By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The battleship Iowa and her three sisters managed to survive not only World War II but a post-war world in which they’d long since become anachronisms. Amazingly, these massive gunboats lingered on as active duty warships for decades — into the 1990s. But everyone knew they had been living on borrowed time for a long time.
Now, they’re all museum ships. They exist to remind us of a different era.
As will likely be the fate of four-wheeled gunboats like the Cadillac Escalade.
Like Iowa or Missouri, it is a mighty sight. Huge — and powerful. But these are the very qualities that put it in the gunsights — of the federal government and its recently issued fuel economy fatwa.
The Caddy’s gargle-o-saurus 14 MPG city — 18 highway — would have to double to make the 35.5 MPG CAFE cut that goes into effect in 2016.
Which is why 2013 will — reportedly — be the last year the Escalade is sold in dreadnought form. A new — and probably very different — Escalade is on deck, probably for 2014. It is rumored that the current Escalade’s standard 6.2 liter V-8 will be replaced with something more — you guessed it — fuel-efficient. Which almost inevitably means, something smaller — and less powerful. That, in turn, will likely lead to a smaller Escalade. Bet on a car-based (unibody, probably FWD/AWD) crossover-type of layout in lieu of the current model’s full-frame, truck-based layout.
If you don’t savor that — then line up now. Because when the ’13s are gone, they may — like the Iowas — be gone forever.
WHAT IT IS
The Escalade is the mack daddy of premium SUVs. There are pricier models — like the $79k to start Range Rover (and the $107k to start Benz Gelandewagen). But there is nothing else as massive (especially when ordered in ESV form) and as flamboyant and as powerful — all rolled into one slab-sided, mongo-engined machine like this thing is.
Prices start at $63,170 for the merely enormous standard-length (202.5 inch) model with RWD. A Platinum-trimmed AWD Escalade starts at $82,495.
The Iowa-class ESV — eight-passenger capable and two full feet longer overall (229.9 inches) than a “full-size” Range Rover — starts at $65,770.
With the Platinum package and AWD, the MSRP climbs to $85,095.
Because of its trifecta of size, muscle and opulence, the Caddy really has very little in the way of direct competition.
The next-closest thing is probably Lincoln’s Navigator — which like the Caddy is also sold in an ultra-big iteration. But the Nav’s been dying on the vine for years and can’t match the hp, the performance — or the curb appeal — of the Escalade.
There’s also the Infiniti Q56. It’s almost as powerful and nearly as ostentatious — but it doesn’t come in super-jumbo size. Ditto the Range Rover and Lexus LX570. And the Benz GL? (Not the Gelandewagen . . . the GL).
It looks like a minivan.
Forget about it!
The 2013 Escalade — reportedly, the final year of the current platform — gets a few neat new features, including powertrain grade braking (basically, an automatic engine braking function) and upgrades to the trailer towing system.
Heroic in every way. It overshadows everything — literally as well as figuratively.
Once you’re rolling, it’s as easy to drive as a Corolla.
Owning one of these things three or four years from now will be like owning a ’70 Hemi ‘Cuda in 1975.
Let them look, let them envy.
And let them remember.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Heroic price tag. Buy a Navigator L — loaded — for $20k less.
Can be a challenge to maneuver in close quarters.
Cost to feed it at current prices can be more than some people’s car payments.
The proles will hate you all the more.
UNDER THE HOOD
The ’13 Escalade 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 — so you can burn corn juice if you want to, in addition to straight-up gasoline.
Power and performance-wise, the Caddy’s big V-8 completely outclasses its sole same-sized competitor, the Lincoln Navigator — which comes with a smaller, far less potent 5.4 liter, 310 hp engine.
A RWD Escalade 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 feel.
Amazingly, 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.
The Caddy’s big-biceped 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 to engage the manual mode takes some getting used to. This year, GM has added powertrain braking — which does the same basic thing as gearing down on grades, so you don’t have to ride the brakes — but does it automatically.
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 Caddy is a RWD truck-based vehicle, with a RWD truck-type layout, including engine facing front to back (not sideways, as in FWD-based layouts) 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 — in which the front wheels are the primary drive wheels.
The Navigator’s AWD system works the same way. Neither vehicle is designed to go seriously off-road (gravel and grass, ok — rutted trails and deep mud not ok) but their AWD systems do give you a leg up on snow-slicked paved roads as well as handling advantage on dry roads — which a true part-time 4WD system doesn’t.
There’s one area where the Lincoln outclasses the Caddy — max tow ratings. The Nav can pull a hearty 9,000 lbs. vs. 8,300 lbs. for the Cadillac. This suggests the Nav — which is based on the Ford Expedition — has a tougher frame than the Chevy Tahoe/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 all this massive mass in motion. The Escalade glides along at 70 or 80 without much in the way of wind or tire noise — remarkable given the unfavorable aerodynamics of its brick-like shape and (on the model I test-drove) those 22 inch rims and the no-give two-inch-high sidewalls of the tires wrapped around them — 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 Dulles, when you are rolling slowly through a crowded parking lot in the Escalade — especially the ESV — the hugeness of this vehicle becomes apparent. 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 Caddy lined up, it is frequently 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 fine adjustments 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 Cadillac’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 this one home — the ESV especially. If your home was built after the mid-1980s, the garage may — like parking spaces at supermarkets and malls — have been designed to handle the typical-sized car of that era. The Escalade is not typical anything.
You will need almost 19 feet of clearance to get 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. 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 Cadillac almost stands up on its hind legs. Floor it and you’ll swear you got air under the front tires. It is a magnificent piece of work — especially when you reflect that it is a two-valve, pushrod design — the same basic layout as the 1955 Chevy small block V-8!
Ford’s V-8 has four valve heads — and dual overhead cams — and isn’t even in the same ballpark, power-wise. Or efficiency-wise.
Something else, too: The Caddy’s engine is easy to get at. Pop the hood and see. You could actually change plugs on this thing with just a very basic socket set and 10-15 minutes’ time. They’re literally right there — nothing to remove first just to be able to see them. OHC V-8s are wider (by dint of the less compact valvewtrain layout, which results in fatty heads and fatty cam covers) which means they’re scrunched into their engine bays — and so, harder to get at and work on. Not that the typical owner of one of these things will be spending much of his own time under the hood. But if he did, the time he spends there will be much more pleasant.
AT THE CURB
Love it — or hate it, the Escalade is an attention-getter — and not just because it’s battleship huge. The Navigator L is just as physically big as the Escalade ESV — but it hasn’t got nearly as big a personality.
Come to think of it, what does?
The Escalade is an icon. To own one in these days of economic uncertainty (and the certainty of high gas prices) is not unlike wearing fur to a PETA convention. You must be confident … unapologetic.
Sure, a Range Rover costs more — and true, an Infiniti Q56 is just as visually obstreperous — and it drinks even more gas. But it hasn’t got the rep.
It’s not notorious.
Owning a Q — or a Range Rover — just doesn’t make the statement that owning an Escalade does. You’re not just well-off. You are happy to be well-off — and aren’t hiding it.
In this way, the Escalade shares kinship with the rock-star Caddies of the late ’50s and 1960s — but instead of jutting fins it has angry angles — and a gaping chromed-out grille that could swallow a Prius whole. It stands tall on 22-inch wheels and dazzles with foot-tall LED headlights and tail-lights. In black with tinted windows this is one intimidating vehicle. No surprise that federal heavies like the Secret Service favor it over the Navigator.
Some will say it’s just a tarted-up Tahoe. And technically, that’s true. But a Cimarron, this isn’t. The basic skeleton is common, but that’s about where the kinship ends. Anything you can see or touch or hear has been either replaced with something different — or made nicer — or both.
I don’t think there’s a single common part — from the Rolex-esque gauge cluster to the pasha-plush carpets. Want the proverbial kitchen sink? It’s gotta be in there somewhere. Check the options list; it’s right there after the available individual high-definition DVD monitors built into the seatbacks with wireless headphone (Platinum models) the auto-retractable running boards to help you climb aboard — and of course, power folding second-row seats. All trims comes standard with an adaptive, self-leveling suspension, three-zone climate control, power adjustable pedals, heaters for the first and second rows, touch-screen LCD display and 10 speaker Bose surround sound stereo.
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 adults enjoy Texas-sized spreadin’ out room in the Escalade — eight, if you get the second row bench. This capacity puts the Caddy head and shoulders above the competition.
And there’s still acres of room for stuff in the back. Nearly 17 cubic feet behind the third row. 45.8 in the ESV.
Fold the second and third row and you have 108.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity — 137.4 in the ESV.
Put a Smart car back there, maybe.
This is a rich man’s machine — and not just MSRP-wise, either. Feeding it will cost more than the average prole’s car payment. The window sticker on my test vehicle says about $3,350 annually — which works out to about $280 a month. If you have to ask about it, you can’t afford it. Same goes for things like the replacement cost of those 22-inch tires.
Escalade ownership transcends the merely functional. Any middle manager can drive a Tahoe. Maybe his boss can drive a Navigator — or perhaps even a GMC Yukon, if it’s been a really good year.
His boss drives an Escalade.
And that’s what it’s all about.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s the ultimate. And in my mind, that makes it a Cadillac.
I’m gonna miss it when it’s gone — even if I can’t afford one myself.