It was almost three years ago when we published our first luxury SUV comparison test. At that time, we were still coming to grips with the fact that more and more well-to-do buyers were passing up svelte premium-branded sedans in favor of lumbering sport-utility vehicles that handled poorly and threw back gasoline with all the reluctance of frat boys hovering around a beer keg. "Soon," our author mused, "we'll all wake up and the whole SUV craze will subside."
But that hasn't happened, yet. Instead, those wanting a luxury SUV now have even more choices. Do you want a docile car-based crossover like the Acura MDX or BMW X5; an off-road-capable midsize SUV like the '03 Land Rover Range Rover or Lexus GX 470; or a large luxury liner like the Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade? Of course, we'll continue to report on these hot sellers, but we've had to branch out our tests to keep up. The luxury crossovers got their own comparison test last year, and we plan to let midsizers (based on total interior volume) like the Range Rover and GX 470 square off in a separate test later this year.
For this comparison test, we were only interested in the giants, the full-size luxury SUVs with base prices over $45,000 and city gas mileage estimates under 15 mpg. While they can make good family vehicles, these SUVs are not generally regarded as practical transportation given the high price of admission. Accordingly, our field included our returning champion, the LX 470; the Cadillac Escalade, which was totally redesigned for 2002; the Lincoln Navigator, totally redesigned for 2003; and two newcomers, the Hummer H2 and Mercedes-Benz G500.
With vehicles this amenable to rough terrain in our test, we knew we had to squeeze in some serious off-roading, despite our feeling that few SUV owners are interested in doing that. So we set out for Hungry Valley, a large off-highway vehicle park on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest. There, with the tutelage of three Land Rover driving instructors, we scaled rutted passes and steep descents and acquired a sense of each vehicle's capability (or lack thereof) in this setting.
The rest of the week was spent on our usual comparison test regimen on-road driving with a mix of suburban streets, high-speed freeways and the occasional twisty back road thrown in for good measure; a thorough inside-and-out examination of each vehicle's accommodations; and instrumented performance testing (acceleration, braking and handling).
As we penned our commentary, we knew that each vehicle had to be a comfortable, luxurious and, for the most part, easy-to-drive on-road companion first and foremost. But given the hefty prices these vehicles command and the heavy off-road mechanicals most of them drag around, we felt they should give the buyer something more than a truck-looking substitute for a luxury sedan: If we could find a vehicle that provided a livable compromise of on- and off-road capability, so much the better.
Will you agree with our findings? Read on and get ready to write us a letter.
Fifth Place - 2003 Hummer H2
A typical luxury SUV purchase is more likely the result of a whim than a carefully weighed response to a perceived need. Even so, the H2's last-place finish is a reminder that even pleasure crafts need to be well-rounded. And Hummer Jr. certainly isn't that.
The H2 was designed and engineered by General Motors; although it makes use of hardware from the company's existing full-size truck line, numerous modifications were made to give it one-of-a-kind off-road ability and styling in line with that of the H1. Our off-roading trip was all in a day's work for the Hummer, as its 9.9 inches of ground clearance, 42-degree approach and 38-degree departure angles, generous wheel travel and gargantuan LT315/70R17 BF Goodrich tires allowed it to master pretty much any terrain we encountered without getting stuck or taking damage. Its pair of locking differentials (center and rear) was second only to the G500's three.
The Hummer's four-wheel-drive system didn't offer quite the versatility of the LX 470's or G500's, in that putting it in 4WD Low automatically locked the center differential (instead of leaving that to the driver's discretion). And some editors noted that its four-speed automatic didn't offer a super-low first gear (in 4 Lo) useful on very steep descents as could be found in the G and the LX 470. But these are minor issues only of concern to hard-core off-road enthusiasts.
The real issue for the average H2 owner who goes off-roading on the weekends (or not) and drives into the city during the week is size. With a width of over 81 inches, the H2 is a wrecking ball of sorts on many off-road trails, and editors found it difficult to avoid taking out the local plantlife. On tightly packed freeways, the driver must be vigilant at all times, because the Hummer just doesn't fit into lanes as well as other SUVs. Also in play are the rough-and-tumble suspension and steering components. Tuned for a life off the pavement, they give the H2 all the manners of a heavy-duty pickup everywhere else even with our test truck's optional self-leveling air suspension. The ride isn't uncomfortable nor is body roll excessive, but compared with the others, the H2 felt sloppy and disconnected from the road. The steering is similarly vague in feel, and the turning radius is a large 43.5 feet.
To make matters worse, the H2 has huge blind spots the passenger compartment sits high off the road, the windows are short and a full-size spare takes up half of the cargo bay. It's easy for smaller vehicles and people to escape your glance. A set of supplemental convex mirrors (as on Ford's Excursion) might have helped, but GM left them off.
Beyond that, our test vehicle was too tall to fit in our office parking garage. And even our 6-foot-plus editors had to use the tubular running boards to manage the huge step-in height; one of them hit his head on the roof in the process.
But size was only one problem for the H2. A lack of luxury features, minimal cargo space, subpar interior materials and take-it-or-leave-it engine performance were others. Let's start with features: We identified 12 that we thought were important in a luxury SUV; the H2 had just two and a half of them low-range gearing, an in-dash CD changer and an optional one-person third-row seat (we could only give it partial credit). Among the missing items that can't be had even as options were side-impact airbags of any kind, stability control, adjustable pedals, rear parking sensors, a rear air conditioner for the four possible rear-seaters and a rear DVD entertainment system.
The cargo space issue is obvious. When a vehicle weighs 6,400 pounds and meets the heavy-duty vehicle classification (and therefore isn't subject to pesky EPA gas mileage estimates), you'd expect it to double as a moving van when needed. However, the H2's cargo bay is occupied by the aforementioned spare tire and third-row seat, and even on large grocery trips, one of these has to come out to get everything in. On the plus side, the 60/40 second-row seats fold easily to create a flat load floor.
Inside, editors noted GM's attempt to give the H2 a bold, masculine ensemble but wrote that the final product seemed like a rush job with various elements thrown in at the last minute. Low-quality materials certainly didn't help there was hard plastic in abundance, along with weak leather and vinyl trim and unconvincing faux metal where there should have been real stainless steel. "Nothing seemed worthy of such an expensive vehicle," one editor wrote in his evaluation. Build quality wasn't perfect, either; panel fits weren't all that tight and the shifter, one of the few stylish holdovers from the H2 concept truck's sharp interior, wiggled in its gate.
Obviously, GM did a better job with the outside of the H2. Two of our editors gave it a perfect 10 in the exterior design category for its exacting translation of the H1's rawness into a more refined, less cumbersome form for a more mainstream audience. Others marked it down for being "too toylike to take seriously" and for having "obscenely wide hindquarters."
Under the signature reverse-opening hood is the same 6.0-liter V8 found in the Escalade, though it's rated for less power in the Hummer 316 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque (versus 345 and 380 in the Cadillac). While this V8 gives the 5,641-pound Escalade a terrific rush, it has difficulty overcoming the H2's massive weight. All of our editors wrote in their evaluations that the H2 felt slow off the line, providing merely adequate acceleration overall. Instrumented testing supported our impressions, as the H2 took 10.8 seconds to reach 60 mph. Fortunately, GM's trusty 4L65-E four-speed automatic did a good job with gear selection to maximize the available thrust. Just in case you're wondering, the H2 averaged an abysmal 9.2 miles per gallon during our week of testing it was the only vehicle that couldn't break into double digits.
So what did we like about the H2 aside from its off-road ability and astute transmission? Well, the first- and second-row seats offer pretty good cushioning and headroom as well as multi-setting seat heaters. Then again, limited legroom and just a center lap belt make the backseat less hospitable for older kids and adults. And if you travel with a big thirst or a lot of personal effects, you may find the cupholders and in-cabin storage lacking.
The control layout in the H2 isn't bad. The climate and stereo controls are identical to those in other GM trucks, and that means they're easy to use even if they're not pleasing to the eye. But if you're looking for an authentic luxury experience, you probably won't like the three-on-one cruise/signals/wipers stalk or the fact that none of the windows roll up automatically.
Ultimately, any attempt to compliment the H2 as a luxury vehicle comes across as backhanded. Even with the Lux Series trim package, it simply can't pull off this role. Sure, it was the least expensive vehicle in our test at $55,060, but this is still a hefty price to pay for a vehicle that doesn't fit your lifestyle. And unless you're a skilled off-roader who doesn't mind tearing up vegetation, the H2 doesn't.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Image over practicality. That's what the H2 is. The "Hey, look at me" factor seems to be the biggest reason that people buy this too-wide truck with outward visibility about equal to that of a Brink's truck. Then there's the tepid performance. "Wait a minute, doesn't it have the same engine that you rave about in the Caddy?" the more astute of you may ask. Yes, it does, but at 6,400 pounds, the H2 outweighs the Escalade by nearly 800 pounds and has massive off-road-oriented tires that epitomize "rotational inertia," two factors that essentially mean this thing would be better off with the Duramax 6600 diesel engine (that has over 500 pound-feet of torque at its disposal) were it available.
Sure, the H2 is great off-road, but I highly doubt that Miss Prissy is going to risk spilling a drop of her Starbuck's Café Latte by actually going into that yucky, dusty and bumpy environment. I could go on about the great ground clearance (which is paid for by sacrificing space in the cabin), those amazing approach and departure angles allowed by the minimal front and rear overhangs or the excellent wheel articulation that allows this beast to crawl over virtually anything, but then I realize that maybe one percent of those who purchase an H2 will subject their 9-mile-per-gallon status symbol to such a workout. Oh well, at least it's not as ridiculous as a civilian driving an H1.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I like big trucks and SUVs for the most part, especially ones with loads of horsepower coupled with oversize tires and a killer suspension. So why don't I find the H2 all that appealing? For one, it's just too impractical. Even with its considerably smaller dimensions compared to the original, it's still too big for everyday use. Traffic is a pain, visibility isn't very good and forget about finding a suitable parking space. Adding insult to injury is the fact that even with such over-the-top dimensions, the H2 still isn't all that roomy inside, with virtually no cargo space to speak of. The large size also hampers performance, as the big V8 struggles to get things moving while the same engine (tuned for slightly more power) moves the Escalade along with verve. Then there's the interior trim, a mix of gray plastic panel covering what is essentially a Chevy Silverado dashboard. There's nothing inherently wrong with it, but after sitting in the Lexus, the H2 looks like it should cost half as much. I like the fact that the H2 exists and enjoyed driving it for this test, but if I were spending my money I wouldn't be headed for the Hummer dealer anytime soon.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
This vehicle doesn't impress me. I like the way they've captured the "baby Hummer" theme with the slab-sided exterior styling and broad, blocky front end, but on the whole I don't see much about the H2 to recommend.
As a lower priced and more civilized alternative to the punishing H1, the H2 fares pretty well. However, GM's own Escalade and Yukon Denali are just plain better in almost every way.
The H2's dimensions are difficult to judge from behind the wheel visibility is terrible. On-road, it's hard to know when you're about to swap paint with a car in the lane next to you. Off-road, the consequences could be more tragic misjudging the width of your vehicle might send you and your Hummer tumbling so far down a cliff that even curb appeal and prestige couldn't save you. Speaking of off-road, it's amazing how the H2's considerable girth works against it. Certainly the vehicle is capable off-road, but others offer more for less in this area.
I have a feeling people are going to buy the H2 because of what a car like that "says about them" I just can't stand that kind of thing. Get a Navigator or Escalade and enjoy the true benefits of luxury.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Hummer H2
Ranking in Test: Second (tie)
System Score: 8.0
Components: The first Hummer from GM comes equipped with an audio system that is very similar to those found in the company's other large trucks. The test monster was fitted with the optional in-dash six-disc CD changer and the standard array of nine Bose speakers and a Bose amplifier. Tweeters can be found in the A-pillars on both sides of the dash, a midbass driver is planted in each door panel, a subwoofer is built into the center console and two midtweets bookend the liftgate window. The high placement of the head unit and steering wheel-mounted audio controls help keep your eyes on the off-road.
Performance: This stereo system is no rough military-issue piece of machinery designed for utility before luxury. The silky Bose speakers have accurate response with all types of music. Acoustic performances sound best because strong attention is given to small details and vocals sound warm. Metal and rap songs at high volumes produce cracks in the wall of sound, with many sounds blending into one loud wash. The soundstage is lively, with nice separation of the left and right channels and a subwoofer that practically sits in the driver's lap. Unfortunately, the sub can't hit the real low notes and the full-size spare tire blocks the rear midtweet from most passengers. The head unit is straightforward and although loading CDs takes a long time, there is an audible chirp and red/green light to help reduce the amount of fumbling.
Best Feature: Spacious sound.
Worst Feature: Spare tire in the way.
Conclusion: A very good standard factory sound system. Trevor Reed
Fourth Place - 2003 Mercedes-Benz G500
Just over three percentage points separated the G500 and the H2 in the final standings, and in many ways their stories are the same. Both finished well out of the running for the top spots; the Mercedes trailed the third-place SUV by over 17 points. Both were built with a singular purpose hard-core off-roading. And neither one found favor with editors who expected a luxury SUV to be a reasonably comfortable, feature-laden companion for the average buyer, you know, the one who doesn't really like to go off-road.
On the whole, we found the G-wagen less likable than the H2. It earned the lowest scores of all on our 23-point evaluations (63 percent), personal picks lists (30 percent) and recommended picks lists (25 percent). And it was by far the most expensive SUV it cost almost $20 grand more than the H2. However, the Benz managed to pull itself up into fourth place by virtue of its strong performance in instrumented acceleration and braking tests and its slightly longer standard equipment list. (It earned a whopping 44.4 percent in the features category.)
From the outside, at least, no one could accuse the G-wagen of trying to be more than it actually was. It's an old vehicle (circa 1979) with a rugged personality and that's just how it looks, complete with screw-on light fixtures, black body-side moldings and door handles and staunchly upright glass that causes odd reflections. One editor liked its "classic utilitarian look," while two others hated it, one of them dismissing it as a "total dorkmobile" that he was embarrassed to be seen driving. Still, a fourth said it reminded him of a VW Thing, with a "timeless boxiness that some are sure to love."
In the midst of everyday errands, the compliments didn't come as easily: The small push-button doors were hard to open and close, and even the taller editors grew tired of having to hoist themselves up to enter the vehicle. Further, with the additional weight of a full-size tire inside its own hard case, the rear swing gate was heavy, not to mention less convenient than the overhead liftgates on the other SUVs.
For those who care, the G500 proved to be the consummate off-roader in our test. Even though it couldn't boast the most ground clearance or the biggest approach and departure angles (those crowns going to the Hummer), the G500 had a trump card three locking differentials. At the first sign of wheelspin that couldn't be overcome by the traction control system and the low-range gearing, all we had to do was push one or more of the three buttons on the dash. First the center diff, then the rear and, for the gnarliest trails, the front. With all three lockers set, 25 percent of the engine's power is going to each wheel. What does this mean in practical terms? With a skilled off-roader behind the wheel, the G-wagen is a very difficult vehicle to get stuck. Trouble is, Mercedes makes you pay a lot for all this help much more than it would cost to buy a similarly capable Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Moreover, you don't need three locking diffs just to get to the ski slopes.
It seems that Mercedes knew that the better part of its U.S. customer base wouldn't have much use for the G500's vast all-terrain capability. The G doesn't wear big showy tires like the H2, rather a comparatively low-profile set of 18-inch 60-series Yokohamas. Turns out they make good street tires, though they can't compensate for the trucklike handling characteristics that come with a vehicle suspended by two solid axles. And indeed, we found the G500's ride very firm and quite unlike the plush on-road demeanor of the Escalade and LX 470. At the expense of comfort, body roll is noticeable but reasonably well controlled when rounding corners. The G had the narrowest track (by a good five inches) of all our competitors, and that, along with its tall slab-sided profile made it susceptible to wind buffeting, as observed by one editor during a brisk run up a local pass.
We couldn't find fault with the engine Mercedes chose for the American G-wagen. It's the smooth-flowing 5.0-liter V8 found in many other Benz models, and here it makes 292 horsepower and 336 pound-feet of torque. Peg the throttle and it takes off in a hurry; our test vehicle reached 60 mph in 7.95, just four-hundredths off the time set by the more powerful (but heavier) Escalade. Unfortunately, the G500 can be a workout to drive in suburban traffic, as its accelerator pedal is dreadfully stiff, making it hard for the uninitiated to find the right amount of throttle. At least the transmission performs well the G's five-speed automatic never failed to come up with sharp, on-time shifts and the TouchShift automanual gate provided convenient access to the lower gears on- and off-road.
Braking was also a strength for the Benz. Not everyone thought its pedal was the easiest to modulate, but all agreed that there was plenty of braking force to go around. At the track, the G500 came to a stop from 60 mph in just under 125 feet, a very respectable distance for an SUV of any size.
Inside the cabin, the G-wagen is partially domesticated, its rigidly upright, old-fashioned cabin modernized with leather, burled walnut, a few lined storage containers and the troublesome COMAND system (which oversees various audio and navigation functions). Although the cabin felt reasonably roomy headroom was abundant, legroom was at least adequate many of the controls are small and seemed to have been crammed into the dash. The front seats drew mixed reviews; some drivers liked the traditional German stiffness of the chairs, while others found them flat and uncomfortable. No one found the rear bench inviting, even though it was heated. Like the H2, the G lacked a three-point center belt in the back.
Overall, the G500 is nothing like any other Mercedes-Benz it doesn't come with a single side airbag, and is far from feeling structurally robust; our test vehicle's body heaved and creaked over every rut and expansion joint. Meanwhile, you can't get luxuries like rear-seat climate controls or an entertainment system; and if you buy a G, you'll be walking around to the cargo bay just to load your CDs. Extreme off-road ability is fine, but in this test, we expected a generous amount of luxury as well. And even with its high price tag, the G-wagen doesn't cut it as a luxury SUV.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
In a way, the G-wagen is like the original Hummer a rugged, go-anywhere four-wheel-drive truck originally designed for military use. Being over 20 years old, the G is indeed trucklike. And in a few ways, it's also like the new H2; the ride is stiff (as are the steering and gas pedal efforts) making it something of a chore to drive, it's extremely capable off-road (the best, actually) and is one of Los Angeles' new status symbols.
But unlike a Hummer (H1 or H2, take your pick), the Benz gets up and goes when the heavy gas pedal is mashed, is much easier to handle in terms of placing it while underway (on pavement or on trails) or while handling parking maneuvers and is quieter on the freeway. Furthermore, you can see out of it, thanks to slim pillars and big windows, and it has a much more accommodating and luxurious cabin.
Still, like the H2, the G500 would be too impractical for me to use as a daily driver. Maybe I'm getting old, but I like a bit more comfort in my ride it's obvious that the G is more at home on severe unpaved terrain than on tarmac. Plus, I couldn't even park the Benz in my apartment's underground garage because it was too tall.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
There's a certain level of appeal to the G500 that I can understand. It's an old-school off-roader with solid axles, three fully lockable differentials, a stout V8 for plenty of low-end grunt and no-nonsense styling. Were the G500 a reasonably affordable stripped-down sport-ute that the majority of real off-road junkies could afford, it would likely enjoy a cultlike following similar to many Jeep products. But let's face it, few, if any, of those who purchase this rolling status symbol will think twice about its rock-crawling abilities. I've seen plenty of them cruising around L.A. and judging by their spotless exteriors and aftermarket chrome wheels, their owners didn't seem the least bit concerned with doing much off-roading. This is fine, of course, but when there are vehicles like the LX 470 that provide nearly the same level of off-road ability along with a modern, comfortable and infinitely more luxurious interior for less money, I just have to laugh. If you're that hard up for attention, get a Hummer and save yourself $20,000.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Who are they fooling with this Cold War era relic? Every time I see one of these things in Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, I can't help but think how the proud owner got much less than he/she bargained for. The interior does not impart even a slight sense of luxury and the ergonomics are horrible.
Admittedly, styling is subjective but the G500 is not what I would call attractive. I can understand how some might see its boxiness as so dorky it's cool, and in a world of cookie-cutter cars, the G-wagen does offer some refreshing uniqueness. Plus, that "no curves allowed" roof line offers excellent outward visibility.
There is little about this truck that gives me a "Mercedes" feeling. The ride is overly harsh, and there are more squeaks, creaks, rattles and groans than an empty listing oil tanker that's running aground. There is solidity to the G500 despite all the racket, but overall this thing is unacceptable by any standard.
The bright spot in this otherwise disappointing vehicle is its off-road ability. With three differential locks and plenty of power from the smooth Mercedes-Benz V8, the G500 can go just about anywhere. It certainly does not try to strike any kind of balance between luxury and off-road capability like other SUVs; therefore it can tackle anything off-road but leaves much to be desired on-road.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Mercedes-Benz G500
Ranking in Test: Fourth
System Score: 7.0
Components: As with most Mercedes sound systems, this one is well-appointed on the electronics side of the equation. This particular system interfaces with the operator through a small navigation screen in the very center of the dash. What we like about this arrangement is that the nav screen is not a touchscreen, which is oftentimes a pain in the derriere to operate. Instead, Mercedes has opted for the display to be just that a display. When operating fade or balance or bass, the LCD screen provides a visual cue for your adjustments. The system also has another welcome feature: two CD players, a single-play in-dash and a six-disc changer in the trunk (if you can call that a trunk), so the operator has the best of both worlds. Other welcome features include steering wheel controls for volume and seek-scan, rubberized knobs for volume and tuning and 10 AM and 10 FM presets.
Speakers in the G500 include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the bottom of the rear doors, plus a 6.5-inch pair of midbass drivers in the forward doors. Better still, the Mercedes engineers have positioned a pair of upward-firing tweeters in the corners of the dashboard, for effective dispersion of the upper frequencies. So how does it sound?
Performance: The, uh, uniqueness of the shape of this vehicle has much to do with the way it sounds. Quite simply, sound gets lost in the large passenger compartment. We found lower frequencies tight and punchy, but not particularly deep, while highs came across as hissy and screeching. As a result, the system has an artificial sound that is not helped by the shape and size of the vehicle.
Best Feature: Two CD players.
Worst Feature: Boxy cabin dilutes sound.
Conclusion: If you're interested in this style of vehicle but want better sound, you'd be wise to check out the Lexus LX 470, which had the best stereo system in this test. Scott Memmer
Third Place - 2003 Lincoln Navigator
If you can find your way back to the 2000 Luxury SUV Comparison Test, you'll see that a Navigator finished third in that test. Three years later, we have a completely redesigned Navigator that we've previously certified as an agile, roomy and stylish vehicle, and it still manages to come in third. What gives?
For us, the Lincoln simply couldn't match the all-round capability and refinement of the LX 470 or the superb performance and comfort of the Escalade. This kept it from scoring the big points in the editors' personal and recommended picks categories. The Navigator also lost some points in the performance category, where it recorded the second slowest 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of the group. Besides that, our top-of-the-line Ultimate model faced a nearly $6,000 price disadvantage relative to its domestic rival.
In spite of these problems, Lincoln's pride and joy hung close to the Cadillac on editors' 23-point evaluations and earned the top features score: 11 of the top 12 features that we identified were either standard or optional on the Navigator. When we totaled the results in all the categories, the Lincoln was just 4.7 points out of second place. Even though we don't think it's the best full-size luxury SUV, the Navigator might be for you if interior space and scads of convenience and safety features are paramount.
Rather overbearing in its size and outward style, the '03 Navigator is nonetheless crisper and more dignified in appearance than its predecessor, which did little to hide the workaday Ford Expedition that gave it life. Moreover, the truck's body conceals a massive interior that makes intelligent use of the available space. Our test vehicle was a standard seven-passenger Navigator with second-row captain's chairs (a three-person 40/20/40 second-row bench is a no-cost option).
While legroom is adequate in the second row, the real revelation is in the third row: By fitting the big sport-ute with an independent rear suspension, engineers made room for a theater-style bench that provides an unprecedented amount of thigh support and legroom enough to keep a pair of medium-size adults quite content. Better yet, the 60/40-split seat backs fold flat into the cargo floor so that you never have to deal with the hassle of removing heavy seats. And if you have an Ultimate model like our test vehicle, these seats will power down into the floor at the touch of a button.
In accordance with its size, the Navigator offers plenty of cargo capacity, though if you go by the numbers, the Escalade offers more capacity (but not without removing its 50/50 third-row bench). Additionally, the Navigator Ultimate offers the added convenience of a power liftgate. Even when you're not hauling anything, you and your passengers will enjoy the abundance of storage areas and cupholders scattered about the cabin.
Up front, the Navigator wore the most attractive ensemble of any SUV in this test. Editors liked its shapely dual-cowl dash design and pleasing blend of warm and cool tones. The sparingly applied walnut trim was convincing to our eyes, and the leather seat upholstery looked and felt good. However, closer inspection revealed a number of cheap plastics throughout the vehicle, the most obvious being the faux metal used on the center stack. Editors were mostly satisfied with the build quality; although the issues we noted in a preproduction model unfinished (and fraying) headliner edges and poorly cut plastic trim pieces remained in this full-production model.
The Navigator's front chairs were certainly roomy, but we didn't think they were as plush or supportive as those of the Cadillac and Lexus. Still, only the Lincoln offered both heating and ventilation for its seats. It also earned high ratings for outward visibility, thanks to huge side mirrors, standard rear parking sensors and HID headlights. One driver was bothered by its tall hood, though, and another was troubled by the fact that its optional video entertainment system screen cut right down the middle of the rearward view when deployed. Editors also noted a bit more wind and road noise from the Navigator's cabin compared to that of the two front-runners.
The controls in the Lincoln are hit or miss. Even with the use of many small buttons, the tri-zone climate controls were generally easy to use. But we definitely had some complaints about the stereo controls. When the antiquated CD-based navigation system is ordered, both systems are routed through the same screen, which is operated by a small joystick and a confusing array of ATM-like soft keys. And everyone hated the cost-saving console-mounted window buttons they're too far apart to allow one-handed operation of multiple windows. Finally, no one found the steering wheel-mounted controls very useful: With so many functions (cruise, audio and climate) incorporated into a set of small buttons of like shape with no space in between them, no-look operation was impossible.
Out on the road, the Navigator relies on the previous generation's 5.4-liter In-Tech V8, which makes 300 horsepower and 355 pound-feet of torque. This might sound like a lot of power, but when a vehicle weighs almost 5,800 pounds before anyone gets inside, it's merely an adequate supply. While the Navigator feels reasonably quick around town, its V8 begins to tire once it reaches highway speeds. Making matters worse was the overly touchy throttle on our particular test vehicle a light tap of the accelerator pedal could send the vehicle surging forward in heavy traffic. This was puzzling to the editors who had driven other 2003 Navigators and never noticed this behavior. We can only presume that there was a problem with the throttle linkage on this particular vehicle.
And unfortunately, that wasn't our test vehicle's only mechanical problem, as low-speed shifts were often accompanied by a driveline clunk. As the vehicle clearly wasn't at 100 percent when placed in our care, we tried not to hold this against it. Otherwise, the Lincoln's four-speed automatic executed smooth, timely shifts.
Ride and handling characteristics were impressive for a vehicle of this size. Although not as plush-riding as the Cadillac or Lexus, the Navigator had a composed, confident feel on the road, and body lean was well controlled around corners. The steering was progressively weighted and accurate with hardly any slop at highway speeds and a tight turning radius. Braking was also a plus for the Lincoln the brake pedal was a bit mushy but there was plenty of power on tap to bring the massive vehicle to a halt.
With a fully independent suspension, street-biased Michelin Pilot tires and limited ground clearance and wheel travel, the Navigator was none too enthusiastic about a couple of hard days on off-road trails. But unlike its chief rival, the Escalade, it comes with a low-range transfer case in four-wheel-drive form. So we went ahead and shifted it into 4WD Low (which automatically locks the center differential), and it managed to tackle a surprising number of rutted inclines provided we maintained the easy-does-it pace ordered by our off-road instructors.
Setting aside our test vehicle's mechanical anomalies, the Navigator has no serious faults. But since luxury SUVs are primarily pleasure vehicles, we favored the ultrarefined LX 470's true go-anywhere capability and the Cadillac's brute power. If your luxury SUV will be a kid hauler first and foremost, the Lincoln merits consideration.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Just like the old days, when the Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Mark IV battled it out for luxury coupe supremacy, the Escalade and Navigator are closely matched, yet have distinct differences. Both offer prestige-oriented styling, with clean lines and massive grilles along with spacious interiors ensconced in leather and wood. Although the Navigator feels powerful enough around town, its 32-valve V8, oddly enough, runs out of breath sooner than the Caddy's "old" pushrod V8. I guess there really is no replacement for displacement. And although the Lincoln's transmission shifted nearly as smoothly as the Escalade's, something was wrong with our tester as it had an annoying clunk at low speeds, as if something was loose (such as a CV joint) in the drivetrain. I didn't really hold this against it, however, as I'm certain our vehicle wasn't right. Off-road, the Lincoln did much better than the Caddy due to the advantage of having a low-speed gear for 4WD that the Escalade didn't. On-road, they both delivered a nice ride, though the Lincoln held the edge in terms of handling and steering feel and response.
Here's what I'd like, the excellent powertrain of the Caddy along with the Lincoln's low-range gear, interior design (complete with those power-folding third seats) and handling manners.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
The idea of big, lumbering sport-utility that foregoes nearly all of its agility in its quest to be as cushy and comfortable as possible isn't exactly my idea of an appealing vehicle, but the Navigator surprised me. For one, it's remarkably quick on its feet for its size and weight, with a light feel to the steering and commendable body control. Taken out of its element, the Navigator climbed its way up steep hills that I would have never thought it could manage. The interior looks good, is comfortable and swallowed plenty of assorted junk during a weekend moving trip. There are plenty of shortcomings, however. While the interior is attractive, there are still too many flimsy plastic trim pieces and the silver finish on the dash looks sprayed on. The engine feels soft at times despite its prodigious horsepower, and pedal modulation off-the-line is difficult. Then there's the hard-to-control navigation and audio systems, a CD changer cartridge that's impossible to reach from the driver seat and steering wheel buttons that are far too complicated for quick reference. The Navigator is certainly a step up from the H2 and the G500 when it comes to comfort and convenience, but it still has a ways to go before it can claim class-leader status in my book.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The new interior of the Navigator is especially handsome it finally looks like a truly luxurious SUV. The wood is beautiful, the metallic-looking surfaces work well and the glowing gauges add that extra bit of class. In addition, the power rear door and power-folding rear seats bring an element of convenience not found on other SUVs. Even a quick visual comparison to the Escalade, H2 and/or the G500 shows just how slick the Navigator's interior looks simply beautiful. The only drawbacks are an oddly placed CD changer magazine, hard-to-use nav system and seats that didn't feel as comfortable as they looked.
While the interior is worthy of much praise, the rest of the truck seems seriously lacking to me. The engine offers plenty of power, but the 300 ponies don't feel terribly obvious when accelerating. Compared to the Lexus or Caddy, the Navigator lacks refinement. The transmission was constantly clunking in stop-and-go traffic and it never seemed to know what gear to choose. The same problem was not experienced in any of the new Expeditions we've driven, so maybe it was a simple defect.
On the road, the Navigator has too much wind and road noise. It does handle well for such a big truck, but its lack of refinement and so-so off-road performance caused me to think of the Navigator as slightly lacking when compared to the LX 470 and Escalade. It's not a bad truck, but I don't think I could seriously recommend it if we could install the Navigator's interior into the Escalade, we'd really have a winner then.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Lincoln Navigator
Ranking in Test: Fifth
System Score: 6.0
Components: Having listened to and enjoyed many Lincoln stereos in the past, we approached the newly redesigned 2003 Lincoln Navigator with high hopes. After all, we reasoned, if the stereos we listened to three years ago were any indication, surely this latest and greatest offering from Lincoln would set our ears to smiling. Wrong. As far as the stereo goes, the new Lincoln Navigator is a major disappointment. Using a mishmash of old technology and new, and with some downright bizarre design decisions, this system is a curious blend of hits and misses.
The vehicle we evaluated had a built-in navigation system, so most of the audio controls were routed through the on-board nav display. And here we found our first discouragement, for the nav system in the brand-new 2003 Lincoln Navigator is a CD-ROM-based system. (The current state-of-the-art is DVD-based systems.)
As for the stereo itself, more misses followed. Speaker placement is poor, with identical 6.5-inch co-ax drivers mounted midway up the panel in all four doors. No separate tweeters in a vehicle this expensive is a major puzzlement. Luckily, the speaker setup is somewhat redeemed by an 8-inch subwoofer in the driver-side rear-quarter panel.
Things get a little better on the electronics side of the equation, but not much. Thankfully, the Lincoln folks have gone with a nontouchscreen approach. We prefer this kind of design, as touchscreens are often cumbersome and occasionally even unsafe to use. So, kudos for that. Still, we found the joystick-controlled interface clunky to use. For instance, when using various settings, the display returns to the main screen after several seconds, and you must reroute through unwanted functions to return to the screen you want. Very annoying. Also, steering wheel controls are kept to a bare minimum (volume and memory only, instead of the usual seek-scan and mode switches found in other vehicles in this class), because two of the positions on the steering wheel are occupied by climate controls. Lastly, the cartridge door for the six-disc CD changer is located on the passenger side of the center console, facing away from the driver, down near where the passenger's feet would go, requiring a death-defying maneuver to access while driving. Don't try this at home, kids.
Performance: This is a very good sounding system. Not as loud as some we've heard from GM and Chrysler, but with much to recommend it. Bass response is tight and fairly deep, mids have good detail and intricacy and highs exhibit warmth and a welcome lack of coloration. However, we have a problem with the speaker positioning. When the vehicle is fully occupied, the legs of the occupants will block the speakers, and with no separate tweeters to distribute highs, sound clarity is compromised.
Best Feature: Separate 8-inch woofers.
Worst Feature: Where do we begin? OK no separate tweeters.
Conclusion: If you can live with the design and ergonomic miscues, the sound of this system will redeem itself. Still, we found the annoyances and oversights too numerous to live with. Perhaps you're more tolerant than we are. Scott Memmer
Second Place - 2003 Lexus LX 470
A long-time favorite of our editorial staff, the LX 470 has been a perennial Most Wanted pick since winning our luxury SUV comparison test in 2000. But in 2003, the LX 470 had to leave our full-size luxury shootout with a second-place ribbon. But just barely.
The Cadillac slipped past the Lexus with a slim two-point margin, and our policy is to stick with the numbers. And so life goes on, in spite of the pained cries of editors who felt the well-rounded LX deserved the win. But the Escalade is a fine luxury SUV in its own right, and if it comes down to a decision between these two, you really can't go wrong.
The LX 470 swept all of the subjective scoring categories. Editors were unanimous in their desire to recommend the vehicle to the average luxury SUV shopper above all the others. And three out of the four editors said the Lexus would be their top choice for their own garages (the fourth editor picked it second, behind the Cadillac). The LX also earned the highest score (86.7 percent) on our 23-point evaluations.
Beyond that, the LX came standard with eight of the Top 12 Features which placed it behind the Lincoln. Where the Lexus lost serious points was in the performance and price categories, which together comprise 40 percent of the total score. Although it achieved the shortest braking distance in instrumented testing, midpack acceleration and slalom numbers weren't enough to keep pace with the Cadillac. And with the second highest MSRP in this test, the Lexus had to give up several more points to the Escalade.
With or without the win, the LX 470 is a great vehicle. Although it received a number of mechanical, cosmetic and equipment upgrades for 2003, the fact that it's still in the game in the sixth year of its model life cycle is incredible. Mildly dated styling inside and out are the only signs of aging. Smaller than either the Cadillac or the Lincoln, the Lexus has a narrower cabin, and maximum cargo capacity tops out at 90 cubic feet compared to the triple-digit figures of the domestics. The 50/50-split third-row seat offers minimal legroom and is suitable for children only. This seat can either be removed or folded and tethered to the rearmost grab handles in an upright position this still doesn't beat the Navigator's fold-flat ease, but it does give you more loading options on family trips. Instead of a standard one-piece rear liftgate, the LX has a large flip-up top section and a smaller tailgate-type lower section that flips down.
Overall, the LX 470 felt more luxurious than any of the others in this test. Up front, the Lexus might not have had the style of the Lincoln, but its user-friendly nature and excellent materials won over every editor. Virtually every surface in the LX is soft to the touch, and none of the other SUVs came close to offering as much genuine wood, in this case, bird's eye maple. The wood-trimmed steering wheel glistened with the reflection of the electroluminescent gauge cluster, and the leather hides on the seats and door panels must have come from the tenderest of clover-eating cows.
The front chairs are well-cushioned and equipped with ratcheting armrests, but three of our four editors found them less supportive than those of the Escalade. The fourth loved the seats but admitted that the short seat bottoms could make them uncomfortable for drivers over six feet in height. The second-row bench is comfortable enough for adults, but here again, a short seat bottom could be cause for complaint among the long-legged. Additionally, there isn't a lot of foot room under the front chairs. In terms of safety, the LX was the only SUV that offered both side airbags for front occupants and head curtain bags for the front and rear.
The Lexus earned high ratings for visibility from the cockpit, despite the fact that it doesn't come with rear parking sensors. Positive attributes include slim D-pillars, a large rear glass area, large side mirrors and HID headlights. Those who suffer from night blindness will want to check out the optional Night View system, which uses near-infrared technology to project black-and-white images of what's ahead onto the windshield, helping you avoid pets and parked cars.
Although we're not wild about center stack setups that link the climate and audio interfaces with the navigation system (standard on this sport-ute), the LX 470's arrangement was easier to use than most, thanks to the straightforward touchscreen display and the large buttons and knobs used to control basic climate and stereo functions. The nav screen also houses the trip computer, a pretty mundane item on its own but worth mention in the Lexus because of its programmable calendars you can plot out a year's worth of appointments from the driver seat. Meanwhile, all of the windows offer one-touch up-and-down operation from all four doors.
The LX didn't offer anything beyond the basics in the way of storage, but its three front seat power points should be useful to those accompanied by multiple electronic gadgets. Six cupholders are provided in all, and those in the first two rows ably accommodate large beverages.
Under the hood of the LX 470 beats the silent heart of a 4.7-liter V8 that develops 235 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque. This isn't much horsepower for a full-size luxury SUV, but the V8 almost makes up for it with its utter refinement. We say almost because if you load the Lexus full of family and luggage and hitch up a trailer, it's definitely going to feel weighted down compared with the Escalade. But if it's just you and a couple of clients or loved ones most of the time, this engine will do right by you. This year, the LX is equipped with a five-speed automatic, and it goes about its business unobtrusively. In our driving, it didn't quite match the alertness of the Escalade's four-speed unit. With this powertrain, the LX 470 earned the highest EPA mpg ratings of the group at 13 city/17 highway which still isn't anything to brag about, of course.
Ride and handling characteristics are as close to perfect as any large SUV has ever come. On the street, the ride is as smooth and buttery as you like, depending on which of the four modes you choose for the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), which automatically adjusts shock absorber firmness according to driving style, road conditions and vehicle load. Turn the AVS dial all the way to "Sport," and body roll is reasonably well controlled while going around turns. The LX has a new variable-ratio steering rack for 2003, and editors loved its progressive weighting, which ranged from light in the parking lot to firm at highway speeds. The brakes got high marks as well one editor described them as "light to the touch and immensely powerful."
We took the LX 470 on some challenging off-road trails during our trip to Hungry Valley, and even over severe bumps and ruts, it retained its compliant, forgiving ride quality. Such manners were remarkable next to the G500, which despite its supreme capability never failed to give occupants a good bouncing around, its chassis flexing over every undulation. Several editors said they would choose the LX 470 over the G500 (and H2) as an off-road companion because of its easygoing nature. While the Lexus doesn't have a rear locking differential, it does allow you to access its low-range gearing without locking the center differential. Further, it comes with Adjustable Height Control (AHC), which slightly improves the approach and departure angles when activated. Finally, it offered a very low first gear in 4WD Low something we found very useful on steep descents and its Dunlop tires worked well on the pavement and in the dirt.
Very few SUVs are as multitalented as the LX 470. If you buy one, you won't be disappointed, especially if you're among the small percentage of buyers who really do enjoy going off-roading. The one thing the LX doesn't tend to inspire in its driver is excitement and that, along with its hefty price, led to its second-place finish. Nevertheless, we respect its capabilities more than ever.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
One might think, after experiencing its refined manners on pavement, that the Lexus isn't tough enough to handle off-road terrain. Au contraire. Much like a natural athlete who quietly goes about trouncing louder, more obnoxious rivals, the LX 470 climbed, descended and scrabbled through challenging sections of the off-road portion of this test with ease. Never was there heard an unseemly clunk or felt an uneasy shakiness as the Lexus handled the terrain confidently.
Although it's into the sixth model year of this generation, the LX 470 still has it over its more recently revamped rivals. Even though its V8 is rated at the lowest output in this group, mated to a silken and responsive automatic, it furnishes brisk performance and remains virtually silent and free of vibration no matter what. A ride more like a luxury sedan than a truck and reassuring handling complete the dynamic package. The nicest cabin in the class is the frosting on this delectable piece of cake.
Beautifully crafted inside and out, comfortable and capable on- or off-road and with a size that's manageable in terms of parking and getting through traffic, the LX 470 would be my top pick here.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Until this test, I had spent little time behind the wheel of Lexus' flagship SUV. All the previous reports were good, so I went in expecting a lot. After putting the vehicle through its paces, I wasn't the least bit disappointed. The suspension is phenomenal on- or off-road, with enough comfort on the street and articulation in the dirt to give it excellent performance in either situation. Of all the vehicles in the test, this is the one I would want to use to tackle an imposing off-road trail. There's no doubt that the engine could use some more horsepower, especially when it's loaded down with people and cargo, but in everyday driving its refinement almost makes up for its lack of grunt. Even more impressive was the LX's interior. The wood is gorgeous, the seats are comfortable and the fit and finish is nearly perfect. Add in the best audio and navigation systems of the five and it's easy to see why it continually lands at the top of our lists. It may not garner much attention on the street or have the power to outrun its competitors, but if I were looking for a luxury SUV that would rarely disappoint no matter what I wanted to do, the Lexus is the one I would pick hands down.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
In my mind this vehicle was always going to be the winner, but once I drove it I realized how close the Escalade came to upsetting my visions of Lexus perfection.
The LX 470 is a great truck because it does everything reasonably well. On-road it feels every bit the luxury part, and off-road it is vastly more capable than most others, including the Escalade. In fact, all other things being equal (which they never are) the LX would narrowly edge out the Escalade due to its off-road abilities.
I can't stop comparing the LX to the Escalade because they both seem to capture the on-road spirit of luxury so well. However, another Lexus strong point is a Cadillac downfall and it has to do with the interior. The Lexus offers an interior befitting a luxury vehicle while the Escalade falls flat in this area. The LX has warm, beautiful wood trim and is lined with soft supple leather. Seats are comfortable and the build quality is top-notch.
The only complaint I have with the LX is that I would prefer a little more power from the V8.
This is a terrific luxury vehicle that outclasses everything in its segment. The Lexus LX 470 does so much so well that it is clearly (in my opinion) the best full-size luxury SUV, but the Caddy is not far behind.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Lexus LX 470
Ranking in Test: First
System Score: 9.0
Components: The optional Mark Levinson audio system in the LX 470 has all the ingredients for the best factory audio system available in a full-size SUV. There are 11 high-quality speakers: 3/4-inch titanium tweeters in A-pillars, a pair of 2.5-inch midrange drivers and 6.5-inch woofers in the front doors, 4-inch midrange speakers and 3/4-inch tweets in the back doors and a 6.5-inch subwoofer built into the panel next to the third-row seats. A seven-channel amplifier puts out a continuous 240 watts (about 500 max watts), and is hooked up to a six-disc CD changer. There's also a tape deck surrounded by huge knobs and that's complemented by second-row audio controls and steering wheel-mounted buttons. Unfortunately, some adjustments are hampered because you must navigate through the touchscreen menus that come with the navigation system.
Performance: Fantastic. That sums up how this system performs with all types of music. Acoustic, electronic, rap, art-grunge, heavy metal, etc., all types get exquisite attention to detail. This is how the record producer intended the albums to sound. The left and right channels are totally separate, but combine at just the right place to create a full soundstage without the need for a center channel. The midrange drivers in the front doors are awesome. Guitars blast and the distortion those producers programmed has a calculated texture that's absent in most factory car audio systems. The midrange speakers in the back also sound great, and the titanium tweeters are crisp and responsive, so cymbals crash without overpowering other very high tones. The low end of the spectrum is handled by a refined and capable, although small, 6.5-inch subwoofer in the wall of the third row. Much like the tweets, it is able to reproduce sounds and snap back in time to catch the next hit from the CD track. This results in taut tones that are very accurate even when the volume is pushed. The sub will not crack the windshield or bother too many neighbors, but the incredibly natural performance at all volumes should satisfy most drivers.
Best Feature: Super-strong midrange.
Worst Feature: Touchscreen is troublesome.
Conclusion: The benchmark for factory sound systems in full-size SUVs. Trevor Reed
First Place - 2003 Cadillac Escalade
Comparison tests are some of the most important vehicle evaluations we conduct all year. When we bring together a group of competing vehicles and drive them back to back with one another, we try to shed our preconceptions about various nameplates and consider them only in the here and now alongside their peers. Nevertheless, there are always surprises and few bigger than the winner of this test, the Cadillac Escalade.
No one thought the Cadillac was as well-rounded as the LX 470, which edged it out on our personal and recommended picks lists and 23-point evaluations. Further, it came with just seven of our Top 12 features (six of which were standard equipment), which put it behind the Lexus and the Lincoln in this category. But the Escalade cleaned up during instrumented testing, where its swift 7.9-second 0-to-60-mph time helped it to the top-performance slot. And with the second lowest as-tested MSRP, the Escalade was a good $13,000 more attainable than the LX 470.
Yet, looking back, the Escalade was more than just fast and cheap. Even though it lacked the LX 470's attention to detail, editors found it to be an altogether luxurious SUV whose wonderfully smooth ride was complemented by super-soft captain's chairs in front and roomy accommodations all the way back. And when the roads turned twisty, the Escalade was a surprisingly good handler. If you know your luxury SUV will spend its life on pavement, the Cadillac should be just as satisfying to own as the Lexus.
Regardless of how you drive it, the most thrilling part of the Escalade is certainly the 6.0-liter V8 that lives under the hood of every all-wheel-drive model. Although it makes use of older technology, the Escalade's engine is actually smoother than the Navigator's more modern double overhead cam V8. It's not as quiet as the LX 470's V8, but in the Escalade, quiet isn't really the idea. Instead it's about brute force. Output is measured at 345 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque, and acceleration at any speed is a serious rush. If you're of the mind that luxury SUV ownership is about indulgence, a test-drive is definitely in order. What's more, if you plan to do serious towing, the Escalade is the only vehicle in the group with enough torque to handle this task with ease.
GM's tried-and-true heavy-duty four-speed automatic is standard, and all of us were impressed by its consistently smooth, quick shifts. You'll note that the Escalade is only available with two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Although you could get a locking center differential and low-range gearing on the original 1999-2000 Escalades, Cadillac's product planners apparently decided that the average buyer had little interest in off-roading and left this equipment out of the redesigned '02 version.
It came as no shock, then, that our test vehicle was underprepared for our off-road adventure. Although its suspension was better suited for off-highway work than the Navigator's, the Escalade could often be found struggling on its way up slippery inclines, as one or more wheels spun impotently difficult to avoid when you can't fix the front/rear power split at 50/50 as you can with a locking center differential. Further, the Escalade's lack of low-range gearing necessitated heavy use of the brakes to prevent it from hurtling headlong down steep descents. Unless you're a hard-core off-roader, the Cadillac's failings on rutted trails are no big deal it can easily handle the occasional unpaved road to the campsite or, more likely, mountain chalet.
Life on the pavement was blissfully hospitable, as the Escalade's Road Sensing Suspension (RSS) continually adjusted the damping rate of the shock absorbers to the benefit of ride comfort and handling. It's the same idea as the LX 470's AVS, though RSS doesn't offer driver-selected comfort and sport modes. The steering is quite light too light for a couple of our editors which made the Cadillac easy to maneuver in parking lots but a little sloppy at higher speeds compared to the LX 470.
Editors disagreed about the performance of the brakes: While some were impressed by the available stopping power, others found the mushiness in the top part of the brake pedal's travel too annoying to overlook. Instrumented testing yielded somewhat discouraging results in this area, as our test vehicle needed 145 feet to come to a stop from 60 mph. This was the longest braking distance of any of the SUVs, including the 800-pound-heavier H2, and our test-driver noted some rear-wheel lockup. While none of us felt this incident was cause for major concern, we couldn't let it pass by unnoticed, especially after the Lexus and Lincoln recorded distances in the 120s.
Inside, Cadillac asks you to make do with design elements little evolved from a basic Chevrolet Tahoe the worst offender is the rectangular dash that looks like it belongs in a 10-year-old pickup rather than a 2003 Cadillac. Zebrano wood inlays help warm up the ensemble a bit, though we didn't find them as convincing as the maple accents in the LX 470. The Escalade was equipped with a new steering wheel and instrument panel for 2003. There's no question that the new wheel is more ergonomically sound than its funky predecessor, but the gauges, while still attractive, are not as sporty as the original set.
Interior materials were a mixed bag. Editors found the leather upholstery suitably supple but weren't enamored with the brittle plastics scattered about the rest of the cabin. The climate and audio controls looked and felt generic, but were easy to use. On the whole, build quality seemed to have improved since our full test of a 2002 Escalade, though gap tolerances and panel fits didn't match the LX 470's level of precision.
The Escalade's secondary controls could use improvement. The steering wheel buttons for the stereo and trip computer were easy to use, but the annoying three-on-one cruise, turn signals and wiper stalk has got to go. Also, we'd like to see a full set of one-touch windows, as opposed to auto-down for the front windows only.
Besides being soft ("like big lounge chairs," said one editor) and broad enough to accommodate most any size human being, the front seats earned points for their power-adjustable lumbar and lateral bolsters. The Escalade earned mostly high ratings for visibility from the cockpit, given its amply sized side mirrors, reverse parking sensors and HID headlights. One editor deducted points for the sport-ute's thick rear pillars and large rear headrests.
As in the LX 470, it wouldn't be a good idea to ask adults to sit in the third row for long periods, though there is a little more legroom in the Cadillac. Meanwhile, we expect the second-row captain's chairs to please most passengers, as they provide ample thigh and back support. Foot room is a little restricted under the front chairs, but that's also an issue in the Lexus and Lincoln. There are plenty of cupholders to go around, but you won't find any storage back here aside from the map pockets. This is at least partly due to the open floor space between the second-row chairs, which allows easy access to the third row.
Big as the Lincoln looks, the Cadillac actually holds the edge in cargo space with the third-row seats removed, and with the second-row chairs folded. The 50/50 third-row seats are heavy, but they are equipped with wheels to make them easier to roll out.
We'll be the first to say that the Escalade is not the perfect luxury SUV and not all of our editors would consider buying one of their own. But it has come a very long way since the 2000 model that finished dead last in our 2000 Luxury SUV Comparison Test. And for those who like the idea of piloting a big, brash sport-ute that offers generous amounts of comfort and excitement, it's a great choice. Want to spend more on the Lexus? Go ahead, but if you're never going to leave the pavement, we don't see the need.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
This SUV is typical General Motors. This is both good and bad. Good because it means it has a superb drivetrain a muscular yet smooth V8 matched to a smart, quick and refined transmission. Bad because it has some low-quality interior components, such as a hard plastic dash top (that seems thin and hollow) and a tailgate pull strap that is likewise flimsy in appearance and feel. But apart from the Chevy Silverado dashboard, most of the interior, such as the seats and the wood trim on the doors and center console, is actually pretty nice. As far as the driving experience, a lot of power has a way of compensating for the somewhat dead steering feel, as do the handling and ride qualities that also help raise my opinion of the Cadillac.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Driving this vehicle again reminded me of just how far it has come since its introduction just four years ago. Back then it was just an underpowered, overhyped Chevrolet Tahoe with a few extra pieces of wood on the dash not anymore. While the current version is still based on the same platform as the Tahoe, the Escalade is now a far more refined overall package. The ride is comfortable, the cabin is quiet and the seats coddle you with firm, supportive cushions and multilevel heaters that feel great regardless of how cold it is. The drivetrain leaves little to be desired as it has more than enough power and a responsive transmission to go along with it. Hard-core off-roading exposed the Escalade's shortcomings but I never expected it to do well in that area anyway. I was also disappointed with the Escalade's new dash design that looks more generic than the previous version, but I did notice an improved level of build quality throughout the interior. Panels don't flex quite as much as they used to and the gaps between them seem tighter than before. If I was looking for nothing more than just a family hauler that would never see a speck of dirt, the Escalade would get my attention, but as it is I prefer a vehicle that can do it all, so the Escalade didn't earn full marks in my book.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Escalade is so close to being the perfect luxury SUV, but barely misses the mark in my opinion. Its high point is the 6.0-liter V8. It offers brisk acceleration, gobs of power and does it all with such effortlessness. This engine never feels taxed, or incapable.
The suspension soaks up bumps with ease, even when venturing off-road. But there's no question that on-road is where the uptown Escalade does its best work. The all-wheel-drive system and lack of low-range four-wheel drive make it unsuitable for anything other than mild off-road or snowy conditions it almost seems as if GM designed the Escalade's all-wheel-drive system to enhance street performance rather than off-road prowess. Handling suffers as a result of having a soft suspension, but I didn't mind. I also really liked the light, effortless steering it borders on being overboosted, but I still like it more than other truck's.
The Escalade's Achilles' heel is the interior. It's fine for a Chevy or GMC truck, but a Cadillac should have an interior that is head and shoulders above the competition with regard to luxury Cadillac could learn a few things from Lincoln on this point. The lack of one-touch up-and-down power windows is also appalling given the Escalade's luxury intentions.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Cadillac Escalade
Ranking in Test: Second (tie)
System Score: 8.0
Components: The self-proclaimed "World's Most Powerful SUV" comes standard with a nine-speaker Bose sound system that includes a subwoofer built into the center console. Tweeters are mounted in all four corners of the enormous cabin and there's a speaker in each door (bass only for the front doors and a full-range of sound in the back). Directing sonic traffic is GM's in-dash six-disc CD changer with second-row audio controls and steering wheel-mounted buttons.
Performance: It takes a lot of sound to fill this truck, and the Bose system does a good job. Cymbals and guitars scream from the tweets and bass sounds much better in 2003 models thanks to the subwoofer getting moved from the cargo area to the front of the truck. Acoustic performances sound spacious thanks to the good speaker placement, and separation of the left and right channels is always apparent (hear that, Beatles fans?). The Escalade gets loud with ease, but the sound quality suffers at mirror-shaking levels. Very low bass tones are not distorted, but also don't pound like aftermarket add-ons.
Best Feature: Bass moved up front.
Worst Feature: Sound quality suffers at high volumes.
Conclusion: A solid sound system. Trevor Reed
Even though sport-utility vehicles cost a lot to feed, a steady stream of new arrivals in the U.S. market tells us that we still haven't reached the critical point. In this test, we turned our attention to the five largest luxury SUVs currently on sale. As all-terrain capability isn't what motivates most purchases, we primarily looked at each vehicle's ability to serve as a comfortable, easy-to-drive and luxurious companion for everyday driving in the suburbs. On a secondary level, we examined each vehicle's ability to survive a workout on off-road trails.
The result was a surprise ending, even for us, as the brash and powerful Cadillac Escalade stole the first-place crown from the multitalented Lexus LX 470. Really, it wasn't a theft, though. Most people don't take their SUVs off-road, and the Escalade offers nimble and luxurious urban transportation at a price that isn't enormous.
The second-place LX 470 handles itself with grace on any terrain and swathes you in the finest cabin environment, but it costs over $10,000 more. It's the one we would drive if money were no object.
The Lincoln Navigator finished third, and it could be a satisfying choice for those who have a handful of kids to haul around. Although stylish, the Navigator needs more power and refinement to be a top pick in this segment.
There was a sharp drop-off in the point totals between third and fourth place, and that's because our two bottom finishers, the Mercedes-Benz G500 and Hummer H2, are for the most part uncompromising off-road machines. The G500 offers a few more luxuries, as well as more maneuverable dimensions, but the asking price is way too high. Get a Jeep instead. The H2, meanwhile, is too much vehicle for public roads and even some off-road trails. And just because it's big doesn't mean there's any room to put stuff its gigantic full-size spare takes up half the cargo bay.