Hello. I'd Like a 4x4 Animal-Style and a Diet Cola, Please
Are you the kind of person who orders a hamburger with four beef patties, four slices of cheese, grilled onions and secret sauce — and then tops it all off with a diet cola? If that's the case, then the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid 4WD might be the perfect full-size SUV for you.
The Escalade has really been a phenomenon for Cadillac, a breakthrough in introducing its values and models to new people. So probably it's only natural that a Cadillac Escalade would be a choice for showing off GM's latest technology.
Then again, as we approached the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid 4WD, we thought, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Walking around it, we counted nine badges, decals and stickers that advertise the 3-ton SUV's two-mode hybrid powertrain. There are more inside, too. It's as if the Escalade Hybrid is apologizing for being an SUV instead of bragging that it's meant to be a fuel-efficient utility vehicle.
Their Economy, Our Economy
OK, maybe we're not being entirely open-minded about the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. You can make a case that the vehicles that consume the most fuel, like a Cadillac Escalade, are precisely the ones that should be made more efficient with a hybrid powertrain. Like we said about the 2008 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, "Since an SUV uses far more fuel annually than a small car, even a small improvement in a sport-ute's fuel economy can make a big difference in gallons of fuel saved at the end of the year. After all, freight trains are diesel-electric hybrids, and they're reported to transport 1 ton of cargo 436 miles on one gallon of fuel."
The Escalade is certainly a candidate for efficiency. The 2009 Cadillac Escalade AWD is rated by the EPA at 12 mpg city/19 mpg highway, while the combined figure is 14 mpg. Ironically, the seemingly analogous 2009 Escalade Hybrid 4WD is exempt from EPA fuel-economy testing. That's because the hybrid's curb weight is 325 pounds heavier, and this puts this 4x4 in a higher, heavy-duty weight class where fuel economy testing isn't required. As such, the Escalade Hybrid 4WD can't even help improve GM's CAFE score.
Sort of makes an EPA-based comparison of fuel economy between the 4WD Hybrid and AWD Escalades impossible, doesn't it?
Fortunately we have our own fuel economy routine, and our 1,000 miles of driving in the Escalade Hybrid returned a real-world fuel economy average of 16.9 mpg. Our worst fill-up produced 14.1 mpg and our best was 22.2 mpg. Unscientifically speaking, these figures represent about a 15 percent improvement over the standard AWD Escalade, or about 180 gallons of gasoline per 15,000-mile year. But since the Escalade Hybrid costs $6,395 more than a comparably equipped conventional Escalade AWD, it will take you 18.3 years to recoup the price premium in fuel savings at current prices if you drive 15,000 miles per year. Even if the price of gasoline goes up to $4 per gallon, the payback term would be 8.9 years.
What You Get for $76,635
The 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid 4WD comes with an extensive roster of standard features and it also includes at no charge other features that are effectively the same ones found in the standard, gas-powered Escalade's $6,035 "PDW V8 Ultra Luxury Collection (with 22-inch wheels)" option. With no options added, this 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid 4WD rang the register at $76,635.
There is a small selection of premium SUVs in this price range, but the Cadillac Escalade isn't like the Lexus GX 470, Lexus LX 570, Mercedes-Benz GL550 or Range Rover. Basically, it's a truck.
The driver seat, though heated and cooled, is no more comfortable than the similar seats found in the Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon hybrids (they're lighter than the seats used in their gas-powered counterparts). The steering wheel isn't centered on your driving position, and though it has power tilt, it doesn't telescope. Instead, the pedals move fore and aft, but these are meant to accommodate shorter drivers rather than enhance driver comfort.
The Escalade Hybrid comes with a standard navigation system, but the map is based on a DVD system rather than the hard drive system we adore in our 2008 Cadillac CTS long-term test car and it's noticeably less sophisticated and slower to react. Coincidentally, there's a very sharp edge on the plastic finishing plate around the Escalade's display, exactly where you'd place your hand while attempting to poke at the touchscreen (which itself is reluctant to respond to inputs).
The Escalade's 60/40-split second-row seat is roomy and comfortable (more so than the front row), and it features its own set of audio controls plus its own zone of the tri-zone climate-control system. But negotiating those heavy seats to gain access to the third row is cumbersome. It's also a completely manual operation, unlike our 2009 Ford Flex long-termer with its automated second-row tumble feature. And don't get us started with the 120 pounds of uncomfortable third-row seats that live above the Escalade's live axle, which don't stow flat, either.
Truth in Advertising
Once we set out for a drive, we were immediately impressed with the two-mode hybrid's ability to propel the Escalade on electricity alone at low speed, and the Cadillac made it all the way up the three levels of our parking structure. Once on the street, however, we found the hybrid system busy and obtrusive.
Even the owner's manual of the Escalade Hybrid warns you, "Your hybrid vehicle has several electric motors, including the motors in the transmission that help power the vehicle as well as the air-conditioning compressor, brake pump, coolant pumps and, within the Hybrid Energy Storage System, a cooling fan and electrical contactor switches. At times, you may hear these motors start up or stop, and they might produce a slight whirring, humming or blowing sound typical of electric motors. These are normal sounds found on a hybrid vehicle and may be more noticeable when the vehicle is operating in the Auto Stop mode with the engine off."
In a word, yes. You will notice these sounds — all of them. You cannot ignore them. So noticeable is the fan in the rear of the vehicle that cools the battery pack that we thought the rear-zone AC was running.
Stop and Go
Driving the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid in stop-and-go traffic revealed a brake pedal that's more akin to a digital device than a hydraulic one. As with almost all hybrids, the transition between the actuation of the regenerative brakes and operation of the mechanical brakes isn't progressive or intuitive, and the Escalade always comes to a stop clumsily no matter how smooth you try to be.
The sensation produced as the powertrain transitions between operation by the electric motor, gasoline engine or combined electric-gasoline propulsion is far from imperceptible. More of a feeling than a sound, you get the impression that there are ripples or seams in the pavement when there aren't. It's kind of like pulling a heavy trailer, and there are momentary ebbs and flows of power and momentum, especially between partial- and off-throttle situations.
One of the only transitions that is seamless is the one that occurs at freeway speeds between V8 mode and the fuel-sipping V4 mode when half the engine temporarily sleeps. You can see when this happens on the instrument panel's little display. The transmission itself is almost as seamless, but it should be, as it operates most of the time as a continuously variable transmission (CVT). In fact, the tachometer rarely exceeds 2,000 rpm up to about 60 mph.
Rated for Towing
The four fixed gear ratios within the stupendously complex multiplanetary gearset (hence "two-mode") only come into play when load conditions require, or when the driver selects manual mode for holding a ratio while towing or negotiating a hill. In fact, the Escalade Hybrid with on-demand 4WD and a locking rear differential is rated to tow up to 5,600 pounds. This is a uniquely trucklike quality you won't find in any other non-GM hybrid at this time. It even has a load-leveling rear suspension and magnetorheological dampers to better adapt to towing.
Even with those self-adjusting dampers, however, the Escalade's ride quality suffers thanks to the high-fashion 22-inch wheels wrapped in tires with short 45-series sidewalls. You cringe each time a freeway expansion joint approaches, much less when a pothole appears unexpectedly. There's a none-too-pleasant shudder through the entire vehicle for a period of time after the jarring event has passed. All that unsprung weight (the enemy of both ride and handling) that comes with this Escalade's wheel-and-tire package is obvious even to the uninitiated.
The Bottom Line
The 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is not like other luxury SUVs because it's meant to deliver actual utility, like towing a trailer or a boat. And it's not like other hybrids, because it can tow a trailer or a boat. But is it worth it?
If you're thinking of trading in your Escalade AWD for an Escalade Hybrid to save money on gas, not a bit. The fuel savings might be significant in the abstract, but they're negligible in terms of lengthening the interval between your visits to the gas station. If you're looking for a luxury SUV package, the Escalade Hybrid isn't worth it either, because it actually diminishes the qualities you look for in the Cadillac brand.
If you must have a large, truck-based SUV and want the added fuel economy of a hybrid powertrain (not to mention a reduction in the social resentment that big SUVs inspire these days), then instead consider a Chevy Tahoe Hybrid 2WD for $52,000. It'll ride better, tow up to 600 pounds more and save you $24,000.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Director of Vehicle Testing Dan Edmunds says:
Let me get this straight.
This 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is exempt from EPA fuel economy regulations, making it the first hybrid with no mpg figures on its window sticker. How can this be? Well, vehicles that weigh 6,000 pounds simply don't undergo official EPA testing, and this two-mode hybridized Escalade weighs over 3 tons before you hoist your keister inside.
The irony is crushing.
There's no doubt that GM's two-mode system is an admirable piece of engineering. When it wants to be, it's a genuine hybrid system that has two ranges of CVT operation that can blend a worthwhile dose of electric drive for dramatically improved fuel economy. This is especially true in the city, where fuel economy rises from 12 mpg to around 19 or 20 mpg (although with no official EPA figures, we can only speculate). So what if it the electric motors, regenerative braking function and battery cooling fans make this Escalade sound as eerie as a haunted house when it's trolling around your neighborhood?
And yet — and this is the two-mode part — the CVT's multiple interconnected planetary gearsets can be frozen in place in specific combinations to provide the four fixed gears necessary for decent towing and hauling capability. It's a neat trick.
GM's decision to hybridize its SUVs makes a kind of sense — up to a point. The nonlinear nature of the mpg unit means that a 1-mpg improvement for less fuel-efficient vehicles represents more saved gallons of fuel (and money) than it does for more fuel-efficient vehicles. This Escalade Hybrid saves about 250 gallons of fuel in a 15,000-mile year thanks to an estimated improvement of 5 mpg combined, while Toyota's Camry Hybrid does 9 mpg better than the standard Camry, but saves only 159 gallons annually.
But the Escalade Hybrid still uses 750 gallons per year. In comparison, the standard Camry sucks down only 516 gallons and the Camry Hybrid sips just 392 gallons. Sure, the Escalade's a different animal, but it's still a far thirstier one (bogus advertising comparisons to the Mini Cooper S aside).
Furthermore, at a price of $75,000, this Escalade costs nearly $10K more than the standard edition. At $4 per gallon, it saves $1,000 per year in fuel; at current prices, you save less than $500. It doesn't pencil out.
It's not as if the Escalade is a great SUV. Hybrid or not, it isn't. Who's this chrome-encrusted greenish machine for, anyway? Few can afford to spend so much to save so little. The only people I can seeing buying this eco-beast are those for whom the cost of the vehicle and fuel are inconsequential, but can nevertheless get some traction by uttering "Escalade" and "hybrid" among their circle of friends. You know, people with first names like Britney, Lindsay and Senator.
Executive Editor Michael Jordan says:
There's a television commercial about the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid and it tells us that the Escalade Hybrid gets better fuel economy in the city than a Mini Cooper. And in fact, the Mini gets 19 mpg while the two-wheel-drive (not 4WD like our test truck) Escalade Hybrid gets 20 mpg.
Of course, the 2008 Mini Cooper S cited is the least economical version of the car by a mile. It's not only a convertible, it's the first-generation Mini platform with a supercharged engine instead of the latest direct-injection turbo motor. The current 2009 Mini Cooper S coupe is rated at 23 mpg city with an automatic transmission and 26 mpg city with a manual transmission. The regular Mini with its normally aspirated engine gets 25 mpg city with an automatic and 28 mpg city with a manual.
Shall I continue? Let's talk about highway mpg, even though Cadillac didn't. That worst-case Mini that Caddy chose to compare to its best-case SUV gets 29 mpg highway to the Escalade Hybrid's 21 mpg. And Minis go up from there, all the way to 37 mpg highway. The Escalade has nowhere left to go.
What frustrates me is that you can't just talk about city fuel economy and pretend that highway mpg doesn't exist. And a few months ago, when they were touting the Cobalt XFE, it was the other way around, when highway mpg superiority was advertised to the exclusion of city mpg.
Tell you what. If you are going to make mpg claims and comparisons to other cars and you're going to use one number, it had better be EPA combined. There ought to be a law. I'll start lobbying for it myself. OK, use two numbers if you want, city and highway, but no fine print. Both must get the same equal billing they enjoy on window stickers at dealerships.
Which brings me to the irony of our 2009 Cadillac Escalade 4x4 Hybrid: It has no EPA window sticker ratings because...wait for it...it's too heavy and therefore exempt. We can only speculate, but it has got to be worse than the 20 mpg city/21 highway mpg and 20 mpg combined rating of the Escalade 4x2 Hybrid used for comparison to the 2008 Mini.
Listen, the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid may be an improvement over the original, but it's no economy car, hybrid or not.