Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
When Cadillac introduced the original Escalade sport-utility in 1998, skeptics scoffed at the notion of an SUV bearing the wreath and crest of GM's luxury brand. Regardless of the fact that they were nothing more than dressed-up Tahoes, Escalades flew off the lots, proving that image is everything.
With the introduction of the Escalade EXT, Cadillac is once again heading into uncharted territory. There's really nothing on the road quite like the EXT, except its cousin, the Chevrolet Avalanche. Although both trucks share the same platform and layout, Cadillac engineers were quick to point out that the EXT is more than just a decked-out Avalanche.
First off, the EXT gets the same high-power 6.0-liter V8 as the standard Escalade sport-ute. We love this engine in the Escalade, and it's just as exceptional in the EXT. Whether accelerating hard from a stop or passing on the highway, this burly powerplant rarely runs out of muscle. The heavy-duty four-speed transmission had little trouble coping with the substantial horsepower from the big V8. We tried our best to confuse the high-tech tranny, but it managed to deliver smooth shifts every time.
The EXT also gets a full-time all-wheel-drive system that promises surefooted traction even in the harshest climate conditions. Our introductory test drive consisted of nothing more than perfectly dry Northern California backcountry roads, so we can't attest to the system's effectiveness in low-traction situations.
However, the winding roads did give us a chance to throw the big sport-ute's weight around to test the sophisticated Road Sensing Suspension system. Designed to adjust the EXT's ride quality to compensate for changing road conditions, this system does a terrific job of balancing ride comfort with body control. We were surprised by the nimble feel of the nearly three-ton vehicle as it negotiated a string of tight corners. It's certainly no sports car, but between the torque of the V8 and the balanced control provided by the well-tuned suspension, the EXT is a capable performer.
The light steering feels great in parking lots but a little numb at higher speeds. Engineers on hand assured us that the steering would be improved on production models. The brakes dragged the vehicle to a halt with little trouble, but there was some perceptible nosedive during hard stops.
Stability control systems have come a long way in a just a few years, and the EXT's standard StabiliTrak system is a perfect example of the improvements that have been made. Intervening only momentarily while we pushed the EXT hard through corners, the system rarely made itself known. If not for the indicator light on the dashboard, we would have never guessed that the vehicle's computer had momentarily cut in to maintain stability. Combined with the full-time all-wheel-drive system, the EXT should prove to be a competent and safe vehicle in rough climates.
With such graceful pavement manners, you would never guess that this Cadillac is capable of serious hauling duty. Employing the same innovative Midgate system as the Avalanche, the EXT can transform its 5-foot-3-inch utility bed into a full-size 8-foot-1-inch cargo area in just a few minutes. This allows it to handle the ubiquitous 4x8 sheet of plywood, but considering that the average income projection for EXT owners is well into the six-figure range, we don't expect to see many EXTs getting stuffed full of sheetrock at the local Home Depot.
The Midgate system itself is quite simple. Just flip the second-row seats forward, remove the rear window (it has its own holder in the Midgate) and drop the Midgate to make way for a cargo area that extends all the way to the back of the front seats. Keep the three-section cargo cover in place and you have a lockable, weather-proof full-size truck bed. For bulkier items, any of the three panels can be removed quickly and easily.
Even if you don't make use of the EXT's surprisingly utilitarian nature, at least you're sure to enjoy its well-appointed interior. Essentially an exact copy of the standard Escalade's interior, the EXT provides all the luxury trimmings you would expect in a Cadillac. The heated power seats provide plenty of comfort and support, while an easy-to-use climate control system keeps the temperature just right. The top-shelf Bose stereo system has more than enough power in addition to an easily accessible six-disc changer right in the dashboard console. Parts we could do without include the unconvincing wood trim and the accompanying dashboard that barely disguises the fact that it's the same one used in every other GM full-size truck and sport-utility.
If it seems like a bit of stretch to think that many luxury SUV buyers really want this much utility, or are willing to pay the nearly $50,000 base price, we agree. Strangely enough, even Cadillac seems to acknowledge that fact. The initial sales target is only 12,000 units for the year, so the company's well aware that it's not likely to garner the mass appeal of more traditional sport-utes.
One thing's for sure, the folks at Cadillac won't be satisfied unless the EXT outsells its only real competitor: the Lincoln Blackwood. Although the Blackwood's concept is much the same, it favors style over substance with its carpet-lined cargo bed and four-passenger limit. The Escalade EXT isn't exactly practicality on wheels either, but for those who want to have their cake and eat it, too, the EXT is about as close as you can get.
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