Neil Dunlop, Contributor
Depending on your perspective, the Cadillac Escalade EXT is either a tour de force of luxury and utility, or a monument to conspicuous consumption and excess.
First introduced in 2001 as a 2002 model, the EXT has received several upgrades for the 2003 model year. Most of the changes were needed, and others are merely appreciated. It's not all good, though there are still some aspects of the huge truck that we wish Cadillac would change.
For the uninitiated, the EXT is effectively a cross between a full-size luxury sport-utility vehicle and a pickup truck. Or, if you prefer, it's a Cadillac Escalade with a pickup bed instead of an enclosed cargo area. Everything about it is oversize and over the top.
Weighing in at 5,752 pounds, standing about six feet three inches and covering more than 18 feet from its menacing face to its foreboding tail, the EXT is gargantuan. It's powered by an equally monstrous 6.0-liter V8 engine. With output measured at 345 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 380 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, it's one of the most powerful SUVs you can buy.
Of course, as it's a Cadillac, the EXT's cabin is as luxuriously appointed as a CEO's den. The cabin was even made a little more opulent for 2003. The massive heated, 10-way power-adjustable front bucket seats were redesigned to improve comfort levels. And Cadillac has added power-adjustable pedals to make it easier for drivers to create a truly personal seating position.
We were quite chagrined to find that the original EXT did not have dual-zone climate controls a shortcoming Cadillac has corrected for 2003. The dash has also been tidied up a bit with new graphics and a move toward a simpler, more seamless design. The changes are nice and subtle, but nevertheless we think there's still too much black plastic and wasted space. And the switchgear is too primitive for a vehicle that costs nearly $55,000. We are similarly disappointed that the power windows include an automatic down function for the driver only. For a vehicle in this price range, we expect automatic-down for all windows and auto-up for at least the front two. In addition, we are a little confounded as to why the automaker would have paid Bulgari to design the console's analog clock but not any other aspect of the interior. The instrument bezels look similar but do not bear the luxury Italian jeweler's name. It's probably a cost issue, but we can't help thinking Bulgari could have come up with a more cohesively luxurious interior.
Regardless, the EXT is a fine place to spend time. Every need is taken care of in Cadillac style and everyone will appreciate the dance club-quality seven-speaker, 200-watt Bose sound system and the Panasonic DVD player (a $1,295 option). For 2003, XM Satellite Radio is also available as a $325 option. The system provides access to 100 coast-to-coast digital channels, though subscription charges are extra.
The EXT also has a thirst to match its opulence. During our week-long test with the luxo-ute, we drove 966 miles, city and highway combined. The truck drank 62.2 gallons of premium fuel over that distance, an average of 15.5 miles per gallon. This is pretty much par for the course as large sport-utilities go, but when you actually keep a log, their consumption is staggering.
In terms of road presence, the EXT retains its crown as the vehicle subcompact drivers most dread seeing in their rearview mirror. Its ferocious-looking trapezoidal grille, vertically stacked headlights and chiseled hood conspire to produce a face with the sinister grin of a malevolent robot. For 2003, high-intensity-discharge headlamps have been added as standard equipment and their bright white light only adds to the Cadillac's imposing façade. It used to be that you impressed people by arriving in a luxury vehicle such as a Porsche. The EXT dispenses with that cliché it's a luxury vehicle that looks like it could eat a Porsche.
Also, no one's ever going to miss your chosen brand of vehicle the EXT features huge Cadillac badges on the grille and the tailgate. New for 2003 are optional ($795) 17-inch chrome wheels. They are truly flashy and add to the truck's opulent and distinctive road presence.
Thanks to its superstiff chassis, stability control and Road Sensing Suspension system, the EXT's ride and handling are superb. The EXT's body-on-frame chassis includes extra structural members such as the triangular "sails" that run from the C-pillar to the pickup bed. As a result, the EXT is actually stiffer than the Escalade SUV on which it's based. The Road Sensing Suspension is a computer-controlled system that uses sensors to monitor the road surface a thousand times per second and then adjust the damping at each shock absorber accordingly. So, if you drive from smooth pavement to a rough gravel road, the system can adjust in 15 to 20 milliseconds to ensure the truck stays level and smooth. We often felt we were riding on air.
Aided by the stability control system, called StabiliTrak, the suspension limits body roll and keeps all four wheels firmly on the pavement. StabiliTrak has been improved for 2003 to a four-channel system so that all four wheels can brake independently for more precise directional control. The previous system could only apply brakes independently to the front wheels. So, we were actually able to toss the big beast around bends with no fear of upsetting it. When we took a corner a little too fast and managed to break the wheels free, StabiliTrak returned us quickly and calmly to our intended path.
The only time the steering felt too light was on straightaways, at which point the variable-speed steering added too much boost and created a vague, floaty feeling. We're disappointed that Cadillac didn't improve the on-center feel and resistance of the EXT's steering. However, we imagine the decision to leave it alone was guided by the many Cadillac customers who expect to be able to pilot their vehicle around the city using only one hand. And the big 'ute is maneuverable. It bounds around like a truck half its size. However, we find its eagerness a little unsettling. Sure, its nearly 10.6 inches of ground clearance and expansive greenhouse provide a commanding view of the road, but the huge C-pillar and aforementioned structural "sails" make it almost impossible to get a clear view of the rear corners. That makes backing up in a parking lot quite harrowing.
Thankfully, ultrasonic rear parking assist is standard equipment; however, we find it difficult to completely trust the system as it may not pick up every obstacle or be quick enough to catch someone who dashes in front of the reversing vehicle.
Blind spots notwithstanding, Cadillac has made an effort to make the EXT safer. In addition to the improved StabiliTrak, the company revamped the side mirrors by adding turn signal indicators, puddle lights and a tilt-down feature when the vehicle is in reverse. Supplemental BrakeAssist has been added, as has an automatic passenger-sensing airbag system. By measuring the weight of the front passenger, the system determines if the person is a child or an adult and disables the airbag when appropriate.
The idea of a luxury pickup makes many people scratch their heads. However, fans of SUTs (sport-utility trucks) would say they just don't get it. Even if they're never going to use it, Cadillac EXT buyers love having the cargo bed back there. Because SUT believers tend to be a social bunch and always on the lookout for other disciples, we had a few approach us while we were out evaluating the truck. One told us outright he'd never put anything in the back and probably never would, but he wouldn't trade his truck for anything.
We know. Just because we're like that, we bucked the trend and used the bed to haul around some cargo. First, the three lightweight, rigid plastic panels that make up the bed tonneau are easy to remove and store neatly in the supplied ballistic nylon bag attached to the inside of the bed. A series of straps keeps them from moving around or getting in the way. It took about five minutes to remove and stow the cover. Also, the bed is lined with a heavy-duty rubber that grips loads like peanut butter on cloth. In addition, there are four well-spaced and easily accessible tie-down rings to secure especially unstable cargo.
And, if you've seen the Chevy Avalanche commercial you'll know just how easily the rear window can be removed and stowed in the special compartment in the second-row seat back ("midgate" in Cadillac parlance). You'll also know how easily the whole thing folds flat to extend the cargo bed from its regular 63 inches long to a lumber-swallowing 97 inches. After all, you never know when you're going to want to build a fence or move a dresser.
Of course, if you can afford nearly $55 grand for a truck, why would you spend your weekend doing chores?
We know the debate could rage forever about what is wasteful extravagance and what is an ideal vehicle. One thing's for sure with the 2003 Cadillac Escalade EXT its comfort, ride, power and road presence have no equal on the road.
System Score: 7.0
Components: This Bose system is a bit of a departure from the other systems we've seen in GM vehicles recently. Since the Escalade we reviewed was the EXT model (without a third row of seats), there was no room for the designers to build in a subwoofer, which is something we usually see in SUVs in this price range. In light of this, bass response suffers appreciably, and you end up with a system that has a lot of kick and midbass response, but lacks deep bass. Still, this system does have its good attributes, which we'll review below.
One of the coolest things about this system is it has two CD players: one built into the head unit in the top of the center stack and the second one, a six-disc changer, in the lower portion of the dash. This allows for the utmost flexibility in playing CDs. Other surprise and delight attributes include excellent ergonomics, such as ridged and detented knobs for volume and tuning, scads of features such as RDS and XM radio and overall user-friendliness. The only way this system may confound the user is that it has so many features that some users, particularly those less technically inclined, may find the radio a bit much to operate. Even for those who like a lot of features, this is one busy faceplate.
Speaker placements are fairly cut and dry. All four doors house 6.5-inch full-range drivers. In addition to this, a pair of one-inch tweeters grace the A-pillars. That's it for speakers.
Performance: As noted above, this system lacks deep bass response. The 6.5-inch drivers just aren't up to the task of producing deep, rich bass. As a result, acoustic string bass and deep piano notes lack resonance and depth. On the plus side, the system has very good attack on percussion and any other midbass signals. It also plays really loud, so what this system lacks in refinement it makes up for in sheer brute force. We found most styles of music reproduced in the average range, while rock and pop really shined in this system.
Best Feature: Two count 'em, two CD players.
Worst Feature: No deep bass.
Conclusion: For the average consumer, there will probably be few complaints with the audio system in the 2003 Cadillac Escalade EXT. However, those who are comparing this sound system with those found in, say, Lexus vehicles (or even some Nissan and Acura vehicles), will be disappointed. Likewise, the busy-ness of the head unit will be off-putting to some it's just a little too much for the average consumer. All in all, though, this system will satisfy most's needs. It certainly plays loud enough to sweep away the cobwebs. Scott Memmer
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: With the Lincoln Aviator, Lexus GX 470 and Cadillac Escalade EXT all hitting the marketplace recently, 2003 could be dubbed "the year of the premium truck based on a downmarket truck." OK, that's probably too wordy to work, but in each of those examples above the manufacturer has done a commendable job of separating the upmarket version for its lower-cost (and lower-status) brethren. The EXT is, for all intents and purposes, an expensive Chevy Avalanche. But drive the two vehicles back to back and you'll quickly realize the extra effort Cadillac put into its version. Sumptuous leather, a palatial ride and DVD-based entertainment have their desired effect on this "truck."
Step outside the EXT and you'll see that trademark Escalade grille that looks better every time I see it (and works even better on this vehicle than on the SUVs). The lack of Avalanche cladding greatly enhances the EXT's profile, and could justify the Caddy's higher price tag all by itself. Of course, our test vehicle was black, and while I'm not normally a fan of the color that fades the quickest and shows dirt and damage the easiest, I have to question why anyone would get an Escalade EXT in any other color.
This is a vehicle that balances aggressive looks with premium treatments in a way the Lincoln Blackwood never could, and I don't see Cadillac killing this model off after an 18-month run. 'Nuff said.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says: The Escalade EXT may owe its popularity to what it looks like on the outside, but spend enough time behind the wheel and you learn that what lies beneath is equally impressive. Unlike most sport-utes its size, the EXT's ride is tightly controlled and never harsh. The steering is nicely weighted and the engine is rarely at a loss for power. The EXT is one of the most refined sport-utes GM has ever produced. The interior isn't quite as impressive, but there's no denying that it's a quiet and comfortable cruiser. The seats are luxurious, the stereo sounds great no matter what kind of music you play and the fact that it still offers some real utility in back makes it unique in its segment. It's not the vehicle for me, but for someone who's looking for a luxury utility vehicle that can do it all, the EXT has few equals.
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