Driven: 2012 Cadillac Escalade AWD Premium

The heyday of the full-size luxury SUV may well have passed, but no vehicle born of that era has become more ingrained in the popular culture than the Cadillac Escalade. (A quick aside: Do we think this would have been the case if the Escalade had been named the ULX or some other nonsense amalgam of letters and numbers? No.) Even though the Escalade's biggest-volume sales years may be behind it, this vehicle still looms large in the public consciousness, and the general perception of Cadillac.

Cadillac bosses might prefer that their brand be defined by newer models like the CTS, the CTS-V, or maybe the SRX. But the fact is that as the biggest and most expensive model in the lineup, the Escalade remains the flagship -- it's the mack-daddy Caddy.

3 Body Styles

Of the three Escalade body styles, the standard (Chevy Tahoe-based) version accounts for a majority of sales, while the Suburban-sized Escalade ESV is about half as popular, and the Avalanche-based Escalade EXT is a true niche product, a glamour pickup for rich people in Texas.

It was fitting, then, that my test car was the regular Escalade. Nor was it surprising that my test example was done up in diamond white -- which seems to be the color of every Escalade you see that isn't black. And yes, at 22 inches, the wheels did not disappoint. (The 22s are standard on all but the base model.)

4 Tiers of Fabulousness

The trim levels are base, Luxury, Premium, and, you guessed it, Platinum. Leather, heated and cooled front seats, navigation, and a back-up camera are standard on all. As the penultimate version, my Escalade Premium also came with a rear-seat entertainment system; automatic, power-retractable running boards; a heated steering wheel; blind zone alert; and magnetic ride control, among other niceties.

Despite the raft of luxury equipment, however, the Escalade interior was somewhat of a letdown. The door panels and center console aren't nearly as richly padded as those in an Infiniti QX56. The dash trim is little different that what you'd see in a top-spec Suburban, and the rear captain's chairs have no center console between them. The overall interior design is surprisingly plain.

Although this wasn't the ESV, the Escalade is still a big vehicle, but the aforementioned second-row captains' chairs make for an effective adult seating capacity of four. There is a standard third row but it's strictly for kids, who will sit with their knees at chin level thanks to a seat cushion that's just inches off the floor. Ford's Expedition/Lincoln Navigator twins are better in this regard, as their independent rear suspension allows for a lower rear floor. Additionally, with the third row in place, the Escalade has precious little cargo room; to make space for more cargo, the third-row seats fold and tumble but do not drop down into the floor. Basically, you need to upgrade to the Suburban-sized Escalade ESV if you want to bring along more than four adults. In all, this Escalade, like the Chevy Tahoe on which it's based, is hardly a paragon of space efficiency.

'Slade on a Roll

And of course, the Escalade is not a paragon of fuel efficiency, but you knew that. Still, 13 mpg city and 20 mpg highway is pretty grim. Much better mileage is available, however, in the form of the Escalade Hybrid. It's easy to view that car as a cynical bit of greenwashing (sort of like putting bamboo floors in your McMansion), but the Hybrid's EPA ratings of 20/23 mpg put it on a par with much smaller vehicles -- the city rating particularly.

The standard Escalade may be a guzzler, but at least the big, 6.2-liter V-8 delivers healthy performance. Its 403 hp and 417 pound-feet of torque are enough to launch this Caddy with authority. Even from a standing start, it roars down on-ramps and into fast-moving expressway traffic with no problem.

Once you're out on the freeway, the Escalade towers above most other cars, which made it easy to plot a course through traffic on the busy Cross Island Parkway. On this older expressway, storm drains line the inside edge of the fast lane, and every time we hit one it sent a shudder resonating through the body. Magnetic ride control is adept at controlling body motions but it can't add structural rigidity that isn't there. And the steering, as you might expect, prizes light efforts and provides no real feel.

Certainly, Cadillac has had other priorities in recent years, as well it should. But the Escalade is still a high-profile product, and five years after its last redesign, there are areas here that need to be addressed: interior quality, structural rigidity, space efficiency, and (to the extent that it's possible) fuel economy. Cadillac should not let the Escalade become all style and size and no substance -- if it does, the Escalade could go the way of yesterday's mack-daddy Caddy, the Eldorado.

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