After Cadillac dealers grew tired of watching thousands of new luxury sport-utility customers walk into rival Lincoln showrooms and snap up the big Navigator SUV, General Motors had to do something, and fast. Sure, GM had been working on a new, full-size Cadillac sport-utility project, but engineers couldn't promise it before the 2000 model year. So the marketing guys came up with an idea to clone GMC's new-for-'99 premium SUV, the Yukon Denali, and rebadge it as a Cadillac to give those dealers something to sell until the big new Caddy SUV is ready next year.
Enter the Escalade. As the first truck-based vehicle in Cadillac's 96-year history, Escalade is meant to combine the best features of a luxury car with those of an all-weather, all-terrain vehicle. Exterior styling differs from the donor Denali by the use of a more distinct grille with bright chrome bezel and the Cadillac logo affixed smack dab in the middle. Reflector-optic halogen headlamps and recessed projector-beam fog lamps reside in a smoothie-style front fascia. Body-color cladding and integrated running boards spruce up the flanks, with textured body-color door handles, outside rearview mirrors and color-keyed rails on the flush roof rack completing the monotone look. Out back, a functional step bumper conceals a standard trailer hitch.
The Escalade's interior features upper and lower consoles packed with storage cubbies and other conveniences such as reading lamps, cupholders, a rear power point and audio controls. Instrumentation is backlit in blue with white pointers and includes a tachometer. Luxury touches abound, with Zebrano wood trim, leather front and rear heated seats, and a premium Bose sound system with six-CD changer and single-CD in-dash player. GM's OnStar mobile communications system is standard, as are dual front next-generation airbags and keyless remote entry with an adjustable, shock-sensing anti-theft system.
Powering all this opulence is 5.7-liter pushrod V8 packing 255 horsepower. The Vortec 5700 puts its 330 foot-pounds of torque to the ground via a four-speed automatic transmission and the AutoTrac full-time four-wheel-drive system. When activated, the AutoTrac transfer case will automatically shift from two-wheel drive to 4WD when it senses wheel slippage. Escalade rides on unique six-spoke chromed aluminum wheels wearing Firestone 265/70R-16 touring tires designed especially for sport-utility applications on- and off-road in both wet and dry conditions.
The Escalade provides a ''look-at-me'' driving experience around town and a king-of-the-road feel out on the highway. There's no question that the big Caddy SUV has gobs of curb appeal, but understand that it is all riding atop a 10-year-old pickup truck design, with all the flaws inherent to its humble underpinnings. The steering is vague, brakes are on the numb side and the ride quality is not as highly tuned as the price tag. Luxo SUVs are the hot ticket right now, and Escalade fits the bill. But the price walk from an optioned-out GMC Yukon to the dolled-up Cadillac Escalade is rather steep. We think the Escalade will lose much of its luster every time you see a GMC Yukon Denali pass by. It might be wiser to just wait and see what the next-generation big luxury SUV GM is working on will be like.