By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
It stands alone, unchallenged … the master of all it surveys.
Not merely surviving but thriving. The Hummer came – and went. So also the Ford Excursion – a mere Ford, too for that matter.
No, if you want the Biggest Kahuna – a luxury SUV that can swallow the others whole and beat them to a bloody pulp – then there’s really only one choice.
A Cadillac Escalade ESV Platinum Edition. Nearly as long (222.9 inches) as a “deuce and quarter” ’70s era Buick Electra 225. Six thousand pounds, almost … empty. 6.2 liters of V-8 and 403 horsepower. 13 MPG… .
And $85,095 out the door.
I stand in awe….
WHAT IT IS
The eight-passenger Escalade ESV is the ultimate-in-size Escalade; almost two feet longer stem to stern than a standard (and already enormous) Escalade – and about two feet longer than a Range Rover (195.8 inches), Lexus LX570 (196.5 inches) or Mercedes-Benz GL550 (200.7 inches).
A Lincoln Navigator L is the same size, physically – but it’s packing a just 310 hp (vs. the ESV’s heroic 403 hp) and the Nav L’s sticker price of $59,940 loaded is just a solid down payment on an $82,585 Platinum Edition ESV covered in Tehama Aniline leather and riding on 22 inch ree-uhms.
The Platinum model I tested crested $86,000. You could gold-plate a Navigator L and not spend that much cash!
WHAT’S NEW for 2012
The King ages but sees few major changes, other than a new design USB port and a $2,315 uptick in the price of the base model.
Weirdly (or luckily, for buyers) the top-of-the-line Platinum model’s price goes down by $40. It’s like getting a quarter-tank of gas for free!
The Ultimate. Nothing bigger in size, power or personality.
Easy to drive, despite its size.
Classy, beautifully finished interior.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Ultimate price tag. Buy a Navigator L – loaded – for $20k less.
A beast to park and maneuver in traffic (so’s the Navigator L).
Cost to feed it more than some people’s car payments.
The proles around you will hate you all the more.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Escalade ESV comes standard with a mondo 6.2 liter, 403 hp V-8 with GM’s Active Fuel Management technology as well as E85 (ethanol) fuel compatibility.
It completely outclasses its sole competitor, the Lincoln Navigator L, which comes with a 5.4 liter, 310 hp engine.
And not just in terms of power.
Despite producing almost 100 hp more than the Lincoln’s smaller V-8, the Caddy’s 6.2 liter engine virtually matches the Nav’s performance at the pump. Both eat gas like Elvis ate ‘nanner sammiches with a pound of fried bacon on top – but the much more powerful Cadillac gets the same 14 city that the Lincoln touts, and its rated 18 MPG highway is just 2 MPG less than the Lincoln’s. Hardly noticeable.
But the power-performance gulf is immediately obvious.
A 2WD ESV can get to 60 in about 7 seconds – an amazing feat of athleticism for a 6,000 lb.-plus SUV. The Nav needs about 8.2 seconds – and that’s a difference you can really feel. More on this below.
The ESV’s big V-8 is paired with a six-speed automatic with Tow/Haul and manual shift control modes. It shifts smartly, though using the stalk-mounted controller takes some getting used to.
The optional 4WD system is advertised as AWD in part because it is full-time and in part because there is no driver-selectable Low range gearing or two-speed transfer case. But keep in mind that the ESV is a truck-based vehicle with a truck-type layout, including engine facing front to back (not sideways) connected to a separate transmission (not an integrated transaxle) which feeds a rear-mounted axle, which in turn feeds the power to the rear wheels most of the time – not the front wheels most of the time, as in a FWD-based AWD vehicle. When the system detects slip at the rear, it routes some of the power back to the front – the reverse of what happens in a FWD-based system. The Navigator’s AWD works the same way. Neither are designed to go off-road but their AWD systems do give you a leg up on snow-slicked paved roads.
There’s one area where the Lincoln outclasses the Caddy – max tow ratings. The Nav can tow 9,000 lbs. vs. 8,000 lbs. for the ESV. This suggests the Nav – which is based on the Ford Expedition – has a tougher frame than the Chevy Suburban-based Cadillac.
I can’t say that for a fact – but the tow ratings sure suggest it.
ON THE ROAD
Like being comfortably settled into your lounge chair in the first-class section of a 747 at altitude, there’s little sensation of massive mass in motion. The ESV glides along at 70 or 80 without even much in the way of wind or tire noise – remarkable given the aerodynamic LD of its brick-like shape and (on my tested Platinum model) those 22 inch ree-uhms, and no-give two-inch-high sidewalls on the tires they’re wrapped in – which you’d expect would drone like Al Gore and be just as irritating. But they don’t. You will notice potholes more but it’s not jarring – you’re just aware you ran over something back there.
But, just like a 747 on the tarmac at JFK, when you are rolling slowly through a crowded parking lot in the ESV, the hugeness of this vehicle can become an issue. It’s got nothing to do with steering (light and easy) or blind spots – of which there are few and besides, you’ve got an array of electronics, including a back-up camera and buzzer to warn you before you actually hit something. It is just the sheer size of this thing vs. the not-so-sheer size of everything else.
For instance, most parking spots are sized to accommodate a current-era mid-sized passenger car, both width-wise as well as length-wise. Even after pulling partially in and backing out (and then doing it again) to get the ESV lined up, it is still a tight squeeze and not infrequently, you’ll find you can’t fully open the (also huge) door to get out or back in because you’re parked so close to the cars on either side. And when you try to back out of a space, it can take a lot of minute and careful work (and time) to avoid backing into the cars parked in the next row opposite. It’s not like driving a normal-sized car, that you can just jump into and go. Even when you’re out on the main road, the side blind spot alert built into the outside rearview mirrors will often go off as a result of trees and berms on the shoulder – as well as passing vehicles – because of the ESV’s wide-load width. You’ll be much closer to things on either side of you than you would be in an average-sized car.
Also, be sure you measure the length and width of your garage before you bring the ESV home. I am not kidding. If your home was built after the mid-1980s, the garage may (like parking spaces in public) have been designed to handle the typical-sized car of that era. You will need about 19 feet of length to just clear the bumper with the garage door closed. Twenty feet to make it so you can walk behind the bumper with the garage door closed.
Same issue with the Navigator L. These are titanic-sized vehicles. Be sure you can deal with it, both on the road and at home.
The 6.2 liter V-8 delivers godlike power, everywhere – anytime. Touch the gas, and the ESV goes. The 6.2 liter GM V-8 is also a simpler and probably more rugged powerplant than the Lincoln Navigator’s 5.4 liter overhead cam V-8. Overhead cam V-8s like the Navigator’s were supposed to be the future of V-8 engine design, but GM has proved that pushrod V-8s can be just as smooth, rev just as freely and produce even more power without all the extra parts (and expense) of an OHC layout. I guess it doesn’t really matter in a vehicle with a starting price of $65k, but it’s likely the ESV’s pushrod, two-valve engine will be less expensive to maintain and repair as the miles accrue.
AT THE CURB
Like it or hate the ESV is an attention-getter and not just because it’s Hulk Hogan huge. The Navigator is about the same size, but it’s a much quieter vehicle, aesthetically speaking. The ESV shares kinship with the rock star Caddies of the late ’50s and 1960s but instead of jutting fins it has a gaping chromed-out grille and dazzling foot-tall LED headlights to provide the menace. Now add 22 inch ree-uhms, two inches taller than the tallest ree-uhms available on the Navigator. In black with tinted windows this is an intimidating vehicle – no surprise that federal heavies like the Secret Service favor it over the Navigator.
You’ve gotta see the inside, too.
It is a true fact that you can take a Holiday Inn (the Chevy Tahoe/Suburban) gut it to the studs, rebuild it with cost no object, and end up with the Ritz. As obstreperous as it may be on the outside, the ESV is every stitch and hand-cut piece of Olive Ash and Walnut Burl wood trim as opulent on the inside as it ought to be, given the MSRP.
A tarted-up Tahoe, this isn’t.
In fact, I don’t think there’s a single common part – from the jeweled gauge cluster to the pasha-plush carpets. And no Tahoe – or Navigator – comes with heated and cooled beverage holders. Want the proverbial kitchen sink? It’s gotta be in there somewhere. I know for sure there are individual high-definition DVD monitors built into the seatbacks, along with wireless headphones; auto-retractable running boards to help you climb aboard – and power folding second-row seats. Fit, finish and attention to detail cannot be faulted. You won’t find a cheap-out anywhere, even if you crawl under the seats to look. You pay to play, but you do get top-of-the-line everything.
The only thing missing that I could see was a case of Dom Perignon but you can probably get the dealer to throw that in.
And, size does matter.
Unlike the hordes of “full-sized” crossovers and even SUVs that allegedly seat seven, but really seat five adults and maybe a couple of young kids who have no choice about being condemned to third row seats that are really for-looks-only, seven big adults enjoy Texas-sized spreadin’ out room in the ESV – and there’s still acres of room for Stuff in the back. The ESV’s second-row captains chairs are as nice – and have as much room around them – as you’ll find in many RVs.
Fold them and you have almost 140 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Put a Smart car back there, maybe.
This is a rich man’s machine – and not just MSRP-wise, either. Just feeding it will cost more than the average prole’s car payment. The window sticker on my test vehicle says about $4,000 annually – which works out to about $330 a month. That’ll pay for an entire Camry, just for some perspective.
So, Escalade ownership is as much about status and indulgence as it is about mere functionality. Any middle manager can drive a Tahoe. And maybe his boss can drive a Navigator or perhaps a Yukon XL, if it’s been a really good year.
But only their boss can drive an ESV.
And that’s what it’s all about.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s the ultimate. Nothing bigger, nothing stronger, nothing more kitchen sink opulent that’s also all of these things together. And in my mind, that makes it a Cadillac.