This is now my third attempt at writing a review of the 2012 Cadillac Escalade AWD Premium Collection. The first two attempts started on the wrong foot, with me harping about the ridiculous price ($76,215 as tested, including destination) and how inefficent it is (from both space and consumption points of view). But somebody is buying new Escalades, so even if this big boy is not my cup of tea, there is still plenty to like about it.
The Escalade has the distinction of being the most expensive vehicle in Cadillac’s lineup, at least when enough option boxes are checked during ordering time. It’s the biggest Cadillac sold today, and strange as it may sound, probably the closest model in the line to the traditional concept of comfortable luxury and effortless power. Forget about the notion of Nurburgring lap times. This is a Cadillac! Not a BMW!
Drawing from a heritage that includes ostentatious amounts of chrome and gigantic tail fins, the Escalade’s exterior unmistakably belongs to an Escalade. Considering that it’s fundamentally a dressed-up Chevy Tahoe (with a million upgrades), it shares very little with its donor other than its exterior shape. The Escalade has a unique grille – indeed, unique front clip – tail lamps that form mini tailfins, chrome trim around the windows, a nicer roof rack, and giant 22 inch aluminum wheels shod with low-profile tires. Now in its sixth model year of production, the GMT-900 Escalade has actually aged fairly well outside. Competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class and Infiniti QX have more interesting designs, but considering the raw materials, the Escalade isn’t bad. Our tester had the $995 optional white diamond premium paint, which looks great in sunlight if you’re a white car kind of person.
Inside, the Escalade hasn’t quite aged as well. If you want a leather-wrapped upper dash and door panels, you’re going to have to step up to a Platinum. “Premium Collection” does not mean the best in Escalade land. The upper dash is soft(ish) to the touch (it has a minimal amount of “give” when you press on it, but you need to press pretty hard). The gauge cluster is in the same location as in the Chevy/GMC versions, but the gauges have cool blue needles and a suitably premium look.
Because it doesn’t share its center stack with the Tahoe or Yukon, the Escalade gets its own design. There’s a rectangular analog clock at the top (which, by the way, is the worst possible shape for a clock other than a triangle, and it’s almost impossible to read thanks to only having four markings on it), and a deliciously large color LCD display. What is shown on that display is where the Escalade’s biggest problem lies.
Aside from very, very minor updates, the navigation system in the 2012 Escalade is identical to the system found in the 2007 Escalade. Think about the cell phone you were likely using in 2006/2007 and what’s likely in your pocket today for a hint at how far technology has progressed. So why hasn’t Cadillac updated the user interface in the Escalade? Most appalling is that the lesser GM trucks such as the Suburban and Tahoe, which used to share the same old-school navigation software with the Escalade, have been upgraded for 2012 with the same navigation and infotainment hardware/software that the Cruze, Equinox, Regal, Volt, and others have. That system is not state-of-the-art, but it’s also not stone age, either. The Escalade’s system has an appalling lack of map detail, slow re-routing (it’s DVD-based; the others are now hard disc-based), and difficult to use. Though I have not confirmed this with Cadillac, the reason the Escalade’s was not updated could be because its center stack has a separate display, while the lesser trucks’ displays are integrated with the audio head unit. The integrated display/radio should allow a simple plug-and-play replacement.
Aside from gulping fuel at a brisk pace (the EPA predicts fuel economy of 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway/15 mpg combined; I observed about 14.5 mpg during my week with this tester under mostly highway miles), it drives surprisingly well. Now, everything is relative: this is a 5,715-pound body on frame full-size SUV, not a luxury sedan. Steering and braking are nowhere near sports-car sharp. But it really, really sounds good under acceleration. If you don’t believe me, my 14.5 mpg observed is testimony to that. It also rides quite nicely without being nearly as floaty as might be expected in a giant Cadillac. Credit for that goes to GM’s miraculous Magnetic Ride Control suspension; for those unfamiliar, click here for more details. In a nutshell, when electrical current passes through the shock fluid, its viscosity instantly changes, which – when properly controlled – makes for a literally magical mix of ride and handling. Magnetic Ride Control is typically found in cars like the Corvette (it’s optional), CTS-V (standard), Camaro (standard on the ZL1), but it does a nice job of controlling the Escalade’s tall, heavy body’s motions. It also does well at absorbing road imperfections that would be otherwise coming to the steering wheel from the large 22 inch wheels.
What bothers me the most about the Escalade is that – unless you’re driving an Escalade Platnium (which this one was not), it doesn’t really feel very special inside. My own 2008 CTS has a nicer interior (and that one is far from perfect, from a design and materials standpoint), and it’s not measurably better than a Tahoe LTZ’s. The Cadillac has more wood (and it’s real, not plastic), but the non-Platinum Escalades don’t have a stitched dash, don’t have the gorgeous wood-inlaid dash (the giant metallic strip in front of the passenger in these photos is real wood i the Platinum), and don’t have the softer “full aniline” leather interior. For an as-tested price of $76,215, I’m expecting more. Basically, the Escalade Platinum’s upgrades should be in all Escalades. Otherwise, you’re looking at what is basically a GMC Yukon Denali, sold at a Cadillac dealer with a better warranty. Things like a wood steering wheel, automatic climate control, heated seats, and a power liftgate are just not all that special. A leather-wrapped dash and LED headlamps, along with four LCD entertainment displays are something special.
Let me be clear that I’m not saying that vehicles like the Escalade do not have a purpose in the auto market in 2012. Plenty of rich people have large families and towing needs. It doesn’t really have any domestic competition anymore (I couldn’t tell you the last time the Lincoln Navigator entered my thoughts, or apparently the thoughts of many buyers, with just 4,976 units sold through July 31 against the Escalade’s 14,741). But competitors such as the Infiniti QX, Mercedes-Benz GL, and Range Rover deliver a superior luxury experience, more modern interior technology. The GL, which costs thousands more than an Escalade, has outsold it by about 15% so far in 2012. What’s more, comparing features in the Escalade Platinum (which costs about the same as a GL 470 and quite a bit more than this tester), the Escalade lacks hill descent control, air suspension, power folding third row seats, glass roof panels, additional airbags, independent rear suspension, and a collision mitigation system. You get seven speeds in the GL’s (and Infiniti QX’s) transmission against six in the Cadillac. Plus, the Benz offers a diesel option that is more economical on the highway than the Escalade Hybrid (18/24 for the M-B, 20/23 for the Cadillac), and it far undercuts the Escalade Hybrid.
The upside of the Escalade’s, ahem, “proven” technology, particularly its engine and transmission, is that it’s inexpensive to maintain and is quite likely to last longer. The downside is that being constrained to share major chassis components with lesser Chevrolet and GM siblings makes it more difficult to make the Escalade special, and that’s really the reason people would spring for a luxury vehicle over a non-luxury vehicle in the first place. With only the Escalade Platinum feeling particularly special (but for a steep price), it may be best to wait for the all-new Escalade coming sometime next year – or to buy one of these from the used car lot after its initial owner absorbs a serious depreciation hit.
Cadillac provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.