The new Cadillac Escalade is a mission critical machine. It's one of the few remaining General Motors products whose sales don't depend on Mexican-sized kickbacks and/or a Day-Glo "Closing Down, Everything Must Go" sticker on the windshield. What's more, as a badge-engineered Chevrolet Tahoe, it's only slightly more expensive to build than a Chevrolet Tahoe. In other words, the 'Slade's is a cash cow on factory double dubs, trying to keep it real for GM's ten point six billion dollar man, Rabid Rick Wagoner; know what I mean? No? Let me spell it out for you: if the 'Slade ain't da bomb, it's a nail in the General's coffin. Well guess what? RIP.
Clock those side vents. At the precise moment when Caddy's luxury SUV should swagger into town with unabashed American style, the 'Slade arrives with its main design cue "borrowed" from Land Rover's Range Rover Sport. While the cynical amongst you might assert that the Escalade's target market is no more likely to connect the two vehicles than smoke crack and drive (as if), the fact remains: the porthole plagiarism betrays a staggering lack of confidence and originality. Of course, badge engineering a Chevrolet Tahoe betrays a staggering lack of confidence and originality, but, um… where was I? Something about the enormous gap in the SUV's wheel arches making the 'Slade look like a punk ass bitch? No… that wasn't it. Or was it?
Meanwhile, in the rush to market, someone at GM forgot to give their "new" SUV an independent rear suspension. (Doh!) So here we have, once again, a nearasdammit seventeen foot truck that can only accommodate four passengers in anything like comfort. Not to put too fine a point on it, asking three pro-football players to find a place in the second row would be an invitation to a brawl, and even the most heinous Charles Dickens' villain would think twice about strapping a small child into the Escalade's claustrophobic, flat-floored third row. And if a 'Slade driver dared carry a full manifest of miserable human cargo, there's be no room left for anything other than a small assembly of pocket-sized torture devices.
At least the build quality sucks. No really. The Escalade seems specifically constructed to give ammunition to those carless, dealerphobic, stock-shorting curmudgeons who dare call GM's best efforts "90%" vehicles. The ashtray unfolds gracefully, triggered by the world's flimsiest metal catch. The pedals move, but not the steering wheel. The plastics look soft, but feel like fossilized elephant dung. The chairs squish reassuringly, but offer as much lateral support as a Ziploc bag. Everywhere you look there are examples of NQE (Not Quite Engineering), constantly reminding you that there's $10k profit in this machine that could have been spent on, well, you. Or, if you prefer, telling you to go and buy a virtually identical high-spec Tahoe.
Of course, then you'd miss out on the bigger engine. And? Despite cranking-out 403hp and 417 ft.-lbs. of twist, despite an endlessly raucous engine note, the Escalade's 6.2-liter pushrod powerplant is no match for mega-mass and a mileage-seeking six-speed gearbox. Floor it and… wait. Yes, it'll kick down and go properly when prodded, but there's no excuse for a cramped vehicle that gets single digit mileage feeling slow, as well. And even with computer-controlled real-time damping, the 'Slade never lets you forget its ladder-frame underpinnings. Not that it doesn't try: the astoundingly over-assisted steering requires sufficient concentration to distract you from any other dynamic concerns.
On the positive side, the 'Slade's 13" ventilated disc brakes are superb, offering plenty of feel, lots of power and only the slightest whiff of burned rubber. And the Stabilitrak system keeps the beast flat and level through the twisties– even if understeer arrives unfashionably early and the seats do nothing to keep you from hip-checking the door or any beverages unfortunate enough to sit in the cupholder. And hey! It's better than the last model.
But not nearly good enough to restore GM's lost luster. In fact, the Cadillac Escalade pisses me off. This was the perfect opportunity for GM to give the middle finger to critics like me who constantly slag GM's products for being perennial also-rans: vehicles that are a full model cycle behind the class-leaders. If this $60k-and-up SUV had crushed the competition, if the Cadillac Escalade had set a new standard for luxury SUV's that even Audi's new Q7 couldn't top, it wouldn't even matter if the Escalade sold well. That SUV would have been an automotive line in the sand for GM's current stewards. As it stands, the Escalade is nothing but a feeble attempt to tread water, even as the sharks start to get chummy with The General.