First Drive: 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

Ahhhhh, the Cadillac Escalade. While it’s helped define post-millennial Cadillac, this bling-mobile stands as a poster child for conspicuous consumption. The Escalade comes by its reputation honestly, because a 2009 edition with the 403-horsepower 6.2-liter V-8 sucks petrol at the criminal rate of 12 mpg city, and either 18 or 19 mpg highway, depending on whether you’re powering one axle or two. The fact that the SUV attracts attention-hungry rappers and other ne’er-do-wells doesn’t help the Escalade’s reputation any.

But what if — suddenly — driving a 2009 Cadillac Escalade were an environmentally conscientious statement? A proclamation that’s more about being green than having green? What if aforementioned rappers or socialites or wives of dentists could essentially have their cake and eat it too? Meet the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. At 20 mpg city, the big Caddy gets the same city mileage as a Scion TC with a 2.4-liter inline-four and a 5-speed manual. On the highway the tC goes farther on a gallon, but the Escalade Hybrid still manages to push its massive exterior through the air at the rate of 21 mpg.

This impressive technological result follows years of development that first bore fruit in 2008 with the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon hybrid SUVs. These were the first production vehicles to feature what GM calls an electrically-variable transmission (EVT). Within a case that looks like a traditional automatic gearbox, GM (along with partners Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Chrysler) managed to package two motor/generators and four fixed gear ratios.

When acting as motors, the EVT helps propel the Escalade Hybrid. As the SUV coasts or slows, the EVT goes into generator mode, transforming kinetic energy into electricity via regenerative braking. Countless hours of seat time went toward blending the EVT’s regenerative braking with the Escalade’s physical braking system, and the transitions between the two are indistinguishable. The recaptured energy goes from the EVT for chemical storage in a 300-pound, 300-Volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack that resides under the second row seats.

Ahead of the EVT and in place of the 2009 non-hybrid’s 403-horsepower 6.2 liter V-8, there is a smaller and lighter 6.0-liter all-aluminum V-8. To enhance efficiency, the engine utilizes cylinder deactivation (so it can run in V-4 mode) and variable valve timing (that enables the late closing of the intake valves to reduce pumping losses). The 6.0-liter produces 332 horsepower and 367 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration remains strong thanks to the immediate torque of the electric motors (184 lb-ft each) and a high-performance axle ratio.

A control unit manages all of the above elements using software that is much improved over the initial batch of GMC and Chevrolet SUVs. The result is that the 2009 Escalade Hybrid runs strongly and smoothly. About all that’s lost compared to the non-hybrid Escalade is the intoxicating exhaust note of the 6.2-liter engine.

The sensation of driving the big Cadillac is a bit odd if one expects a traditional experience. In easy-going driving, the engine RPM and exhaust note don’t correspond linearly to acceleration. The EVT works like a continuously variable transmission, so the Escalade’s 6.0-liter revs to a particular RPM and hangs there while the vehicle’s speed seems to play catch-up.

The oddest sensation is when the Escalade accelerates on battery power; it’s like gliding. The engine’s auto-stop feature also catches drivers off guard at first. While the engine shut-down is smooth (as is the re-start), a first reaction can be thinking the SUV stalled. Of course, it didn’t. Running on battery power, the steering, climate control, and other vital functions remain completely operational in the Auto Stop mode.

One of the hallmarks of the current Escalade is its performance. For such a massive vehicle, it accelerates hard. The Escalade Hybrid isn’t as fast, but with mid-eight second 0-60 mph times, it’s no eco slouch. In wide-open-throttle blasts, the EVT combines the best of its motor drives and fixed gearing. The shifts you feel are genuine gear changes because the EVT has four fixed ratios (some CVTs “fake” fixed gear shift to simulate what drivers are used to feeling). The physical cogs inside the EVT give the transmission the strength to tow significant loads, and the Escalade can tow almost three tons.

Our only nick on the Escalade Hybrid’s driving experience is aimed at the optional 22-inch wheels on our tester. They looked great, but ride quality is certainly sacrificed when compared to the standard 20-inch wheels and tires.

All of the aforementioned technology is clothed under a shape that was completely redesigned in 2007. The 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid offers a crisp exterior style that commands attention with plenty of chrome. If you’ve seen a new Escalade, then with the exception of the big Hybrid badges, you know the style. From the front or rear, the look is unmistakably Cadillac.

Inside, there’s standard seating for eight, although legroom for the third-row seats is compromised because batteries for the hybrid powertrain are located under the second-row seats. The batteries also present an extra obstacle for climbing back to the third row. Front chairs are heated and cooled. Interior build quality and fit/finish on the examples we drove were excellent. Controls inside are similar to the standard 2009 Escalade, and work competently without requiring extensive training or frequent trips to the owner’s manual. The Cadillac’s touch-screen center stacks earn kudos for being one of the easiest and most logical to operate. The system’s ability to save favorite tuning presets regardless of frequency (AM, FM, or XM Satellite Radio) makes perfect sense with the way people use the radio.

To help with eco-driving, there is a gauge at the left of the IP that encourages drivers to stay within a “green” zone. Too much acceleration is wasteful, as is too much braking (the EVT’s regenerative capabilities can’t capture the maximum amount of energy during quick stops). The gauge helps drivers realize that long coast downs and extended soft braking maximize mileage.

Beyond these specifics, the balance of the Escalade Hybrid experience is what you’d find in any Escalade. Cadillac expected 20-percent of 2009 Escalade sales to be hybrid models, but as of this posting, sales are actually running a full 25-percent of the mix. Given that the 2009 Escalade Hybrid costs only $3,600 more than a comparably-equipped non-hybrid, the question potential drivers should ask is not “If I’m going to drive an Escalade, why should it be a Hybrid?” but “If I’m going to drive an Escalade, why would it not be the Hybrid?”