Review: 2015 Cadillac Escalade
The first-generation Cadillac Escalade was a breathtaking statement of contempt for the American automobile buyer, differing from the GMC Yukon Denali in only the most minor, British-Leyland-style details, but in the years that followed General Motors has worked steadily to distance this Chevrolet Silverado 1500 derivative from all its other Chevrolet Silverado 1500 derivatives. This new-generation ‘Slade, therefore, is much like the Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman that stole my heart a few years ago. It’s the Maximum Cadillac, the only vehicle in the lineup with enough brand equity to escape the latest round of alphabet-souping. As with the Talisman, the MSRP is as obscene as the GWVR, and you just know that some percentage of the markup from the current Denali is just so your neighbors understand you have the ability to spend nearly a hundred grand on a truck, the same way the Talisman’s additional features in no way justified the extra money.
I’m on record as being a genuine fan of the Seventies GM sleds from Grand Ville to de Ville, so I approached this monstrous Cadillac in the Hertz lot with unfeigned enthusiasm and cheerfully paid well over a hundred dollars a day to squire it around Salt Lake City for a long weekend.
That enthusiasm didn’t last.
Let’s start with the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question? Is it better than the revised-for-2015 Lincoln Navigator? The answer is an unqualified affirmative, and that’s part of the reason I really disliked the Escalade despite being rather ambivalent about the big Lincoln. The Navigator is just a relatively pleasant re-skin of a relatively pleasant old truck, sold at about a 20% discount to the equivalent Cadillac. That keeps the expectations at a level that the Lincoln can fulfill. The Escalade, on the other hand, promises more. For the as-tested price of $86,060, you get a brand-new vehicle full of brand-new thinking. It’s loaded head-to-toe with Cadillac-specific details — that just doesn’t work very well. Take the following photo as an example:
That’s my finger attempting to operate the top row of CUE controls. Normally, you can’t see those controls; they only activate as the system senses your hand in close proximity. So you need to look at the screen a few times: once to get a sense of where your finger needs to approximately arrive, then again to make sure the controls came up (they don’t always, you see, and I have no idea why), then a final time to guide your digit to the PEZ-sized control icon. When you active the control, the screen will vibrate in iPhone-like sympathy, although those of us familiar with Cadillac reliability through the last thirty years will be excused for having a brief moment of unalloyed terror every time the car shakes.
This sequence of events would be merely annoying were it not for the styling touch of a prow above the display that makes it difficult to actually get your finger to the top row. Keep in mind I have relatively delicate hands and wear between a Large and XL men’s glove. Imagine you’re a fiftysomething Phoenix drywall contractor with the frame of a lowland gorilla and the gnarled hands of a dockworker and you’ll see how CUE just ain’t gonna work for some of the intended audience.
What have we circled here? Why, it’s the same kind of defroster attachment that goes bad on nearly every GMT900 SUV. It’s an utterly loathsome arrangement, being simultaneously fragile and poorly situated. For eighty-three grand, is it possible to do better? You betcha.
This interior is virtually all unique to the Escalade, with a few exceptions — AWD control and the like. Many of the materials are very nice, but the fit and finish is still problematic. As an example, the exterior doorhandles have some sort of nickel or stainless steel covers, but in my test car none of them lined up correctly.
With the third row of seats up, luggage space is effectively nonexistent, but the power folders work quickly and without difficulty. I used them immediately so I could get my roller bag in the back. This is really a five-seat car, just like its Blazer ancestors.
“Upcoming maneuver!” You have to love it. I don’t know if the phraseology is the mistake of an overseas development team or a tacit acknowledgement of the Escalade’s Yamato-class heft, but it made me smile every time I saw it. Less cheer-inducing: the ten-second or longer delay from startup to navigation function. Like it or not, CUE is slow to do everything and it frequently displays the same sort of indecision I associate with my old Galaxy SIII phone. Bluetooth audio from that phone, by the by, stutters and starts in precisely the way it does not in a Ford Fiesta or even a Chevrolet Spark. Nor is the sound quality terribly compelling; vocals and stringed instruments tend to disappear into the mix. The steering-wheel-mounted control buttons are not exactly intuitive, doing different things when you push them straight into the bezel than when you let them wobble up or down from the same push. No sir, I don’t like it.
With that said, I want to make it absolutely plain, if possible, that nothing about the execution of the Escalade smacks of indifference. This isn’t a 1984 deVille. It’s a damn-the-torpedos effort that just happens to come up short. The people who actually buy these things won’t care too much; their checkbooks will be pried open by the outrageously intimidating front end and the wide expanses of metal and iPhone-buzzing glass on the center console. They’ll like the opening animation that makes the three gauges appear to fly onto the full-LCD dashboard and they’ll appreciate the extra USB power ports and most of all they will like the fact that only from the side does this look anything like a $46,300 Tahoe.
Oh, wait: I’ve forgotten to mention what it’s like to drive. Okay. Let’s go over that. It’s very, very, very quiet. So quiet that you can hear the transmission whining up to the clunky next shift the same way you could hear it in a base-model ’73 Catalina. Super vintage, yo. The suspension has two modes — Tour and Sport. The difference is that Tour somehow lets the nose scrape on driveways when you’re in a hurry, despite the K2-like altitude of said nose.
Compared to the Navigator, the Cadillac feels much more solid and milled-from-a-piece, as you’d expect. The 420/460 V8 can’t match the EcoBoost from a stop but if you let it run you’ll see some serious speeds in short order. The brakes, on the other hand, could use some work; they’re more than capable of locking the 22″-inch wheels (Can’t lose with 22s!) on demand but at sub-ABS pressure levels they are soft and unresponsive. Handling is about what you’d expect from a three-ton vehicle on rubber-band all-season M+S tires. I observed 16.5mpg in mixed use and 20.2mpg in a sustained 85mph freeway run, not much worse than my old Town Car despite having half again the weight and nearly twice the power.
It’s common to portray the Escalade as the last true Cadillac. It has a real name, it is unashamedly V-8-powered (for now, anyway; there’s a V-6 turbo on the way) and more-than-full-sized. It looks the part. It’s a very sensible argument and one I’ve made in the past but after three days with this monster truck I’m no longer convinced. Cadillacs should have style and this sled just doesn’t. It’s just a big Tahoe with a bunch of shiny stuff on it. It’s offensively large and largely offensive, a blatant statement that the driver can’t even be bothered with the appearance of moderation. It’s not just larger and heavier than the 1977 downsized C-body de Ville/Fleetwood that served as a masterclass in large-car design, it’s larger and heavier than the really, really, massive ’76 Talisman. You can’t blame Cadillac for giving the people what they want, but I have no trouble blaming them for their decision to effectively terminate full-sized sedan development in the Carter administration.
If the new CT6 has the same basic features as this truck in a proper sedan form factor, it will deserve some measure of success. Cadillac says they are “daring greatly”, and I hope they are. As it is, there’s nothing daring about this Escalade. And, I would add, nothing great.
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If I had $80k to spend on a luxury SUV I'd go for the Infiniti, which is solid as granite. If I had to go $15k less I'd do the Navigator. The new face is quite fetching.
Didn't want to wade through all the comments so if someone touched on it before, I extend my apologies. Jack nailed in the penultimate paragraph. This does not look like a Cadillac should. Oh, the front end. My God. The rest of the whole vehicle is of course very iffy, some will love, while others will of course abominate. To each his own.