2002 Cadillac Escalade Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
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2002 Cadillac Escalade SUV

(5.3L V8 4-speed Automatic)

The New Look of Cadillac — Whether You Like It Or Not

Some call it bold; others gaudy. The emblem on the back is practically the size of a hubcap, and in Los Angeles, they'll barely let one off the lot unless it's been fitted with 20-inch chrome wheels, a cow-catcher brush guard and a heavy dose of limo tint. Driving one will get you dismissive scowls from WWII veterans and jealous stares from high school kids in Hondas.

And this is a Cadillac?

Well, sort of.

Built on the same platform as GMC's Yukon and Chevrolet's Tahoe, the Escalade shares numerous structural and internal details with its more low-brow cousins. The dimensions are roughly the same, the layouts are similar, even the base engine is shared across the line. So what makes this hulk of automotive excess a Cadillac?

Well, for one, the styling is hard to miss. Although the upcoming CTS sedan is considered the first true application of Cadillac's new "art and science" design philosophy, the Escalade should get some credit for easing the public into the idea of a hard-edged Caddy. The unmistakable in-your-face front-end with its vertically stacked headlights and prominent emblem is the only real departure from the norm, although more subtle elements throughout give the Escalade a sharp exterior look.

Other notable improvements include a class-leading 345-horsepower V8, full-time all-wheel drive and a continuously adjustable suspension. All this adds up to a much-improved Escalade, one more deserving of GM's most prestigious brand's wreath and crest.

This was hardly the case when the original Escalade debuted in 1998. Journalists scoffed at the first rendition of Cadillac's first ever "truck," noting that it was nothing more than a leathered-up Tahoe with Cadillac badges. It had its share of exclusive equipment, but the original Escalade wasn't fooling anybody with its weak engine, sloppy suspension and extra-thick carpeting.

Up against more refined competitors, the Escalade finished a miserable fifth place (out of five) in our Luxury SUV Comparison Test. Rivals like the Lexus LX 470 and Mercedes ML430 put the Escalade to shame with their remarkably car-like road manners and well-crafted interiors.

So has anything changed? Thankfully, yes. The 2002 Escalade shows considerably more attention to detail and an overall level of refinement about which the original could only dream. But it still begs the question, is it a world-class luxury SUV?

From a seat-of-the-pants feel, the Escalade certainly impresses. The high-output 6.0-liter engine moves the nearly 3-ton vehicle out with authority. A smaller 5.3-liter V8 is standard in the 2WD version, but we're guessing that few will opt for the smaller mill after experiencing the intoxicating power of the top-of-the-line powerplant. Although we weren't able to conduct our normal acceleration tests, it's safe to say that the Escalade is easily one of fastest luxury sport-utes on the market.

Of course, it doesn't really matter that the Escalade can put a Navigator to shame from a stoplight; what's most important is that it's now able to make that late-night pass around the dawdling semi truck without having it be a white-knuckle affair. Our only minor gripe concerns the engine's noise, or more specifically, its tone. We car-lover types don't mind hearing the grunt of heavy machinery, but most customers would probably prefer a more hushed, refined quality at full throttle.

To cope with the demands of the high-output engine, the Escalade employs a heavy-duty version of GM's standard four-speed truck transmission. This unit never failed to provide quick, smooth shifts regardless of the situation. Even our intentional attempts to induce confusion were met with nothing more than solid and precise shifts, a noticeable improvement over the previous version.

A tow/haul mode intended to reduce gear-hunting while hauling heavy loads is standard-issue along with a tow package that gives the Escalade a maximum trailer weight rating of 8,500 pounds, considerably higher than a Lexus LX 470's, but still a little shy of the Navigator's 8,800-pound maximum (2WD only). Like most people, we hauled nothing more than a few friends and some golf clubs, but we have no doubt that it would handle more rigorous loads with little trouble.

Our confidence is derived from the surefootedness of the Escalade's Road Sensing Suspension (RSS). More than one editor raved about how shocked he was at the big sport-ute's surprisingly agile feel. We normally balk at the idea of adjustable suspensions, reasoning that if they were tuned correctly to begin with, they wouldn't need constant adjustment. We're still not completely convinced, but the Escalade's excellent ride quality and remarkable body control did prove that the RSS worked as advertised.

Road irregularities were filtered out seamlessly, and even the deepest potholes barely registered within the cabin. The previous model suffered from excessive body roll caused by an overly soft suspension, but our test vehicle displayed admirable poise when pushed hard into turns. It still doesn't possess the car-like cornering demeanor of a Mercedes M-Class sport-ute, but against other full-size vehicles, the Escalade can now hold its own without embarrassment.

Along with the tightly controlled suspension, the Escalade also benefits from a new full-time all-wheel-drive system. This gives the Escalade all-weather stability and safety without bothering the driver with confusing dashboard switchgear. A much-improved ABS braking system features four-wheel discs in place of the previous disc/drum setup, adding both improved brake feel and shorter overall stopping distances. One editor did complain that the brakes seemed slightly underpowered during an emergency stop, but they're easily on par with most vehicles in this class.

Further adding to the Escalade's enhanced safety repertoire is the addition of GM's stability control system known as StabiliTrak. This system effectively combines ABS, traction control and stability control into one system that uses multiple sensors to monitor both driver input and the actual path of the vehicle. Should the two ever significantly deviate, the brakes can be applied to individual wheels to restore control. In low-traction situations, the StabiliTrak computer can either reduce engine torque or selectively apply the brakes to manage wheel slippage and maintain grip.

Endlessly sunny days and our inability to conduct track testing prevented us from fully realizing the benefits and limits of the StabiliTrak system, or the all-wheel drive, for that matter. StabiliTrak has proven quite capable on previous GM vehicles, so it's probably safe to assume that this latest system is every bit as good, if not better. Considering that a sport-utility vehicle is already at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to abrupt emergency maneuvers, the inclusion of StabiliTrak could very well be one of the vehicle's most important safety features.

As much as we were impressed with the Escalade's dramatic improvement in driving dynamics, we were slightly less overwhelmed by the upgrades to the interior. The previous version got by with what was essentially Chevy-grade parts with leather and a few wood accents. The new and improved Escalade manages to appear somewhat original, but to those who know, its roots still lie in thousands of pickups that bear the names Chevrolet and GMC.

The revised instrument cluster is one area that saw noticeable improvement. Aluminum trim rings around the gauges and a sharply designed script add an upscale appearance that drew widespread praise. The updated center console is another commendable upgrade. Housing a driver information center, six-disc in-dash CD changer and an analog clock, it provides easy access to both the changer (formerly inside the center console) and the handy trip computer. The analog clock is elegant in appearance, but whose bright idea was it to place it so low on the dash?

We also appreciated the simplicity of the automatic climate control system that managed to keep us comfortable at all times without resorting to the overly complex controls that seem to plague so many luxury vehicles these days. The stereo was easy to use and sounded great, but it looks like it was yanked straight out of a Lumina rental car — not exactly what you want front and center in your new luxury SUV.

The driver and front passenger seats feature six-way power adjustment, power lumbar and side bolster controls as well as dual-zone heating elements and articulating head rests. Even with all these creature comforts, a few of our editors still couldn't find a comfortable driving position. A telescoping steering wheel might have helped in this area, but then again, there were other editors who found them supremely comfortable, so final judgment is largely a matter of personal taste and/or physical attributes.

Rear seat accommodations are largely unchanged from the previous model. The 60/40-split bench seat provides ample comfort for three adults or can be folded flat for additional cargo space. A separate latch allows it to be tumbled forward for easy access to the third row, a nice touch.

As with most third-row seating arrangements, adults need not apply, but compared with either the Navigator or the Lexus LX 470, the Cadillac provides substantially more head-, shoulder- and legroom for third-row passengers. Split 50/50, the third-row bench can be quickly folded or completely removed for extra cargo room, a task we found relatively easy with just one person.

Other notable interior features include an ultrasonic parking assist sensor and the OnStar communications system. The parking assist sensor alerts drivers to anything behind the vehicle with both an audible chime and LED lights that illuminate in the rear headliner. We found it to be immensely helpful, both in parking situations and for the peace of mind of knowing that no small children or animals could wander behind without our attention. Considering the Escalade's high stance and somewhat limited rearward visibility, this system could be a lifesaver in more ways than one.

We sampled the OnStar system with mixed results. When attempting to find a local hotel, we were instructed by the friendly operator to make a few simple turns to find our destination. After following her directions, we found ourselves in no-man's land wondering where we went wrong. A quick call back to the same operator yielded an, "Oh I'm sorry, you need to turn East on Main, not West." An honest mistake for sure, but one we would have never encountered had the Escalade featured an optional navigation system like nearly every one of its competitors.

While no single element of the interior design particularly repulsed us, the fact that it's obviously just a gussied-up version of the standard GM truck dash continues to disappoint. A $50,000 luxury sport-utility that has exactly the same stereo faceplate as an $18,000 Silverado (or $14,000 Cavalier for that matter) just doesn't sit well with us. Until the Escalade arrives wearing an interior design exclusive to Cadillac, it will forever bear the brunt of being associated with its more pedestrian cousins.

Not that most people will ever likely notice. This latest Escalade seems to be drawing plenty of customers based on its extroverted looks alone. The fact that it goes faster, rides better and protects its occupants more comprehensively than its predecessor is merely an added bonus on top of its chiseled good looks.

But for those looking for the ultimate luxury SUV, the Escalade doesn't represent a clear-cut winner. The Navigator offers a slightly higher towing capacity along with options like a VHS entertainment system, air-conditioned seats, adjustable pedals and a GPS navigation system. The Toyota Land Cruiser offers higher quality interior materials and construction along with off-road prowess that neither the Cadillac nor the Lincoln can touch.

Overall, the 2002 Escalade should be considered a sign of good things to come from Cadillac. The company has addressed many of the major shortcomings of the original — lack of power, bouncy ride and the like — while ushering in a whole new design philosophy that has made it one of the hottest SUVs on the market right now. Now if they could just find a way to give it an interior that is as dazzling as the drivetrain, the Escalade might finally take its rightful place as "the standard of the world" — in SUVs, that is.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 8.5

Components: Every part of the new-for-'02 Cadillac Escalade is packed with special features, and the Bose audio system is no exception. The mirrors may dim automatically, tilt down to help you park and fold in to fit this behemoth in your carport, but the stereo has a six-disc changer up front, 250 watts of constant power and separate system controls for your Fortune 500 clients in the rear seats. The head unit is a familiar GM product, (not very luxurious) with a tape player (the changer is low in the console) and large buttons except for the tiny twigs used to adjust sound levels. There are six functions on the steering wheel, but drivers who don't have NBA contracts will have trouble using them without losing grip of the wheel (and the backlight on the test vehicle's wobbly volume button was brighter than the others — cheap). The speakers easily out-class the rest of the system, except for the subwoofer. Tweeters in the A-pillar are aimed toward the windshield to reflect and provide high notes across the entire dash. Small speakers in each door use large enclosures to help produce all but the lowest tones. The crossover does a marginal job of separating bass from the mix and sends it to a wimpy sub in the cargo area.

Performance: The overall sound quality of the system is much better than the average truck, but Cadillac has to compete with Lexus, a company known for installing high-end Nakamichi and Mark Levinson systems in its vehicles. The unconventional mounting of the tweeters works well and fills the front stage with clean highs that distort a bit when the volume is pushed. Cymbals are crisp, but often split at the very end of each crash and high-pitched female vocals sometimes develop a lisp. The speaker arrays in the doors provide clean vocals and tight mid-bass, but their output lacks the depth and warmth found in some premium systems. It's disappointing that the output from the subwoofer in this king-of-the-road Caddy is small and boomy. Bose found a way to fit a 12-inch monster in the rear deck of the '02 Infiniti Q45; why can't the Escalade have one?

Best Feature: Tweets + windshield = smile.

Worst Feature: Puny sub.

Conclusion: This phat SUV has a capable audio system, but deserves some bone-jarring bass.

— Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Contributing Editor Erin Riches says:
Putting a high-output version (more powerful than the Yukon Denali's) of the base V8 for GM's heavy-duty pickups into a light-duty SUV yields muscular acceleration. A generous rush of torque kicks in almost immediately, and the powerband seems to last forever — with an endearing whine at the upper end of the rpm range. And of course, the automatic transmission knew exactly when to make its shifts.

Handling is also excellent for this type of vehicle. Although it's disturbing to see the burgeoning size and number of SUVs on the road, I maintain that GM's full-size SUVs handle more capably than the midsize trio (GMC Envoy, Chevrolet Blazer, Oldsmobile Bravada). They're much more stable. With its technology, the Escalade was unfailingly balanced, even on canyon roads. During city driving, you could almost forget that this was an SUV and not a regular Cadillac, because its weight was so well managed. Braking was obviously improved over the previous sad Escalade, but more befitting of a Tahoe or Sierra than a luxury vehicle. The pedal just didn't feel that great — there was some dead travel and then it went stiff. Actual braking was competent, but I wouldn't count on the Escalade to make sudden stops.

Since our test vehicle was new, my initial impression of the interior was favorable. The leather upholstery looked and felt great, though once I looked more closely, it seemed to be the only luxury amenity. Everything else was faux — plastic woodgrain accents, aluminum-painted door handles. And why the cheap, hard plastic dash? I know that GM can build soft-touch dashboards, and this is a Cadillac. And it still doesn't have the build quality to keep up with the Land Cruiser/LX 470 — the interior door trim was already loose, and the panel on the driver side squeaked for the entire drive as I leaned my knee against it. But to Cadillac's credit, it was an incredibly comfortable cabin. Storage space wasn't abundant, especially with the optional sunroof, but the center console should hold quite a bit.

The center stack isn't much to look at, especially if you've ever driven any of GM's full-size pickups and SUVs, but the stereo and climate controls are incredibly user-friendly. I really liked the automatic climate control system — I've never encountered a system that was easier to use. All you have to do is turn the dials rather than tap on tiny buttons. Although the in-dash CD changer is still divorced from the rest of the stereo controls (as it is in all other full-size GM trucks and SUVs), its current location is preferable to the glovebox- and cargo bay-mounted changers in other vehicles.

Although I'm not fond of the Escalade's ostentatious styling, I would choose it over every member of GM's full-size SUV lineup, including the Denali, simply because its StabiliTrak and Road Sensing Suspension systems make it the best handler of the group. For 50 grand, though, I wouldn't want to deal with frequent repairs, so I might go with a Land Cruiser to assure that I wouldn't.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
This is perhaps the ultimate American urban assault vehicle. And by American, I mean for America, not made in America. Because really, what other country's citizens, other than possibly Mexico or a sultan or two from Brunei, would have a need for such a vehicle? Can you imagine some bloke in London driving around in this XXL machine? Poor VW Lupo owners would refuse to venture out in fear of getting squashed.

For what it is, the Escalade is an impressive vehicle. Much like a modern-day NFL defensive lineman, it is surprisingly quick on its feet. Speed bumps and potholes are of little concern, and other drivers gave our black Darth Vaderish test vehicle a wide berth. And unlike the previous Escalade, this one actually has added content that differentiates it from Suburbans and Yukons.

While I would personally avoid this vehicle — a Suburban 1500 with a few choice options would suffice for me — I wouldn't stop someone from buying one. Toyota's Sequoia and Lexus LX 470 are better in many regards, but the Caddy does have its own particular charms. Still, I can't help but look at the 12/15-mpg EPA cycle, the overdone front-end styling and the $50,000 price tag and feel like I've been time-warped back into the excessive '50s and '60s. For the domestic automotive industry, I sure hope there's not another gas crunch. Keep Jimmy Carter warm on the bench — we might need to send him in.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
There are two ways to look at the all-new Cadillac Escalade. You can compare it to the old model, against which it stacks up like the Luxor next to a Motel 6, or you can compare it to other luxury SUVs on the market today.

If you choose to do the former, you will be blown away by how good this new Escalade is. It's tighter, faster and handles better than it has a right to. The interior, which features lush carpet and supple leather, looks less like the innards of a C/K-Series pickup in drag and more like a, er, Cadillac (except for the standard-issue GM parts-bin audio head unit, which could have been pilfered from a Cavalier were it not for the word "Bose" emblazoned on the digital display).

If you choose to do the latter, you will find that General Motors still has not found a way to compete with imported luxury SUVs without compromising quality and design. Stuck using the full-size platform and body structure that comprises the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, Cadillac slaps on a different front clip, new taillights and different cladding for a brand-specific look. Inside, a veiled version of the Silverado pickup truck's dashboard, squared off and trimmed with ersatz wood, is composed of cheap plastic that doesn't line up very well.

The Escalade's powerful 6-liter V8 moves the vehicle with authority, though I found the transmission laggardly on more than one occasion. Cadillac's road-sensing suspension technology seems to work brilliantly in this application, making the Escalade more capable when hustled than the smaller GMC Envoy. Notably, it feels smaller and easier to navigate than its primary domestic competition from Lincoln.

Is the redesigned Escalade a better vehicle than a Navigator? Without question. Is it a better vehicle than a BMW X5 4.4i, Mercedes-Benz ML430 or the Lexus LX 470/Toyota Land Cruiser twins? Depends on what you want out of a luxury SUV.

Consumer Commentary

"Had been looking at the Navigators but thought the seats were too uncomfortable and noticed some wind and road noise in the two we drove. Thought we would wait, and just yesterday, we drove by a Cadillac dealer with a white 2002 Escalade on the lot. Drove in, went straight to the sales manager's office and asked what his best price on the Escalade was. He said $46,400. I asked what was wrong with it, and he said not a thing except it had 227 miles on it as it was used in a parade and driven by some golf pro to the course and back. He had to sell it as a program car. We drove it and bought it on the spot. 227 miles was nothing, I put that on it driving home. What a wonderful rig...powerful engine, ultra smooth handling and enough bells and whistles to keep anyone happy.... Another thing I get a kick out of is that there is no way to tell if this vehicle is 4WD/AWD. No badges or emblems outside and no buttons, etc. inside. You literally have to pop the hood and check for the big engine or crawl underneath and check the transfer case!! Anyway, this is super nice rig and am looking forward to driving it once my wife gets out of it." — bassamatic, "Cadillac Escalade," #397 of 448, June 8, 2001

"Just made a weeklong trip in our 2002 Escalade from central West Virginia to Miami. We stopped for a couple of days in Jacksonville and drove several 'city' miles, also. First of all, I was delighted with the mileage we got on our first trip. The new car sticker shows 12 mpg city and 15 mpg highway. On our total trip of about 2,400 miles, we averaged 17.4 miles per gallon from the time we left home until we returned.... We just love our new 'truck.' Very comfortable on long trips, low noise levels, great power and quite efficient for a four-wheel drive vehicle that weighs 5,400+ pounds." — jljlinda, "Cadillac Escalade," #382 of 448, May 7, 2001

"What a beautiful SUV, both inside and out. I've test driven most of the comparable SUVs and I'm glad I waited for the 2002 Escalade. I feel very comfortable driving this vehicle. I don't feel like I'm driving a truck. It handles easy, has great pick-up and stops nicely and without pitching. This SUV is loaded with tons of nice features.... The only negative I've found so far is it's a little cumbersome to climb into the third-row seats and [there's] not much legroom. Not a problem for me since my two dogs don't sit much anyway. My neighbor bought the Silver Sand color and I bought InfraRed. Both colors are beautiful, and I would have been happy with either. Highly recommend that anyone looking for a classy SUV give the 2002 Escalade a try before making a decision." — chaps2, "Cadillac Escalade," #317 of 448, Feb. 24, 2001

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