Wheels. Audacious, chromed, crazy-large wheels. You walk up to Cadillac's new Escalade and tap the remote to unlock it, and your eyes are immediately drawn to the optional twenty-two-inch wheels.
Those suckers are big.
Big, however, is apparently what people wanted. Since the Escalade's success initially surprised almost everyone at General Motors (including Cadillac), the General's marketing gurus wisely decided to canvass their existing customer base for the 2007 model. Countless focus groups and a few hush-hush, names-not-released celebrity previews all revealed the same thing: the people who buy Escalades like them, but wish they were more . . . Escalade-y. A larger, more aggressive face. More chrome. More aftermarket-type items available from the factory (such as the twenty-two-inch rollers), better build quality, and more power for the already hefty 345-hp, 6.0-liter V-8. Give us these, said the privileged masses, and we won't let you down.
GM listened, and then it delivered. A new, Escalade-specific, 6.2-liter, aluminum-block V-8 with variable valve timing wallops out a healthy 403 hp and 417 lb-ft of torque-58 hp and 37 lb-ft more than last year-and it's mated to a new six-speed automatic with two relatively tall overdrive gears that help fuel economy. As for chrome, Cadillac laid it on thick. The bigger front grille, the fender portholes, the door handles, and the monstrous wheels practically swim in the stuff. What's more, trim quality finally befits a Cadillac rather than a warmed-over Chevrolet Tahoe.
Happily, the rest of the Escalade echoes that theme. Exterior panel gaps are up to 25 percent tighter, bumpers are integrated with the surrounding sheetmetal for a more cohesive look, and overall fit and finish are finally consistent with other Cadillacs. With the exception of bristly carpet and cheap-feeling upper dashboard material, the three-row interior's soft-touch surfaces and finely damped switches are a step or two above what you'd find in a Tahoe or a GMC Yukon. Even the illegible analog clock, permanently cloaked in windshield glare, has a well-crafted appearance.
Like the Tahoe and the Yukon, the Escalade rides on GM's new GMT900 large-truck platform, and its benefits are both noticeable and welcome. According to GM, torsional frame stiffness is up 49 percent and drag coefficient is down to 0.36. Overall interior volume is slightly increased, although the side-curtain air bags and the seating positions somewhat limit headroom. The coil-over-damper and control-arm front suspension is also new, although the live rear axle continues largely unchanged.
For the most part, the latest Escalade works better dynamically than the last-generation model, even though it's nearly 200 pounds heavier. Wind noise and secondary vibrations are drastically reduced, and while some highway patter still enters the cockpit at high speeds, it never becomes obtrusive. There's more steering feel through the Escalade-specific rack-and-pinion system, and there's newfound feedback when the truck is loaded in a corner. The transmission shifts smoothly enough regardless of throttle opening, and the four-wheel disc brakes are adequate-if saddled with an annoyingly touchy pedal feel.
Our test vehicle was equipped with the optional twenty-two-inch wheel package and wore 45-section Bridgestone performance tires. Although turn-in precision and overall feel are better than with the standard eighteen-inchers, those minor increases aren't worth the trade-off in ride quality and steering effort. The front and rear dampers feel as if they're one or two steps behind the heavy twenty-twos, and the resulting exaggeration of both body motions and pavement irregularities isn't pleasant. Neither is the constant high-frequency fore-and-aft pitching over seemingly smooth highway surfaces-you tend to start watching the heads of other drivers to see if it's the fault of the Cadillac or the road itself.
All that said, the Escalade is still entertaining to drive. It's blessed with one of the best exhaust notes in the business, one that woofles and burbles at idle, pops on the overrun, and roars appropriately when the engine is pressed. That monstrous V-8 is the Escalade's best attribute, and its abundant, rpm-indifferent thrust almost makes up for any shortcomings in ride or handling. In a perfect world, it would be an option on the order form for everything GM builds.
That engine motivates the 5717-pound Escalade fairly well. The Cadillac's 0-to-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds isn't anything to sneeze at, and the surprising top-end shove-the engine's still pulling at 5900 rpm when the rev-limiter cuts in-is almost giggle-inducing for a beast this size. To boot, the Escalade handles surprisingly well for a 5700-pound, live-axle SUV. It's surreal, a little absurd, and strangely fun.
But ultimately, how the Escalade drives isn't that important. Most people won't buy Cadillac's luxo-truck for its road manners. They'll buy it for its looks, for the standard heated and cooled seats, for the available DVD player and Dolby 5.1 surround sound, and, probably, for the shiny-bauble aspect.
With its first Escalade, Cadillac ventured into new territory: the division readily admits that the 1999 model was something of a shot in the dark. Having catapulted the brand out of the nation's retirement communities and into the hands of the bejeweled and fabulous, Cadillac wasn't about to let its newfound success slip away. All but given an entirely new demographic, the division did the most reasonable thing possible: it chased after them with everything it had.