Cadillac's Crown Jewel

Cadillac's newest Escalade steamrolls its competition and affirms the model's dominance with a gaudy fanfare of glitz, size, and power

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Japanese-beating cabin quality, power and handling, value for the price

The Bad: Karma-crushing gas mileage, hardcore lifestyle statement

The Bottom Line: Cadillac's top-of-the-line SUV gets better and bolder

Up Front

There's only one word to describe Cadillac's 2007 Escalade ESV. It's not "bling," nor "stylin'," or even "urban," though all apply. At nearly 6,000 pounds and 222.9 inches long, but one summary adjective will do: "big."

Automakers struck psychological gold in the 1990s by creating larger-than-life SUVs, tailor-made to stimulate the American consumer's obsession with size and status. And, in essence, this new version of the Escalade represents the sum-total perfection of that strategy. It's theatrically large, conspicuously gaudy, and unassailably dominant.

Though sales of Detroit's mid-sized SUVs have taken a dive as the American id has been discouraged by rising fuel prices and mounting environmental problems, makers of large, luxury SUVs are still rolling in it. So much so, in fact, that even reserved Mercedes-Benz is following General Motors (GM) down the rabbit hole with the new GL450.

That's nothing for Cadillac to worry about, though. According to Automotive News, during the first nine months of the year, total Escalade sales were up just 1% from the same period last year. And even when holding steady would be an achievement, sales of the Escalade, excluding a flatbed truck derivative, are actually up by about 11% over the same period.

A great deal of that success is due to the Escalade's ostentation-for-the-money ratio, one of the auto industry's best. The extended ESV model, which I drove, weighs in with a base price of $58,805. On average, that's about $6,000 more than competing vehicles from Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti, Ford's (F) Lincoln, and DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Mercedes-Benz, but for a much larger car. A regular-sized Escalade is competitively priced right in the sweet-spot of the segment—around $55,000.

My test ride was equipped with a $625 climate package; $995 power sunroof; $1,295 rear entertainment system; $2,495 information package with rearview camera, DVD-based navigation, and Intellibeam automated headlamps; and, of course, gorgeous $2,995 22-in. chrome aluminum wheels. That total, with $875 destination charge, is $68,085—a deal at just shy of $12 a pound.

Behind the Wheel

Besides notable improvements like increased frame rigidity, an all-new suspension, and rack-and-pinion steering (finally), the Escalade's powertrain takes center spotlight. It features General Motors' 6.2-liter Vortec V8, which develops a whopping 403 horses and 417 ft-lbs. of monster torque.

If that sounds heavy-duty, that's because it is. The power plant can compel the truck from zero to 60 in around just six seconds. That's BMW 3 Series-quick, and astonishing given its bulk. Better yet, that engine thoroughly trounces V8s offered by major competitors, especially Toyota's (TM) Lexus LX 470, whose 268 horses seem anemic in comparison. Even the new GL Class has considerably less power and torque.

Mashing the gas unleashes the Escalade's warhorses, launching the big truck forward after a brief moment of hesitation. It really moves. And thanks to far better handling and braking, the experience is decidedly unlike driving past gargantuan vehicles of this type.

It's not that the Escalade achieves anything close to the Zen-like balance between size and sport that the smaller BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne have. But, rather that, Cadillac engineers have managed to significantly muzzle this brute's inertia with an all-around better platform and more-than-worthy engine.

Everything about the Escalade is, as I've said already, big. Thankfully, that applies to the side mirrors, too, which are gigantic. These can also be folded in at the push of a button, a feature I found useful squeezing down double-parked Manhattan streets.

General visibility is good, though seeing out the back can be awkward—not because of any obstacles per se so much as for the sheer distance between the front seat and the very back of the car. Consider the optional rearview camera, a part of the $2,495 information package and an absolute must if you ever plan to parallel park.

Exterior styling is all Cadillac. Sharp, technophile angles define the front and rear lamps. As Cadillac began introducing this new design language a few years ago, I was unconvinced. But now, seeing the company's entire product lineup skinned this way, one gets a distinct idea of what a Cadillac is supposed to look like these days. It remains to be seen how the look will age.

Whether the look attracts you or not, the detailing is solid and everything feels well built. The chrome-laden front grille and wheels complete the Escalade's now trademark iced-out looks. The Cadillac badge on the trunk is larger than my face. That's to say, quite large for an automotive insignia. No wonder Tony Soprano drives one of these.

The cabin hosts by far the best improvements, though. It's a study in what domestic companies can do if only they choose to. The wood and metal trim and blue-lit gauges coalesce as they would in any high-luxé import. Buttons feel solid and on par with interiors from Land Rover, though the styling is dramatically different.

I'm usually an unrepentant cabin snob, but Cadillac has managed to thoroughly impress me. Case in point, this interior is, in my opinion, better than those in the new Lexus models I've recently test-driven. Yes, there are a few lousy legacy plastics here and there—what's up with the chintzy-feeling glove compartment drawer, GM?—but you have to look long and hard to find them.

The onboard entertainment is extremely well executed as well. The Bose 5.1 surround-sound system dutifully pumps out audio from satellite radio, compact discs, or DVD movies. The DVD-based navigation's graphics look great and are on par with competition from Mercedes-Benz. The touch screen is, in fact, easier to use.

The Escalade's Achilles' heel is, of course, its gas mileage. GM says new variable valve timing allows the vehicle to get up to 19 miles per gallon on the highway. In my tests of mixed highway and city driving, though, I averaged 9.3 miles per gallon. The company says its Active Fuel Management technology, which deactivates cylinders under certain driving conditions to improve economy, will show up in 2008 Escalades. But don't hold your breath for a fuel-efficient ESV any time soon.

Buy It or Bag It

The Escalade—whichever version you're considering—is outsized, outlandish, and over the top. Not everybody has the ego or hubris to drive one of these, let alone lay down nearly 70 large for a vehicle that drinks so much premium gas. In fact, I found myself blushing embarrassedly more than once as passersby gawked at my politically incorrect loaner.

Cadillac fans can rejoice, however, since the Escalade's interior and general execution is leading the way for all its future models. A stable of CTS, STS, and DTS models this well made is something worthy of anticipation. In the meantime, if you're simply in the market for a luxury SUV in this segment, the Escalade has no equal.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.