1999 Cadillac Escalade
The first truck to bear Cadillac’s crest is big, roomy and comfortable. The Escalade is Cadillac’s answer to the Lincoln Navigator.
The Cadillac Escalade is nearly identical to the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Yukon Denali. What an Escalade buyer gets for Cadillac cash is a load of standard features, fancy wood trim and slightly less interior noise. The Escalade comes with the full service of a Cadillac dealership, which in some locations means demo cars delivered to a potential customer’s door. Escalade’s no-options price includes Cadillac’s OnStar communications system. Used to its full extent, OnStar is a real benefit.
The value of red-carpet treatment and Cadillac luxury shouldn’t be minimized. Since the launch in the fall of 1998, Cadillac has been selling Escalades as fast as it can build them.
The Escalade looks a bit more boxy than other SUVs, yet this Cadillac is purposeful, almost urbane, to the eye. It is distinguished from the Tahoe and Yukon by lower body cladding, running boards, chrome wheels and a big, chrome-trimmed, Crest-bearing grille.
The only engine offered is the 5.7-liter pushrod V8, tuned to produce 255 horsepower and 330 foot-pounds of torque. Those figures are competitive with other SUV engines, but the Escalade’s 6000-pound towing capacity falls 1200 pounds short of either Tahoe or Yukon, and 1700 pounds short of Navigator.
Escalade’s power delivery system, called AutoTrac, has four modes. The driver can choose rear-wheel drive, or conventional four-wheel drive in high or low range, via buttons to the right of the steering column. The fourth mode is automatic and suitable for all types of driving. It uses an active transfer case and delivers power primarily to the rear wheels, but will shift power to the front wheels to improve traction and maximize tire grip as road or weather conditions dictate.
The Escalade’s standard feature list includes every convenience Cadillac offers, from electrically heated seats to electrochromic side and rearview mirrors that automatically adjust for day or night use. The interior is finished in an ivory-colored leather. Exterior choices are limited to white, black, sand or red. The hardware required for OnStar–a Global Positioning Satellite transponder and on-board cellular phone–is included in the price, and with Escalade Cadillac waives the $34.95 monthly service fee for a year.
For many buyers, OnStar might make more sense than the typical map-based navigation system, and it offers a lot more options. If an OnStar subscriber needs route advice, he or she simply makes a call. The GPS transponder locates the vehicle, and the OnStar communications center provides directions.
OnStar can also unlock the Escalade should the keys be locked inside and it can track the truck if it’s stolen. It automatically notifies the communications center if an airbag deploys, then immediately calls the vehicle in an attempt to determine whether there are injuries. If there is no response, the center notifies emergency help. Finally, subscribers can use OnStar for everything from reserving hotel rooms to ordering flowers.
It’s a fairly long step up into the cabin. Once inside, the driver sits behind a handsome wood-and-leather, Jaguar-style steering wheel. A generous application of polished Zebrano wood is used across the dash and down the center console. The seats are big, almost overstuffed, covered in thick, soft leather. It all creates the impression of a quiet, well-furnished executive office.
The gauges are the same as those used in GM pickups and SUVs. The stereo sits within easy reach of the driver with large buttons. Climate control switches lie directly below with the same easy adjustment. An overhead console holds reading lights, a rear fan switch, the garage-door opener, a compartment for sunglasses and the buttons and microphone for OnStar.
Seat position controls are the only serious source of complaint in the front portion of cabin. They’re located on the outside of the seat bottoms, and there’s not much space between the seat and the door to operate them. The seat-heater switch is impossible to find without fumbling around and you’ll have to open the door and look at it until you memorize which way turns the seat heater on.
The Escalade’s rear seats are trimmed as luxuriously as those in front. The outboard positions are electrically heated, and very comfortable. There are full headrests, overhead reading lights, and a passenger-controlled ventilation system. The back of the center console has audio controls, headphone jacks and a great cupholder. The rear side windows only roll down a third of the way, however.
In general, materials and finish are worthy of a $46,000 vehicle. The Escalade’s headliner is an expensive looking, mohair-type material; the leather upholstery is high grade. Yet some of the shared Tahoe/Yukon pieces, including the plastic overhead console, don’t look the part of a true luxury car, and the color is a couple of shades off the one Cadillac chose for Escalade’s leather.
Escalade’s cargo-hauling capacity ranks at the top of the luxury SUV class. With 118.2 cubic feet of cargo space, it basically matches the Navigator, and easily surpasses expensive imports, including the Mercedes-Benz ML430 and the Range Rover. When the rear seat is folded, the Escalade swallows 4×8-foot sheets of plywood with just a few inches hanging over the closed tailgate. With nearly 40 inches from load floor to roof, it easily accommodates items such as big-screen televisions.
Its size shows through when the Escalade gets rolling. This SUV is very well built. We’ve encountered few body-on-frame vehicles that are screwed together so well. There wasn’t a single squeak or rattle to be heard in the depths of the frame or shell. Further, Cadillac has done an impressive job tuning the suspension to soften some of Escalade’s truck-like attributes. Yet there’s only so much that can be done to disguise the bulk in a truck that weighs close to 3 tons and requires 41 feet to make a 180-degree turn.
The Escalade’s 4-speed automatic works well, shifting up smoothly and down quickly. Torque comes evenly across the V8’s rev range, yet Escalade doesn’t feel overly powerful. Cadillac reports 0-60 mph times of 10.5 seconds; many SUVs are quicker.
We drove the Escalade where Cadillac expects 98 percent of its buyers to drive: in a large, pothole-ridden metropolitan area, commuting on freeways, shopping and doing family chores. In the spectrum of sport-utility vehicles, both ride quality and interior noise suppression are outstanding. Indeed, the Escalade rides more softly than some sedans. There’s very little freeway hop, or undulation over pavement joints, and almost nothing to suggest that this is a truck with a solid rear axle. The all-season tires are neither stiff nor noisy.
Beyond that, if you’ve ever driven a Tahoe or a Yukon, you have a good idea how an Escalade feels. It’s stable and doesn’t float down the road, but it’s too big for quick lane changes. It wallows during mildly aggressive driving maneuvers, and the softly damped suspension creates a self-sustaining, side-to-side oscillation. The steering feels mushy, and slightly disconnected.
The Escalade’s brakes, on the other hand, are a significant improvement over previous full-sized trucks from GM. Pedal travel is long, but the brake pedal has a nice, direct feel. In the past, they were mushy.
With its passenger-car style tires, Escalade isn’t ready for Baja, yet a brief excursion off the beaten path demonstrated more off-road capability than most buyers will ever need. On pavement or dirt, the high seating position provides a commanding view of whatever lies ahead. If the driver maintains reasonable prudence regarding the vehicle’s heft, Escalade makes stylish, comfortable and versatile daily transportation.
The Escalade delivers full-size SUV flexibility in quiet, luxurious style, with a serene ride that’s hard to match. Its strengths fit the Cadillac brand and more than compensate for its weaknesses–primarily bulky handling and bit less power than we might like.