the primordial ooze.