2015 Cadillac Escalade Review

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Cadillac may be having trouble selling its ELR electric car — but no such worries selling its anti-matter opposite, the Escalade.

It’s not hard to understand why. The ELR is very expensive (over $75k to start) but very slow. It realistically seats only two. And it doesn’t go very far on its batteries.

The Escalade, on the other hand, costs less ($71,695 to start) is very quick (6.3 seconds to 60, epic performance for a beast this size) seats four adults and three kids — and goes surprisingly far on a tankful of gas. I blitzed down to Raleigh, NC from our place in The Woods of rural SW Virginia — a four hour trip — and still had about half a tank left when I got there.

Sure, it takes about $40 to add half a tank of gas. But unlike the ELR, the Escalade can be refueled in minutes rather than hours.

Which would you rather drive?

WHAT IT IS

The Escalade is Caddy’s full-size, ultra-premium SUV. It is a real SUV, too — built on a serious-business steel frame, with the body bolted onto that and the engine (a big V-8 engine) driving the rear wheels or all four of them, your choice.

In addition to being the best-known of the big ‘uns, the Escalade is also the most powerful — by a long shot — and it’s the only one that’s sold in an even bigger version, the ESV.

Well, the Lincoln Navigator also sells in “L” extended form. But the ’15 Nav is two cans short of a six pack, having lost its formerly standard V-8. And its now-optional V-8 produces a puny 310 hp — 120 fewer horses than the ’15 Escalade’s standard V-8.

So, there you go.

Base price for the ’15 Escalade with RWD is $71,695; add 4WD and the price ticks up to $74,295. A top-of-the-line Premium trim with 4WD stickers for $82,795.

The longer ESV version of the Escalade starts at $74,695 for the base RWD trim and runs to $85,795 for a Premium with 4WD.

The most direct-comparison cross-shop — at least in terms of shock and awe value — is probably the Infiniti QX80. It comes in one size only — and it’s 20 hp shy of the Caddy under the hood. But it’s a big ‘un, too. Bigger, actually, than the standard-length Escalade.

Much less expensive, too — just $62,700 to start with RWD and $65,800 with 4WD.

You might also cross-shop the Lexus LX570 — but it’s getting long in the tooth (current model, same as last year’s model) is a smaller vehicle, can’t pull as much — and has a weaker engine. Plus, it costs more than the Caddy — $83,540 to start.

WHAT’S NEW

The ’15 Escalade receives its first major update in several years. Highlights include a more visually arresting — and intimidating — exterior (with tall boy tail lights that run clear up to the roof) a revised interior and an even more powerful standard V-8 that manages to get slightly better gas mileage than last year’s V- while also getting the new Escalade to 60 even more quickly than before.

WHAT’S GOOD

King of the Road. Period.

Tremendous performance — not terrible gas mileage . . . for what it is (and relative to the competition).

Class leading room up front (headroom and legroom).

Sizes to suit: Big . . . and really big.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

$8k price uptick for 2015 vs. 2014.

Pretty to look at but pretty awkward to use “haptic” finger-swipe controls.

4WD system lacks two-speed transfer case and Low range gearing.

Navigator can pull more; QX costs a lot less.

UNDER THE HOOD

All Escalades come standard with V-8 power.

A big V-8.

6.2 liters.

The QX80’s standard V-8 displaces a comparatively small-fry 5.6 liters. And the poor old Navigator — actually, the poor new (2015) Navigator — comes standard with a V-6 that’s only about half the size of the Caddy’s V-8.

Power is up to 420 hp — more standard power than anything else in this class — and not by a little bit, either.

The QX80’s 5.6 liter V-8 comes in second place with 400hp (less than last year’s Escalade). The Navigator’s newly standard V-6 (gack!) takes up a distant third place with 365 hp. It’s optional V-8 — 5.4 liters, 310 hp — isn’t even in the race.

While the Cadillac’s 6.2 liter bruiser almost effortlessly hurls the 5,603 pound Escalade to 60 in a searing 6.3 seconds, the lazy Lincoln requires two full seconds more (8.3) to do the same run.

The QX is more competitively quick: zero to 60 takes 6.8 seconds. But that’s still no threat to the sports car-quick Cadillac.

Adding insult to injury, the ’15 Escalade gets better gas mileage than its smaller-engined, slower-accelerating rivals: 15 city, 21 highway for the rear-drive version — vs. 14 city, 20 highway for the rear-drive Navigator and QX80.

The ’15 Escalade also returns slightly better mileage than the less powerful (and less quick) ’14 Escalade — which posted 14 city, 18 highway with rear-drive and a spectacularly consumptive 13 city, 18 highway with 4WD. The ’15 with 4WD (and 420 hp vs. the old model’s 403 hp) rates 14 city, 21 highway.

Speaking of 4WD:

The ’15 Caddy’s system does not have a two-speed transfer case or 4WD Low range gearing. It is more like all-wheel-drive in this respect, since it operates full-time without the driver needing to manually engage the system by turning a knob or pushing a button or — heaven forbid — pull a lever. The upside is it’s always on — and completely automatic. The downside is you haven’t got the tools to deal with deep/unplowed snow — and probably should think twice before you risk driving onto a grassy field. If the thing sinks into the ground, it’ll be tow-truck time.

The Lincoln Navigator’s optional 4WD system is similarly light-duty, with no Low range gearing. However, the Infiniti QX does offer a serious 4WD system, with part-time 4WD (you choose whether and when to engage the 4WD) and a two-speed transfer case with Low range gearing. This endows the Q with a higher level of off-road capability than either the Caddy or the Lincoln.

One curious thing is the Caddy’s maximum tow rating. Despite being the most powerful vehicle in this class, it’s only rated for 8,200 pounds — vs. 8,500 pounds for the Q and a very impressive 9,000 pounds for the far-less-powerful Navigator.

Why? I can’t give you a definitive answer, but suspect it has to do with other-than-engine factors, such as durability (and warranty) concerns for the transmission or perhaps the Caddy’s frame isn’t quite as heavy-duty as the Lincoln’s.

ON THE ROAD

Cadillac is determined to brook no competition — and in terms of get up and go, the Escalade wins, decisively. The 6.2 liter V-8’s 460 ft.-lbs. of torque (and 420 hp) is pure delicious overkill. You could probably pull a spark plug wire, run the thing on seven cylinders — and still be the quickest thing on the block. And on the highway, thanks to the six-speed automatic’s deep overdrive gearing, the revs at 75 are just over 2,000 — which makes it feasible to travel almost 550 miles on 26 gallons of fuel.

I’ve got nothing but nice things to say about the Caddy’s drivetrain.

It’s suspension, though, is another matter. Though it has both Sport and Comfort modes, the ride is arguably on the over-firm side for a luxury SUV. The problem is probably not the suspension, however. Rather, it is the 20 inch wheels and short sidewall tires the Escalade comes shod with. Oversize “rims” are very trendy but very silly — if you care about how your vehicle rides. There’s only so much an adjustable suspension can do to tamp down the oscillations telegraphed to the vehicles’ occupants by these mondo “rims.” And the “twennies” can be upgraded to ‘twennytwos.” Both are the rolling stock equivalent of pointing a pistol sideways at your intended target.

Gnomesayin?

The Navigator — which comes with more sensible 18 inch wheels — has a much softer, more luxurious ride.

On the other hand, the Caddy deals with sudden steering inputs much better; it is more controllable — and it handles vastly better.

All the vehicles in this class are lunkers, but the Escalade has a tighter turning circle (39 feet) than either the QX80 or the Navigator (41.6 and 43.9 feet, respectively), which makes it noticeably easier to maneuver in tight confines such as the car-crowded parking lot of a fast food joint. It also sits lower than either of its two competitors: 74.4 inches for the Escalade vs. 78.1 for the Lincoln and 75.8 for the Infiniti. This makes it less awkward to deal with drive-throughs and low-ceilinged parking garages. No doubt, the Escalade’s lower-in-the-weeds stance also enhances its stability at higher speeds.

It is, however, wider than its rivals: 80.5 inches vs. 78.8 for the Nav and 79.9 for the Q. This makes parking slots (designed for cars) seem all the smaller.

I like the capless fuel filler system. It’s convenient — and much less messy, an important consideration when considering a premium vehicle. You will not have to worry about griming up your hands on the gas cap, because there is none. Just push the fuel pump’s nozzle in the hole.

The pump, however, is not under Cadillac’s control.

One thing I did not like is the Caddy’s CUE touchscreen interface. The look is slick — large LCD flat screen at the top of the center stack. But the function is awkward. You can’t , for instance, find the control to change the radio station by feel. You go by look. It is necessary to place your finger exactly on top of the spot for the control on the flat screen, else you might inadvertently swipe something else. This is easy to do with the vehicle moving — and not easy to avoid doing without looking at the screen instead of the road.

Same goes for the finger-swipe (and tap) “haptic” controls below the CUE LCD display screen, which control the air conditioning temperature and fan speed. These controls are either too sensitive — or not sensitive enough. I found myself spending more time than it ought to have taken to do something that ought to be straightforward, such as adjusting the fan speed.

AT THE CURB

The Escalade is big — but it’s not the biggest.

Not the standard model, anyhow.

At 203.9 inches long, end to end, it is 4.4 inches shorter than the Infiniti QX (208.3 inches) and 4.5 inches shorter than the standard-sized Lincoln Navigator (208.4 inches).

This might just be “just right” sized — big, but not too big. I can vouch for the Q being a bus. A nice bus. But a bus.

It’s a handful.

And if you do want more — even more than the Q — there’s the Escalade ESV. It’s almost two feet longer than the regular Escalade. That’s also longer (by about an inch) than the Lincoln Navigator “L,” too. (And don’t forget: The regular length Lincoln is underpowered; imagine how much more underpowered the longer — and heavier — “L” version is.)

Packaging in the Caddy is also better. You get 45.3 inches of front seat legroom — by far the most in this class (the Navigator has 41.1 inches; the QX80 just 39.6 inches) and plenty of room in the second row: 39 inches for the Caddy, 39.1 for the Nav. The Q has more — 41 inches — but remember the front seat spec.

The Caddy also has much more headroom than its rivals: an NBA forward-friendly 42.8 inches — vs. 39.5 in the Lincoln and 39.9 in the Infiniti.

The third rows in all these rollers are useless — for adults. But the Caddy’s do fold flat — and at the touch of a button. This creates 94.2 cubic feet of space — enough to easily cart home a full-size outdoor gas grill with accessories. The Navigator does have the most total real estate of the three — 103.3 cubes vs. 951.1 for the Q and 94.2 for the Cadillac — but all can carry a gypsy caravan’s worth of stuff. The only difficulty — and this is an across-the-board SUV deficit — being a relatively high load floor. Car-based crossovers (and minivans) have lower floors — and often have more total cargo space, too.

But then, you’d be driving a crossover… or (god help you) a minivan.

The exterior is bolder than ever. Highlights include very tall — and very thin — tail lights whose shape evokes the classic look of Caddys from the late ’50s and early ’60s. Up front, a Mount Rushmore-esque wedge parts the crowd. Cowes the crowd. The massive chrome grille is set off on either side by inverted L-shaped headlights with five stacked individual LED projector bulbs.

“Bold” hardly covers it.

Inside, there’s a new (and driver-configurable) flat-screen dash display similar in theme to what you’d find in an S-Class Mercedes (or a Gulfstream private jet’s flight deck). The secondary control buttons on the steering wheel are white backlit and seem to come alive when you first push the “engine start” off to its right.

Cadillac wisely carried over the column-mounted stalk gear selector. It is easier to use — and doesn’t waste center console space.

You can order everything imaginable — just about — that might be on a just-signed first-round draft pick’s wish list, including Blu-ray player and power retracting steps with puddle lighting.

But even the “base” model comes with a heated steering wheel (and heated seats), three-zone climate control, power adjustable pedals, Bose 16-speaker audio, five USB ports, the magnetic ride control adjustable suspension and those god-help-your tailbone 20 inch “rims.”

THE REST

Cadillac hasn’t caved in. Indeed, it has upped the ante. Instead of bending with the prevailing winds of political correctness and downsizing, de-powering or even outright dropping the V-8 from the roster, Cadillac made it even stronger. And kept it standard. Here’s mud in your eye, Captain Planet.

This is a very large part of the Escalade’s appeal. Of Cadillac’s appeal. It is not a wallflower brand. You want something a bit less brazen? Then this one’s not for you.

I dig that.

So do enough other people to keep Cadillac in the black.

At least, for the moment.

My only gripe is the nearly $8k hike in the Escalade’s sticker price. Yeah, it’s a new model and yeah it has more stuff than the previous model. But — damn! — $8k more? That’s almost enough to pay for an economy car to tow behind the Escalade. Or gas for . . . well, the next year anyhow.

On the other hand, it is The King. Nothing in the segment rivals it for power/performance — or testosterone overflow. Who needs Viagra when all you need to do is stand near one of these things?

THE BOTTOM LINE

It makes my life easier when there’s a clear winner in a given segment. If you want the best — the ultimate — this is the one.

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