When driving the Cadillac Escalade—even in the context of the same trip—it's quite easy to feel both reverence and revulsion.
At close to 19 feet long, the Cadillac Escalade ESV is one of the longest normal passenger vehicles you can buy. It's a couple of inches longer than the longer 'L' version of the Lincoln Town Car, and only about a foot shorter than the extended version of Ford's Econoline vans often used for airport shuttling. What makes it even more intimidating is that, from ground to rooftop, it's a couple of feet taller than the typical car, or a foot taller than many crossovers.
Excess and extroversion
And with its burbling, booming 403-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 engine and ever-present exhaust note, any impression the Escalade leaves is one of excess and extroversion; it's not the kind of vehicle old-money types will be driving, or seen in. And with its delicate, flashy trim and big chrome wheels, it's not the kind of vehicle that you'd take off-road, either.
It's a monster. At the same time, though, it does what it does so well: Which is carry three couples out in comfort when needed; shuttle up to seven across town; provide luxury space for a family plus space for big dogs in back; or even tow 7,700 pounds—all with a supreme, secure feel that's confidence inspiring to both driver and passengers, and a uniquely American panache that's not rivaled in anything from Europe or Japan.
Likewise, the Escalade's cabin feels lavish, but not as extravagant and over the top as its exterior—or its image in movies and music videos—might suggest. The perforated Tehama anilene leather upholstery is thick yet soft and supple, and nicely detailed with embroidered Cadillac logos; and the leather padding throughout the instrument panel and door panels make sure you don't rub against any hard surfaces—which in front are attractive Olive Ash and Walnut Burl trim anyway.
One refinement issue that surprised us a bit was, with a mostly empty vehicle, how much you do hear the seats and trim toward the back of the vehicle creak and wiggle over bumps. Since everything else inside has been hushed so aggressively, you hear those smaller things that much more.
Versatile, but it's not easy
If you need versatility, the Escalade ESV leaves lots to be desired compared to most of the larger crossovers. There's nothing so easy as just folding the third-row seats, or flipping them up, for transporting the likes of a piece of furniture that you'd like to set down flat. To get that flat floor, you'll have to get someone to help you remove them from the vehicle, and it's a job. In back, too, the DVD entertainment system in our test Escalade had the finish of personal electronics from a decade ago.
Dynamically, there's plenty to rave about. The huge V-8 moves the Escalade surprisingly well with the heavy-duty six-speed automatic, and thanks to the excellent Magnetic Ride Control suspension, which gives it phenomenally good body control for such a monstrous ute, when driving the Escalade on a wide boulevard it's possible to forget about the size and mass. The engine does have GM's Active Fuel Management system, which allows it to run on just four cylinders (indicated by the 'V4' notice in the instant fuel economy display). But even when we tried to drive more mindfully it didn't seem to increase mileage by much; we averaged just 12.5 mpg in about a hundred miles of city short trips and suburban errands.
Our top-of-the-line 2011 Cadillac Escalade ESV AWD Platinum totaled more than $88k and included a number of true luxury-vehicle features like heated and cooled front seats, power-adjustable pedals, and retractable running boards—plus an excellent nav system that's quick to update and easy to operate. And the heated steering wheel was a joy to have during a cold, damp time; heated-or-chilled cupholders were a nice touch, too—although they didn't seem to have much impact on coffee in paper cups.
Coming to terms with the guzzling
All that said, the sense that we weren't getting much more than 12 miles per gallon to carry, most of the week, just one or two people around was one that lingered. Could we do the same in a vehicle that's not as obscenely large?
Actually, we have the solution for just about anyone who's considering an Escalade—including even those who tow occasionally: the Escalade Hybrid. We strongly recommend the Escalade Hybrid, as its hybrid badge isn't just a feel-good image booster; it increases the Escalade's mileage by 40 or 50 percent in real-world driving. Oddly, there's one catch: The Hybrid only comes in standard-wheelbase, not ESV, form.
And if you come to terms with the guzzling in one way or another, Super Size hasn't been any better than this.