By on August 29, 2018

Where were you when you first saw an Escalade? Do you recall the lesser but identical Yukon Denali? Twenty years have elapsed since the Escalade’s introduction, and the luxury brand of wreath and crest has never looked back.

But today, we’re going to.

It was a real first-ever, in the true sense of the term. Back in 1998, marketing people didn’t just apply a “first-ever” to their product, then put a bunch of disclaimers in small print at the bottom (Ahem, EcoSport). The luxury company which from time immemorial produced sedans, coupes, and convertibles was going to enter into the burgeoning luxury truck segment. It was (and is) a segment full of young, juicy customers with hefty wallets.

Since the latter part of the 1980s, Cadillac tried to shake off its Old Folks of Florida image. Sporty Touring Coupes gave way to Touring Sedans, which gave way to things called “TS,” which probably meant Totes Sporty. But Cadillac needed more. Knowing it couldn’t hang with the brand prestige of its import competition, the brand went the other way.

The bling way.

Escalade got its start in 1998, when it debuted to the Louis Vuitton crowd at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The first Escalade wowed with differences to its twin, GMC’s Yukon Denali. There was a different grille, and Cadillac emblems in place of GMC ones. There were also a few slight revisions to the interior, and a Bose stereo. As the orders came in, GM realized it wasn’t enough.

Bigger, more square, and considerably more festooned, a second-generation Escalade followed in short order. Now with many greater visual differences to its plebeian GMC cousin, Cadillac took the time to get it right. The first generation was available only for model years 1999 and 2000; there was no 2001 model. For 2002, the new generation was ready for prime time. Presto.

Pitched against imports like the Range Rover and Lexus LX, the Cadillac was distinctly bigger, brasher, and chrome-ier. Just what Americans wanted, it was instantly a hit with youths, dealers of cars and illicit products, TV shows, and music videos. GM decoded what the younger customer wanted, and handed it to them on a heavily gilded platter.

The Escalade tilted the fortunes of the Cadillac brand. Sales of 23,346 in 2000 grew to 62,250 in 2004. Model offerings expanded as well, into the long-wheelbase ESV, and the Avalanche-like EXT. Even today, ask the average person what an Escalade is — they’ll point out this generation.

Since then, the power of Escalade has been Cadillac’s cash cow. A third generation on the GMT900 platform debuted in 2007, and was replaced by the current K2XL version in 2015. Outselling its passenger car offerings handily, Escalade racked up 37,694 U.S. sales in 2017. Competitor Lincoln cries in the corner with the Navigator, which managed 32,908 sales if you add up 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Even with Lincoln’s new-generation Navigator now on the scene, Cadillac still outsells its rival — 16,927 Escalades over the first half of 2018, to the Navigator’s 9,115.

Twenty years on, Escalade still wins.

[Images: GM]

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49 Comments on “Twenty Years of Cadillac Escalade, America’s Bling Thing...”


  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Lincoln may not be crying all that much in the corner – it’s not putting a ton of cash on the hoods of Navigators to move them.

    I bet they’d sell more of them if they had a V-8, though.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a bit hard to tabulate the sales in earnest, because many people would consider the Denali on equal plane as the Escalade and Navigator. If I were getting a luxury GMT, I’d get the Denali 10 of 10 times.

      Do you throw those sales in there too?
      Separate out Denali from GMC (impossible)?
      Or do you pitch Chevy and GMC against the Expedition?

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        This is a type of vehicle I’d never consider, so for what it’s worth, I’d definitely perceive the Denali as being positioned more against a top-shelf Expedition. I think Navigator vs. Escalade is the correct matchup.

        I have checked out a Navigator – it’s damn swanky. If the Continental’s interior had been done this well, they’d have sold more of them.

      • 0 avatar
        Spartan

        The Yukon Denali is 90% of the Escalade for about 70% of the money. In some colors, IMO it actually looks better than the Escalade.

        But I’m a bit biased, as I own a 2016 Yukon XL Denali. We considered the Escalade / ESV, but didn’t think it was worth the premium over a fully optioned Yukon XL Denali, especially when you compare their OTD transaction prices.

        You can get a Yukon XL Denali for $60k OTD. You won’t get an Escalade ESV for much less than $80k.

  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    A little-known fact about Escalades is that when you bought one, you received a coupon good for 20% off at the fisheye lens manufacturer of your choice.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    1. Grab a $35k Suburban off the production line.
    2. Add $3k worth of bling.
    3. Presto! $48k Escalade.
    4. ???
    5. Profit.

    (all prices in 2002 dollars)

  • avatar
    Drzhivago138

    As of 18:12 UTC, my original comment seems to have disappeared, assuming I actually hit Post:

    No mention of the 1998 Navigator’s success that precipitated the fast-tracking of the ’99 Denali-twin?

  • avatar
    Mandalorian

    The last real Cadillac. Big, comfy, flashy, and distinctly American.

    • 0 avatar
      Garrett

      It’s as much a real Cadillac as a Cimarron.

      Both are badge engineered.

      • 0 avatar
        Dan

        The Cimarron wasn’t a bad car for being a Chevy underneath any more than the 500E was a bad car for being a taxi underneath. The Cimarron was a bad car because it was a bad car.

        The Tahoe is a great car.

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          Sure, the 500E was based on a taxi…a radically overengineered, masterfully built taxi that routinely clocked half a million miles.

          The Cimarron was based on the Cavalier, a radically underengineered, poorly built junkpile that was lucky to make it to 100,000 miles.

          This is why the 500E ended up awesome, and the Cimarron was crap.

  • avatar
    whynot

    I remember when the 2nd gen came out when I was middle school and I (and everyone else) thought they were the coolest cars in the world. One of my classmate’s parents got one, white with tv screens for the 2nd row (I don’t know if that was an OEM option or something aftermarket), and everyone was completely jealous.

    Then I grew up and now look at Escalades and can’t imagine why anyone would want one. I’d take the new Navigator or Yukon Denali instead.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Oldie but a goodie review that still makes me laugh my a$$ off.

    https://www.caranddriver.com/archives/2002-cadillac-escalade-ext-archived-test-review

    Back when I actually looked forward to getting C&D every month.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Always enjoyed reading Phillips. I don’t think he does road tests anymore.

      “Mint flavored Drano.” LOL…

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      John Philips almost always cracked me up. I think this is one of my faves:

      https://www.caranddriver.com/features/john-phillips-nissan-pathfinders-remembered-column

      “This goddamn bourbon–it’s everywhere”

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      I’m guessing Cadillac wasn’t amused, but 16 years later I certainly am. C&D hasn’t had any decent authors or personalities like Phillips in quite some time.

      Introducing the new Escalade by Cadillac. “It’s not a good wax museum when there are wicks coming out of people’s heads.”

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/dodge-viper-srt-10-road-test

        Not to plug Phillips too much but this is another one that I loved.

        Too bad the print rags are largely too pusillanimous to allow that sort of stuff now a days.

        • 0 avatar
          30-mile fetch

          “the SRT-10 rides like a Nathan’s hot-dog cart…Middle-aged men with unsightly deposits of personal suet will notice their breasts jiggling like turkey wattles”

          Ha! Seriously, they’ve got no one like this on staff now.

  • avatar

    Cadillac’s best selling vehicle is also its worst offering. The XT5 offers equal luxury with vastly superior handling.

  • avatar

    Not really enough word space to cover the full story on both those vehicles in a single article.

  • avatar
    BunkerMan

    Meh.

    When I see an Escalade, my mind automatically asks “Why buy that over a Tahoe?”

    I react the same way to drivers of stanced Miatas. I accept that I will never get along with that person.

  • avatar
    TR4

    Whenever I see one of these I’m reminded of the convicted felon and ex-mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick. He and his entourage had three of these to travel in.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      I’d guess just the sales to political entities, gangsters, and minor celebs are enough to keep the party going. When I visited Wash DC last year, they were all over the place. The hired help is running around in Suburbans and the domos in Sclades.

  • avatar
    Dan

    These were, briefly, about the coolest car that there was. Tony Soprano drove one for a reason. The 2nd gen (we all know the GMT400 didn’t count) was even better, all of the in your face, and 400 horsepower, and actually nice inside besides. A home run.

    GM then did the usual GM thing and left it to rot on the market without so much as a new grill for the next 8 years. In which time they got cheap enough for hoodrats outside of rap videos to be seen in what looked like new Escalades, with creaky bushings and mismatched tires on Rimtyme wheels.

    Also around that time, buyers who weren’t hoodrats decided that they wouldn’t be caught dead in one.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      I just looked up Rimtyme. Found

      “SHOP RIMTYME CUSTOM WHEELS AND TIRES TODAY WITH NO CREDIT CHECK!”

      Sounds about right for the pilot of a 10-year-old Escalade.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        I prefer “Rent-a-Wheel”/s

        When I first heard of Rent-a-Wheel I was living in Southfield, MI at approximately 13 mile Rd and Telegraph. I swore it was a sign of the apocalypse.

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          I figured you were making that up but lo and behold…

          I propose that anyone who actually patronizes this company should be forced to have an immediate, irreversible vasectomy.

  • avatar
    DEVILLE88

    For those of you bitching about the Escalade, it really is the only Caddy that harkens back to what Cadillac used to be. As for those who keep bringing up the Tahoe, Its a proven platform and it’s also tough and reliable. Much more so than your Range Rovers or GLH or BMW. The Escalade still has luxo crede and looks good doing it. as for the GMC……Its a waste i’d rather a big Suburban or a short Escalade. add to that that most that are bitching could,nt afford one of these anyway.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      I don’t agree. Cadillac succeeded back in the day because its’ vehicles were far more than big, bad and blingy – they were unique, perhaps even somewhat bespoke. They didn’t share much, if anything, with lesser GM cars. They were designed from the wheels up to be premium. That’s why they were premium. Their customers noticed.

      They began to fail when they figured their customers were too dumb to figure out that a DeVille was a blinged-up Olds 88.

      And today, an Escalade is a blinged-up Chevy SUV.

      I don’t think the Escalade is even remotely worthy of their heritage, unless you consider their heritage to be simply something that’s excessively big and flashy.

  • avatar
    jfk-usaf

    Yuck … Gaudy, over done, stuck on after the fact chrome. A little like some ML/GLE AMG models over the years but with really cheap materials used for the interiors.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I remember the joke at the time that these first came out was that there was a Cadillac Coupe DeVille a Sedan DeVille and now the Truck DeVille

  • avatar
    stingray65

    The first generation Escalade proved how stupid the American consumer was in jumping to buy a vehicle that offered a grill and stereo in exchange for a big price hike over the donor GMC. But give GM credit, they actually did put some effort to differentiate the next generation from its plebeian roots and somewhat justify the price premium. The problem today is that the Chevy/GMC donors have upped their game, and the Escalade price premium is less justified than at any time since the 1998 original.

  • avatar
    Hummer

    I would never pay the Escalade premium, but as used vehicles rivaling the cost of the equal tahoe and suburban, they offer a good value with lots of features assuming you don’t need low range. Unless your getting one with the 22 rims I don’t think their really anymore gaudy than an LT Silverado with a Chrome grille.

    But again, I would never, ever pay that premium when brand new.

  • avatar
    ernest

    Interesting reading the responses.

    I remember reading somewhere (here?) that the take rate on Denali’s in the Yukon/Yukon XL line was approaching 75%. The Escalade/Escalade ESV already outsells it’s large, luxury SUV competition COMBINED. Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Porsche… heck, even Land Rover, would kill for the demographics and cash flow these trucks generate. If you added in the Denali’s, it’d become very clear that GM is hitting this market segment EXACTLY where they need to be. Contrary to popular opinion, there is a market for this kind of vehicle. Not every luxury vehicle buyers want’s a German brand with the complication and repair bills they can generate. Not to mention towing ability, along with the ability to take most of the Baseball or Soccer team AND their gear.

    I am baffled when I see posts (here and other sites) referencing Escalades and the illegal pharmaceutical trade… or worse. I live in the second highest demographic suburb in Portland, Or. You can barely drive three blocks without seeing an Escalade, Denali, or Chevrolet variant. Right along with Tesla’s. Heck, I rolled up behind a Ferrari 488 going to work this morning. At any rate, you get the idea.

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      A lot of people seem to have a very unjustified hatred of these, in the early 00’s there wasn’t a campaign by a bunch of extremists groups against SUVs, somehow they made a lasting dent.

      I have no problem agreeing that I think the premium is ridiculous, but Cadillac has always been about buying as much as you can get, how does spending an extra 30k for different metal, interior, and badges not fit into that. Everyone talks about their memories when they were young recalling family members acting like certain brands weren’t allowed in the family because it gave the wrong impression (Buick, Cadillac?). Same fish just 40 years older. The other Cadillacs don’t represent or compliment the companies heritage in the way of the Escalade. They will always be second place cars no matter how good they perform on the burgerkingring because they don’t offer what core Cadillac buyers want.

      These still offer an unrivaled amount of space, material, and standard features that the competition just doesn’t offer. Which Euro full size offers the space and imposing nature of the Escalade? None, the European competitors may as well be offering compact crossovers compared to the Escalades size and presence.

    • 0 avatar
      Dan

      “I live in the second highest demographic suburb in Portland, Or. ”

      There’s your problem right there. All of the stink that comes with association with the hoodrat demographic only applies in places that have the hoodrat demographic.

  • avatar

    I think this is the one Caddy that still has that “gotta buy the NEW one” or nothing. When I go to some town in the area with a huge average household income, in and amongst the Porsche, Audi and Range Rovers is the NEW Escalade. No other Cadillac, and, god forbid, none of the last model. It’s usually driven by a small woman wearing a Canada Goose jacket and high leather boots. Take a truck, toss 7k worth of bling at it, sell for 90k….profit !

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    The Escalade looked like cheap garbage the moment it came out, and as the headlights clouded and the trim loosened and the shine wore off under the auspices of the second owners, this impression became so much worse.

    Right off the dealer’s lot it was painfully apparent this was a solid, honest, journeyman’s truck ruined with cheap tinsel and sold at a gut-punching markup to the tasteless and materialistic. If there ever was an argument for income tax brackets that rise exponentially, this thing was it.

    The current one is a bit better, mainly because the Suburban is so much nicer now.

    • 0 avatar
      Freddie

      The fat profits on this overpriced Chevy truck help GM pay UAW wages and benefits and probably subsidize the Volt and Bolt. Much more effective weath redistribution than the tax code.

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    Escalade is a piece of trash, and a ridiculously pricey, garish, tasteless piece of trash, at that.

    It’s got a cheap interior with awful defects (such as the rear window defroster set -up, as just one of many examples), a snug interior, especially given its exterior dimensions and weight, has awful ride quality thanks to its garbage suspension and ridiculously oversized wheels, and is chock full of Chicom and other lowest-cost bidder sweatshop nation-sourced parts.

    NO ONE HAS EVER LOST MONEY UNDERESTIMATING THE STUPIDITY OF THE AMERICAN CONSUMER, WRIT LARGE.

    Hang enough shiny trim and costume jewelry on even the smelliest pig and Americans will eat it up.

    Guangzhou-Guadalajara Motors (GM) suppliers send love and kisses <3 from Chinese Lowest Cost Bidder Provinces of Harbin, Heilongjiang, Fujian, and Changchun!

    *It will be a joyous day when Escalade rolling dumpster fire sales do start to plunge, for whatever newfound fickle reason the American Consumer turns his/her back on them, maybe in realizing that there are WAY better vehicles for significantly less money, and Fartilack Dealers are are stuck with these Walmart/Great Wall specials and has to try and blow them out at $10,000 to $15,000 loss PER DUMPSTERLADE.

    This has been your morning 2 Minutes of Brutally Truthful Rage.

    • 0 avatar
      Hydromatic

      “Hang enough shiny trim and costume jewelry on even the smelliest pig and Americans will eat it up.”

      Explains why the high-end pickup truck trims like Denali, Platinum and Limited are selling like hotcakes. Win ’em over with size and blind ’em with chrome.

      I honestly thought car buyers weren’t stupid enough to lap up the first-gen Escalade like potable water in the middle of Death Valley. Apparently, I was DeadWrong.

  • avatar
    DEVILLE88

    For who think Americans are so stupid…………….why don’t you just get the BLANK out of the country?

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT, PAL!

    FUNNY LIKE A CLOWN, HUH?

    YOU TALKIN’ TO ME? I DON’T SEE ANYONE ELSE SO YOU MUST BE?

    GO HOME AND GET YOUR SHINE BOX?


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