The Cadillac Escalade ESV

Review Notes: Cadillac Escalade ESV
Massive truck with thick layers of luxury separating you from the heavy hauling
Cruise control, sheer quantity of gadgets
Unusual features
Stability system, adjustable pedals, loads of other GM technology
Above Average: 
Handling, braking, ride and feel for such a big truck
Needs Work In: 
Gas mileage, cruise control
Gas mileage (EPA)
13 city, 17 highway - on premium fuel
Other notes
Review by David Zatz. Easily passed scraper test.

Cadillac's Escalade has slowly but surely gained a measure of street respect that has eluded Cadillac cars in recent years, becoming a vehicle of choice for those wanting to spend large quantities of cash on oversized trucks. The Lincoln Blackwood has come and gone, the Lincoln Navigator has floundered, but the Cadillac Escalade has gone from a single model to a series, encompassing upscale versions of the Yukon, Suburban, and Avalanche.

The Escalade ESV is the most clearly-Cadillac Escalade we've tested so far, with even more separation from the Chevrolet version than the others, in both styling and feel. That is partly due to Stabilitrak, the active suspension which greatly improves handling - allowing rather soft springing without a penalty in road-holding - and partly due to more modifications, encouraged, we suspect, but the success of other Escalades. The Cadillac label is now more than skin deep.

Handling is surprisingly good for such a large truck, with the ability to take sharper and steeper turns at higher speeds than many cars would want to attempt, along with brakes whose spongy feel does not evoke confidence despite very short stopping distances. We were often surprised by the Escalade's ability to corner, including under full throttle from a start, without squealing tires. It certainly doesn't feel like a sports car, but it also doesn't leave the road.

The engine is pure truck, with loads of torque for rapid movement at any speed, but without Corvette-style instant acceleration from a stop. A deep exhaust note reminds the owner of the 345 horsepower under the hood (the two wheel drive version has a 5.3 liter engine). But you can get that engine with a Chevrolet, too. What separates the $58,000 Escalade ESV from the Suburban is the technology, trim, sound insulation, suspension tuning, and features.

Let's talk about those features. [Click here for acarplace's details on many of GM's features, including OnStar and Stabilitrak.] First, and very handy, is the ultrasonic rear parking assist system, which beeps when an obstruction is sensed behind the vehicle, and lights up one, two, or three LEDs to tell roughly how much free space is behind the vehicle. That really helps in parking this behemoth, especially since there are several sensors, in the corners of the bumper and in the middle. Then there's the electrically folding side mirrors, a nice feature for tight spaces; press a button, and in they go. They also can be programmed to show the ground when backing up to make parking easier. The front seat warmers have separate controls for the seats and the backs, and a button can be pressed to move the seat all the way back (this can also be programmed in for automatic operation when the ESV is shut off). Rear passengers get their own seat warmers, an unusual and friendly feature. The OnStar system, a wonderful feature we always recommend, has a voice control system. XM Radio, which we also recommend - especially given that nearly all radio stations are owned by three insipid companies - has over a hundred channels of music, including bluegrass, three or four classical stations, several country and jazz, and all sorts of others, nearly commercial free. While the stereo is XM enabled, the service is extra, but just having the option to start the service is good, given the quality and variety of XM programming, and the lack of variety of broadcast programming.

Our vehicle had the optional navigation system, which is DVD-based for easier updates. At $2,000, this system is not for the faint of heart, but it does make it much easier to get to places you haven't been before, or to take alternate routes when traffic gets heavy. A pleasant female voice can guide you step by step to your destination, or you can just use the map. Thanks to a row of buttons along the side (there is no touch screen), it's easy to zoom in and out and put your location in perspective. The system is somewhat distracting; not for nothing do they refuse to allow programming a destination while the truck is moving. This means you don't want to be fiddling with the stereo controls all the time, because the stereo is part of the system, but usability improvements since the first generation do help drivers keep from being totally distracted by the user interface while driving. We do wish GM would replace the current movement/enter button with something that's easier to use, because entering destinations can be tricky at times, but perhaps one gets used to that in time. (See our GM technology page for more information on the navigation system).

When you're not looking at the map, the stereo/navigation system displays the radio station and music type, and, with XM Radio. The title and artist of the current song or symphony. The system has several electronic sound mode, directing the sound so it's best for the driver, the front passengers, or everyone. When on XM, it displays the first few letters of the name of each station for the presets; on FM, just the call numbers. Both the nav stereo and the standard Bose unit come with convenient steering wheel controls as well.

Our test car also had the $1,300 rear seat video system, which is set in the roof and includes a DVD player, remote control, and two wireless headsets that work via infra-red. The movie can also be played through the speakers, and the driver can shut off the front speakers to minimize distraction. It's a nice system, though it tended to forget where the movie was and start from the beginning again. RCA jacks allow you to use other playback devices.

Safety features include four-wheel antilock disk brakes; driver and passenger front and side airbags; and Stabilitrak and load levelling suspension to avoid accidents; powerful high-intensity discharge headlamps (the kind the kiddies pretend to have by buying cheap and poorly designed blue-tinted halogens); all wheel drive; traction control; a passenger sensing system to determine whether the passenger side airbag should go on; a tire pressure monitor; a rear design which minimizes blind spots; turn signals in the oversized side mirrors so everyone knows what you plan to do; and, prosaic but very important, dual-function sun visors which allow you to block the sun coming in from the side, while still blocking the front a bit (because you don't always travel in a perfectly straight line). Extenders are built into the visors as well, a good thing considering the width of the windshield. These are all standard features - indeed, of all the gadgets and options discussed in this review, only the DVD navigation system, rear seat video system, and chrome wheels were optional.

Owners can also customize various aspects of how their vehicle works - for example, whether one door or all doors automatically lock and unlock. There are two profiles available, and the preferences can be changed via the key fob or the door switch, along with the driver's seat memory. The rather complex trip computer is built into the odometer area (so the odometer does not always show), and includes logs for personal and business trips, complete with total mileage, gas mileage, and other data. Most people will probably use it only to measure distances, show gas mileage, and personalize their vehicle, but it's good to know the rest is there.

Other interesting visibility features are defroster wires built into the rear side windows, not just the rear window, for greater visibility; and oversized mirrors that fold in at the touch of a button, or can be set to tilt down when backing up (albeit very, very slowly).

Our test vehicle, as a four wheel drive model, had a standard six-liter engine and a three-button pushbutton control for automatic four wheel drive (engages when needed), two wheel drive, four wheel drive high (normal driving on slippery surfaces), and four wheel drive low (off-road).

What else do you get for your top of the line price? First, it's a Cadillac, which means you get roadside assistance for the life of the vehicle, along with a year of OnStar service and a four year, 50,000 mile warranty; not to mention premium wood trim, leather seats, an excellent stereo with a CD changer and cassette deck, along with rear seat controls and earphones; electronic climate control; and power windows, locks, and heated mirrors. You also get a lot of admiring stares from people who respect the Escalade for its bulk and luxury. Those stares might turn the other way if there's another fuel crunch.

Oddly, despite all the features and gadgets, the Escalade comes up short in two ways that can be important to some people. Those of less than expansive stature will miss the power rear hatch common to Chrysler minivans, while those who park outside may notice that the gas cap has no remote, meaning that anyone can take off the cap. That's probably not a major concern, but it is an odd omission, not unlike the use of relatively simple cupholders up front. (Middle seat passengers may find it quite a stretch to reach their cups, while rear passengers will have to hold their beverages.) As long as we're griping, the parking brake release is practically under the steering wheel, not the most convenient location - and it would have been nice if GM had used a nonskid surface on the step built into the rear bumper.

The instrument panel is has a large number of gauges, with a huge speedometer, smaller tachometer, gas gauge, oil pressure, water temperature, battery, and, finally, a transmission temperature gauge, which can really help to prolong transmission life, especially if you tow. There is a special tow mode for the transmission which has firmer shifts and modifies the shift pattern somewhat. The triple-zone climate control is easy to understand and use, though the just-keep-pushing-it vent mode control is a bit annoying. The analog clock is a nice idea (presumably borrowed from the Chrysler 300M), providing an extra bit of elegance. All controls have a pale green backlighting which is easy on the eyes. We would prefer for Cadillac to have spent a little extra effort on the gauges - the small ones are not separated by anything, and the thick silver rings around the speedometer and tachometer are not nearly as classy as the bright chrome on the aforementioned 300M. We understand the upcoming, $69,000 platinum edition will take care of that.

Controls are mostly sensible, though we have our differences with the corporate GM cruise control, and found the rear parking warning system somewhat confusing - does an amber light mean the system is on or off? (It means it's off.) The stability system defeat is more clear, with a warning light and tone when you shut it off. (Many things activate a warning tone, including driving without a seat belt, shutting off the headlights when it's dark, and any sort of important message from the computer.) We also found the passenger airbag status message in the rearview mirror to be annoying - we it's bright amber and tells us whether it's on or off every time we try to see behind us.

In terms of storage, you get two woodgrain-covered cupholders up front, an ashtray, a small covered ledge next to the clock (large enough for an EZ-Pass), small map pockets, and a massive covered center console which can only be opened and looked into by the driver. The cargo area is quite large, as befits such a huge vehicle, but leg room in the rearmost row of seats is somewhat restricted. The last row of seats can be folded and removed, though we never quite figured out how, and the middle row can be folded down for more storage. The ride is good if somewhat bouncy from all positions, something we can't say as much for the Pontiac Aztek or Lincoln Navigator/Ford Expedition.

Generally speaking, the Escalade ESV is far better than its competition over at Ford - the interior looks far better and has many more features than the Navigator/Expedition, the underlying drivetrain is more capable, and the handling and braking much better - and is the ideal luxury vehicle for those with major towing needs. However, despite current fashion, we must say that if you don't need to tow, you'd be far better off with a minivan. They have many similar features, similarly cavernous interiors, usually feature a smoother ride, cost far less, and get much better gas mileage without sacrificing much acceleration. The safety record of minivans is also unparalleled in real-life experience, and a competition which now includes serious Japanese entries means that both domestic and Asian manufacturers are fighting hard for customers. The sheer height of the Escalade and similar trucks make using the cargo area and climbing in and out rather difficult, without adding to their functionality unless, again, you need to tow more than 2,000 pounds around. Likewise, the ride is very good for a big truck, but rather poor compared with any other Cadillac, or, for that matter, many minivans.

That said, if you want to tow a heavy trailer or boat in style, the Cadillac Escalade ESV is quite desirable, and simply pounds on the Lincoln Navigator. The price is not inflated considering what it comes with, and there really aren't any competitors to "the world's most powerful luxury sport utility truck."