Review: 2011 Cadillac Escalade 4WD Platinum Hybrid

By Charles Krome

Getting into one of the General’s big body-on-frame dual-mode hybrid trucks has been high on my list for some time, and the automaker recently obliged me with the ne plus ultra of the breed, this year’s Cadillac Escalade Hybrid with both four-wheel drive and the brand’s ultimate Platinum package of goodies. It’s the most expensive model in the Cadillac lineup(!), sporting an MSRP of $88,140—a tidy $24,685 over the price of admission to the base Escalade—but hey, it’s also the only one capable of an EPA city rating of 20 mpg, which goes with marks of 23 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined.

And while I couldn’t quite duplicate that kind of performance, I did get relatively close. The Escalade managed a legitimate 19.6 mpg in a mix of driving that was more heavily weighted toward city streets, and in my experience, that puts it in the same range as vehicles like the Acura TL Advance and well ahead of the Lincoln MKS with EcoBoost or GMC Terrain V6 with all-wheel drive. Of course, it did take a bit of effort.

I do a fair amount of driving through suburban subdivisions taking kids to school and whatnot, and the Escalade’s electric-drive system engaged quite aggressively. Then, as long as I stayed below about 22 mph, I could easily get 3/4 of mile, sometimes more, of all-electric range. Not driving them back-to-back I couldn’t say for sure, but it definitely felt like I was able to take advantage of EV mode with the Cadillac significantly more than with the Lincoln MKZ, or even the pre-production Toyota Prius v I drove recently. (Of course, to be fair, the latter also turned up a combined mpg rating of 43.8 at the time.)

The Escalade has a sort of eco-feedback setup as well, and I did pay attention to that during some of my driving. It was a dial that was part of the Cadillac’s instrument panel, and as long as you were driving efficiently, its needle stayed happily in the “green zone.”

Beyond those two scenarios, however, I drove the Escalade as I would any other vehicle—and found mixed results. As part of the Escalade Hybrid’s efforts to boost fuel economy, it holsters a smaller, less powerful V8 than the gas-only Escalade. Even when the electric boost of the hybrid system is factored in, the Hybrid leverages notably less horsepower and torque. The 6.2-liter engine in the regular Escalade makes 403 hp and 417 lb.-ft. of torque, while the combined output of the Hybrid’s 6.0-liter gas engine and two electric motors is 379 hp/367 lb.-ft. torque. And that difference is magnified because in the Escalade Hybrid, we’re talking about a vehicle that weighs in at 6,120 lbs.

The big SUV wasn’t slow, and the engine had a nice sound, but it was clear that the performance emphasis here was on achieving maximum mpg, not mph.

The actual driving experience was dominated by the fact the Escalade relies on body-on-frame construction. The transmission was relatively car-like, and that’s saying something because it’s the Escalade Hybrid’s transmission that is the key to its hybrid system. I’m not going to attempt to explain it beyond saying it combines CVT functionality with four fixed gears, but I can say the shifting felt natural and I didn’t notice any of the droning you can get with continuously variable transmissions. And I had no issues with the firm-enough steering or pedal operation. But still, you never forgot you were in a truck, even though the Escalade had standard Magnetic Ride Control, a pretty nifty bit of business that can adjust the suspension every 5 milliseconds for “optimum” ride.

That does bring up an interesting point: I’m confident that the Escalade really does have about the best ride possible to get out of a four-wheel-drive full-size body-on-frame SUV; it’s just that said ride can’t compare to what something like a Buick Enclave crossover can deliver. That likely limits the Cadillac’s sales to some extent, although the big question is whether its sales are limited to the point that Cadillac should get its own three-row crossover.

The flip-side of the Escalade Hybrid’s truckishness is that it can tow 5,600 lbs., which is 1,100 lbs. more than the Buick, albeit 2,500 lbs. less than a non-hybrid all-wheel-drive model.

Regardless, there’s certainly nothing about the appointments and amenities on display in the Platinum trim that would remind you of a truck. And frankly, that’s the way things should be in a vehicle that costs $90,000. The Platinum upgrade is a no-option package that added a nav system, rearview camera, rear-seat DVD entertainment system, power liftgate, power adjustable pedals, tri-zone climate system, rear-seat audio controls, heated power-folding side mirrors, heated front seats, power sunroof, automatic power retractable assist steps, blind-zone alert, ultrasonic rear park assist, a not-insignificant one-year subscription to OnStar, real wood and aluminum accents, heated/cooled cupholders, a second, independent rear-seat DVD system that relied on screens in the front-seat headrests, and the proverbial much much more.

The seats were leather throughout, and while they did decline in comfort from the front to back, even that last row provided a superior place to rest your butt. But you wouldn’t want to consign many adults back there; as comfy as the seats are, they’re also quite close to the floor. That being said, the second-row was excellent even, for grownups. The second and third rows also easily folded, flipped and tumbled in a wide variety of configurations—but not automatically. To be sure, the theme here is comfort, and some drivers may find the seating just a bit too coddling.

Perhaps as a result, there’s really not much room at all behind the third row of seats. With the final row in place and upright, there’s just 16.9 cubic feet of cargo volume; there’s 20.6 in the back of a Honda Fit.

The rest of the interior was nicely restrained—especially as compared to the exterior; about which more will follow shortly—with a nice mix of modern touches, like the brushed-metal trim, and traditional premium cues, like the olive ash/walnut burl wood on the dash and analog clock. Although, you’ll see if/when you look at the pictures—sorry in advance for the reflection—designers didn’t go to great lengths to justify the two different woods. It’s just the olive ash on one side of the dash and the walnut on the other, with the dividing line just to the right of the right-center HVAC vent.

Fit and finish were noticeably good nearly everywhere, with the only big exception being the center-front storage unit, which seemed mounted a bit loosely. And while that unit did provide a fair amount of room, most of it was taken up by the headphones and remote controls for the rear-seat entertainment setups. It’s not the worst tradeoff, since the ability for both you and your rear-seat child passengers to listen to different radio stations without interfering with each other shouldn’t be taken lightly. The Bose surround sound also helps, and one thing I particularly like about GM’s touchscreen sound systems is that you can preset stations from different bands, including satellite stations, in the same set of “Favorites.” The navigation was easy to use and accurate; in addition, I’ve come to realize a significant number of nav maps don’t provide enough detail to display the names of our neighborhood streets—but Cadillac’s did. Oh, there also was a standard 110-volt plug in the back, which is just a neat feature I like.

There were two big surprises in the cabin: First, there was an ashtray and lighter! I can’t remember the last time I was in a smoker-friendly new vehicle, and there was no indication on the vehicle’s window sticker this was part of a smoker’s package. The other shocker is related, because I think both are reflections of the fact this generation of the Escalade has been on the market for some five years now, and it’s that the vehicle doesn’t have push-button start. It’s a small thing, but I can see how it might nag at some folks who have to have the latest car gadgetry, especially when you remember the price tag involved here.

But as restrained and sophisticated as the Cadillac’s cabin is, the vehicle’s exterior is, well, pure Escalade. Yes, it’s a bit slab-sided, and the rear of the vehicle, even with the highly vertical brake lamps, seems a bit too Professional Grade to me. But the combination of massive 22-inch chrome wheels and an equally massive grille—both of which are unique to the Platinum edition—make the Escalade a massive attention-getter. The wheels are definitely big and shiny, but the chief effect they have is to help make the vehicle look lighter on its feet, and both more athletic and aggressive. Then, the grille and front light treatment, with the Platinum-only LED headlamps, are both very vertical, giving the front of the Escalade the appearance of a chrome cliff face—but in way that I imagine works well with the Escalade’s target audience. And the large “HYBRID” badging, with a circuit-board-style pattern, probably doesn’t hurt either.

Now, my last observation regarding the Escalade has to do with my roof-seal test, which the Escalade failed badly. As refresher, I’m talking about checking the state of the rubber moldings or other trim pieces that run back-to-front on most of today’s new vehicles. As you can see from the accompanying photo, the molding on the Esclade appears cut too short to fill the channel, exposing rough metal, and the end of the molding itself isn’t finished. I called this a deal-breaker when I reviewed the Lincoln MKZ, but since then, I’ve been shocked to notice that a lot of relatively expensive vehicles exhibit the same thing—although plenty of less expensive ones do just fine.

But I still don’t like it.

That’s a good note to finish on, too, because it’s a good symbol of the Escalade Hybrid itself: Mostly very nice, but still a little rough around the edges.

Recent Sales: Escalade vs. Escalade Hybrid

2010 1/2011 2/2011 3/2011 4/2011 5/2011
Escalade 16,118 (-4.5%) 1514 (+22.4%) 1279 (-9.8%) 1201 (-5.4%) 970 (-22.4%) 1024 (-23.1%)
Escalade Hybrid 1,210 (-42.6%) 99 (+90.4%) 86 (-41.1%) 127 (+3.3%) 117 (+2.6%) 89 (-32.1%)

(Note: Escalade sales number per GM; Escalade Hybrid sales per HybridCars.com Market Dashboard.)

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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1 Comment

  1. Great, thorough review Chuck!! Answered all of my questions and satisfied my curiosity as I will probably never be in one:-)Beautiful ride though. Can you do a review of the new Ford Explorer?

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