Car review: Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

cadillac escalade hybrid

Personality All over the map
Why we’d buy it Capable in any weather, quiet, perfect for long summer rush-hour commutes into Dallas
Why we wouldn’t Gas mileage in winter, price, odd feel
Mileage GM claims 20 city, 21 highway
Reviewer David Zatz

The Cadillac Escalade is a luxury truck sitting atop a GMC Yukon chassis that ignores minor annoyances like snow drifts and curbs. With generous ground clearance and a serious 4x4 system, the Escalade promises to make it through tough terrain and deep snows in luxury, and with the hybrid engine, it also promises car-like gas mileage around town. It can deliver on some of these promises.

The Escalade Hybrid, weighted down by a bigger V8 than the standard Yukon as well as a second drive system powered by heavy batteries, ends up with a less satisfying ride than the less expensive and more basic Yukon; that’s not surprising given a total weight of 5,727 pounds. The ride has more jiggle, though it is still free of jounce, and still cushions fairly well for a vehicle of this type. Like the Yukon, the Escalade has excellent sound insulation, and comes with all the gadgetry General Motors can throw at it.

The extra weight of a second drivetrain has not impacted the handling much; the Cadillac Escalade turned on a dime, stopped quickly, and had a surprisingly sharp turning radius, showing itself capable of making adept U-turns (the turning radius is less than three feet larger than a Toyota Camry). Parking is, between the tight turns and the boxy but fairly aerodynamic body, easier than expected.

In the snow, the Escalade felt confident and in control; driving over gravel felt about the same as driving over a paved road. Broken pavement was jiggly but damped. Huge pot-holes were handled with aplomb - barely felt.

The cabin was upscale and the dashboard was highly differentiated from other GM large SUVs, though the middle and rear rows of seats were nearly identical to the Chevrolet and GMC versions of this truck. Woodgrain was used in heavy doses along with brushed-aluminum-style trim; the result was impressive. The gauge cluster reflected both Cadillac’s modern and time-honored sensibilities, with sharp lettering, thin chromed bezels, and a background of metallic silver; underneath the round gauges was a generously sized status display, which could be used for warnings, status reports (e.g. tire pressures, transmission temperature, gas mileage, or whether the engine was running as a V4 or V8), or to set various options, such as automatic lighting or lock behavior. The display was clear without being distracting.

Two reminders of the hybrid powertrain were present inside. One was the tachometer, which had two additional settings: off, and engine off. One notes that the engine isn't supposed to be running; one that the engine is only not running because you’re in a hybrid, stopped at a light or going slowly enough (or coasting for long enough) that the engine is not needed. The other reminder was an electric motor/generator gauge taking the place of the usual temperature gauge. When you hit the gas and the motor kicks in, the needle swings to the right; when the battery is being charged, it swings or edges to the left. Those who really need to know the coolant temperature can dial it up on the trip computer.

The other giveaways that this was a hybrid truck included a clever "H" symbol done up in a shiny circuit-board pattern and found in numerous exterior locations; the huge HYBRID lettering in outlines on the side; and the word HYBRID on the windshield and rear window. Someone at GM might just have fallen for the idea that people only buy the Prius to show off (maybe they buy it because it’s the best hybrid out there in terms of the gas mileage - interior space balance. Nah, that can’t be it. Let’s make the letters bigger.)

The de rigeur GM features were of course present: OnStar, turn by turn navigation, oil life indicator (more sophisticated and more useful than you might think), automatic headlights, and trip computer. The navigation system is higher-end than usual, with a somewhat bigger screen and more features, including real-time traffic reports, multiple routing options, an easier interface than in past models, and clever visualizations. Having a bigger display was, in itself, the biggest improvement over past systems, unless you count the traffic reporting.

Comparisons: 4x4 unless noted City Highway
Cadillac Escalade Hybrid 21 20
Chrysler Town & Country (FWD) 17 25
Chevrolet Traverse (AWD) 16 23
Honda Odyssey (FWD) 16 23
GMC Yukon 14 20
Ford Expedition (RWD) 14 20
Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi 14 19
Toyota Land Cruiser 13 18
Lexus LX570 12 18

The problem with the navigation system — with any navigation system — is maintaining the ease of use of the stereo and keeping the driver’s attention on the road. The GM system tries to accomplish that by having physical buttons, but the layout, logic, and position of the physical buttons (far away from the screen) makes them hard to figure out and to use; basic functions such as changing the band take a while to discover and require more eye movement than desirable. Of course, if you have the money for an Escalade, you also have the money for satellite radio and can just listen to that all day. Then you can use the physical knobs to change stations or volume - unless you're wearing gloves. It’s possible, but trickier, to do anything in the Escalade — from adjusting the heat to turning the wipers on — wearing gloves. Yes, we’re aware of the irony. (For you GM engineers out there, the issue is a combination of small buttons and weak detents.)

Another irony of the Escalade which applies only to the hybrid is that, while the basic Yukon has a relatively small 5.3 liter V8 that gets decent mileage (for what it is), the Escalade is fitted with a six-liter V8 that takes a long time to warm up on winter mornings. As a result, you can drive for over 15 minutes before the engine starts shutting off at traffic lights. During its first five or ten minutes, the Escalade gets absolutely abysmal mileage, as in single digits. Therefore, unless you're taking the truck on a long ride around town, preferably on a summer day, you are unlikely to come close to the EPA ratings. Indeed, we rarely got up to the gas mileage we achieved in the Yukon; if we got the motor nice and warm, then reset the mileage indicator, we could travel at around 16-18 mpg if we drove carefully.

The powertrain is somewhat less smooth than the 5.3 V8 / six-speed automatic in other GM trucks of this series; to a degree, that's to be expected with a hybrid, but it does seem ironic, again, that the Chevy people get a more luxurious-feeling powertrain, and the Dodge Durango, which uses a similar system developed largely by General Motors, ends up with a smoother hybrid. There seem to be some rough edges that haven't been attacked yet; to be fair, GM is still new at the game. The original Prius was not the most well-developed package ever launched, either. The transmission has a tendency to drop the engine into the 2,000-rpm range for a second or two at a time, and is sometimes gruff in its shifts. Engine noise is fairly minimal, partly because the engine rarely has to rev faster than 2,500 rpm - the electric motor is good for most transient power needs.

On the lighter side, the motor is heavy-duty enough to propel the Escalade past 10 mph on full electric, and the computer does hook in the motor as needed to keep the engine under 2,500 rpm. Acceleration is, as one would expect, instant, from the combination of a six-liter V8 and a big 300-volt electric motor (that’s 332 hp and 367 lb-ft of torque, both at 5,100 rpm). Gas mileage is aided somewhat by an automatic, magnetic ride control which hunkers down at speed, helping to provide 21 mpg on the highway.

The speed sensitive steering provides easy turns at low speeds and easy driving at high speeds, with a tight turning radius; the steering is tuned so you don’t notice anything, but the truck being easy to drive at any speed. The Escalade comes to a stop quickly on dry surfaces, outclassing many competitors, though you can quickly get into trouble with this much weight and inertia. Visibility is good for the class thanks partly to huge side mirrors, despite the blind spots unavoidable in big SUVs; though the wide, thick rear pillars and the middle-row seats interfere badly and cause a large blind spot. The generously sized sun visors included slide-out inserts which increased their range and usefulness.

A standard feature is the backup alarm (four sensors in the rear bumper measure the remaining distance when in reverse); a new feature is separate warnings for the left and right rear corners, with better warnings of vehicles to the side. Another standard feature on the Escalade, and optional on lesser models, is a rear backup camera; it seemed to need a few seconds to activate after we went into Reverse, which could be awkward at times.

Another safety feature was the blind spot alarm, which lit up little yellow icons in the outside rearview mirrors when we put on our turn signal and a car was on our sides. This is a very clever idea which could eliminate numerous accidents; now we just need to get drivers to figure out what a turn signal is.

The interior is about the size of a minivan, with three rows of seats for carrying seven people, but the flexibility is not quite as user-friendly as in a Caravan, Sienna, or Odyssey. The middle seats can be flipped forward to accommodate rear passengers, but getting through the passageway thus opened is not particularly easy; in any case, the rearmost seats provide little legroom or headroom, and are not raised high enough off the floor for even moderately tall people. Short adults and kids who have outgrown their child seats seemed happy back there, though. The middle row is also a bit awkward for taller people, with seats that aren't very high up, but the headroom is better there. In each case, the Yukon looks and feels better the further forward you go; features diminish as you go back, with the plastic in the rearmost row seeming cheap and flimsy, while the surroundings up front are rather nice. Storage options also diminish as you go back, with generous storage for things up front, map pockets on the back of the front seats and fold-down cupholders for the middle row, and molded in cupholders for the rearmost row. In other words, not only is the Escalade incredibly wasteful as a minivan; it isn't particularly well suited to be one anyway, in terms of passenger comfort, passenger space, passenger amenities, and getting people back there in the first place.

The instrument panel is large and clear, with fewer (but more attractive) gauges than a Yukon, and a pointlessly high 160 mph top reading on the speedometer; traditional and highly readable dials are surrounded by trim, rounded bright chrome bezels, with a blueish-green backlight at night. The effect is highly readable and pleasant to look at.

The transmission has a column shift and foot brake which makes it easy to fully apply the parking brakes; a hand-operated lever also makes it easy to release the brake and get going again, once you find it (it's the same color as the surrounding trim and doesn't stick out — it’s also around four inches further to the right than usual). The hood release is clearly marked and hard to mix up with the brake release. Under the hood, maintenance points are marked out and the battery is moderately easy to reach for jump starts.

The headlights are controlled by the new standard chrome-surrounding-black GM truck knob, which provides easy usability with a neat, upscale appearance, but to shut off the headlights you either have to go with running lights (which stay on after you shut the engine) or move to "no lights," a setting that has to be repeated each time you start the engine. Otherwise, the automatic headlights - which in GM parlance means "always on" - are the default.

Speaking of headlights, the actual headlights, high-intensity discharge (the blue ones) models that are standard on the Escalade Hybrid, were strong and covered a wide area; while the tail-lights and reverse lights were bright and very helpful when backing up at night. They also went on as part of the perimeter lighting when unlocking or locking the doors, to help passengers make their way in parking lots or garages.

The old GM overloaded-stalk cruise control is gone, replaced by a system on the wheel, set up so that you only have to turn the cruise on once, and it stays on no matter how many times you stop and start the engine. A separate light indicates when a speed has been locked in; and there's a cancel button as well. Instead, GM now provides an overloaded door control (someone has to put them in touch with Tog). The door button pod contains mirror adjustments, outside mirror folding, four window up/down buttons, the power window lockout, and the door locks.

Seat heaters are standard on the first and second rows; for the front row, the seat heater (and vent) controls are next to the climate controls, not separated by any space, which makes use of either system more distracting for the driver than it should be. There are multiple levels of heat and venting, and people can choose to heat just the cushion or the cushion and the back of the seat.

There are controls for OnStar on the rear-view mirror with a compass and thermometer, a welcome duplicate set of radio controls on the right side of the steering wheel, and the four trip computer controls to the right of the instrument panel. With these, you can easily set lock and light behaviors, see average and instant gas mileage, fuel range, tire pressures for each individual tire, odometers, and oil life remaining - the latter cleverly calculated by the computer based on GM research and road conditions, which can save you a bag of money and a few gallons of oil over time, since most people don't even need to change oil every six thousand miles, much less every three.

Hybrids have a special status display on the navigation system (located by pressing the config button), which tells which systems are active and what their status is; it also tells whether you're in rear drive or four wheel drive. However, it doesn't provide any information on gas mileage, power generated, or battery level, as Toyota's system does.

Our test vehicle had a full complement of comfort options, inluding a three-zone thermostatically operated climate control system. Similar to those used on minivans, the three-zone system lets the driver, front passenger, and rear passengers all have different heat levels. There are many air vents in the rear cabin, and any can be re-aimed or closed completely. The rear climate control is too far away for most children to reach from their seats, and the automatic mode puts the fan on full blast until the right temperature is reached, which can be rather loud.

Hitting the climate control buttons is difficult with gloves, and not easy while driving without gloves, either. These systems should be designed for easy use at a glance; but GM gave us a precision pointing game. Making matters worse is the odd mode button — instead of pushing one button or turning a knob, which you can do without looking just by counting the detents as they go buy (or dragging your hand across a row of buttons), GM provided a digital up/down control where each time you press, you get a different set of vents. That makes us long for the good old days of upside-down keys and combination cruise control/headlight/turn signal/kitchen sink stalks.

The included XM Satellite radio system provides largely commercial-free music on over 100 channels. Unless you're under heavy tree cover or in a tunnel, the system works well, and is fairly uncomplicated for the user. The system works nicely with the navigation screen, providing the channel name, song title, and artist name, preset buttons (with the names of the channels shown), and the time; when the map is showing, pressing the radio status button brings up the main radio screen. GM’s implementation has better antennas or a larger buffer than some competitors, providing more constant reception.

OnStar is also included; if you can afford the Escalade, you can pay for the concierge who helps you out if you’re lost and makes hotel reservations for you, projecting what city you'll need them in.

Rounding out the comfort and convenience options was a built-in, minivan-style DVD video system, with a large roof-mounted screen, remote control, and wireless headphones. The system can be played through the main stereo, and if you're parked, the front screen will show the movie (assuming you have a front screen) and allow you to control the system without the remote. That's good, because the remote doesn't seem to have a permanent home. The headphones fit easily into the bottom of the huge two-layer center front covered console, which has nice chrome latches.

Our test vehicle had a digital signal processing chip, which could optimize sound for the driver, both front passengers, or the rear passengers. The bass was somewhat over-emphasized but otherwise it was an excellent system.

Up front, there are many places to put things, including a large dual-layer center bin (nearly large enough for a box of tissues), large dual cupholders (covered), a covered slot in the center stack, and map pockets in the doors. A built-in garage door opener is placed by the rotating front dome lights. Woodgrain covers were used for most surfaces, making the interior a notch more luxurious.

Storage space is extensive, with the middle and rear seats losing legroom in a quest for additional cargo area; for a vehicle of this size, the lack of legroom in the middle seats is rather interesting, and the lack of legroom in the rearmost seats makes it hard for adults to stay back there for any length of time. That said, adults can stay in the middle seats indefinitely; it's no worse than many mid-sized sedans of the 1980s or 1990s.

There are many little storage places and cupholders. Front doors have map pockets; the two-layer center console is huge; there is a large bin in front of the main cupholders; and a small bin by the headlight button. In back, there are a couple of small cubbies and cupholders for the rearmost seats that are easy to reach, but it's a stretch from the middle seats to the cupholders set up for them. The glove compartment is barely large enough to hold the owner's manual and related paperwork.

Luxury features of the Escalade abound, and range from 14-way power front seats with heated and cooled cushions and backrests to rear audio sound controls. Wipers are rain-sensing; a power liftgate is standard; XM radio with navigation and realtime traffic is standard (for the first three months). Other luxury features include soft-touch leather seats, Bose 5.1 surround sound stereo, power tilt wheel, BlueTooth™ phone system, triple zone automatic climate control, remote starter, a universal home remote, express up/down power windows, power sunroof, trip computer, wood-grain surfaces (including a wood-grain steering wheel insert), and a 115-volt power outlet.

For safety, the Escalade comes with blind-spot alerts, power folding heated mirrors with integrated turn signal indicators, dual front airbags, HID headlights, heated windshield washers, side curtain airbags in all rows, stability and traction control, tire pressure monitoring with a display for each individual tire, ultrasonic rear park assist, and rear video camera — and, if you think these are safety features, daytime running lights and automatic headlights. There is no spare, just a tire sealant and inflator kit. The Escalade racked up five-star government ratings for frontal and side crashes, with three stars for rollover risk. Final assembly is in Arlington, Texas, using an American engine and transmission.

For hauling, you get the magnetic ride control, automatic rear levelling, a big six-liter V8, 300 volts of electric motor, a heavy-duty trailering package, four wheel drive with locking rear differential, and big mirrors.

All of those features are standard — built into the price. That actually makes the hybrid system almost a bargain, if you were planning to buy a truck with all those toys anyway. The total price is $74,235, including destination charge. If you opt for the rear drive version, the price drops down to a mere $71,685; and we must admit that, even as we drove over unplowed snow and slush, we never noticed the truck jumping into 4x4 mode.

Our vehicle came with a single option - power-retractable assist steps, at $1,095. When you open a door, any door, a large step folds out from the body; the step runs from front to rear and is wide and strong enough to dance on (we didn’t). Close the door, and a few seconds later, the step retracts again. It's clever, and it's fun to show off.

When it comes right down to it, the Escalade Hybrid doesn't make a lot of sense. It promises to save fuel, and it does, compared with a non-hybrid big truck; the EPA city rating is indeed higher than many cars and just about all big SUVs. However, in practice, you need to get past that long fuel-sucking period while it warms up, and have just the right type of traffic and travel to get to the EPA ratings. For most people, it would make more sense just to get something like a Dodge Caravan or a Cadillac CTS that gets better mileage to begin with. Or to get a Chevy Cruze for commuting and a base-model Yukon for whatever they feel they need the Escalade for.

The hybrid seems to only be an effective way to increase gas mileage over simply getting the 5.3 liter V8 for a small number of people — those who need a big truck-based vehicle with four wheel drive, tend to drive long enough to fully warm up the engine and make up for all the fuel wasted while the engine was cold, and drive primarily in heavy traffic or with long periods of idling (e.g. at traffic lights). If you match all those criteria, and by all means, snap up an Escalade Hybrid. Otherwise, I'm sure General Motors can find a more suitable vehicle for you.