Every once in a while, when the demand is there in a growing city, a new franchise will be granted for a professional sports team. People love sports and there are fortunes to be made giving them what they want. So too with cars.
Cadillac management resisted having an SUV right up to the point that they realized if they didn’t get a “team”, they were going to lose out to every other luxury brand. The Escalade was an expansion in both their showroom model choices and, of course, in the maximum size of their vehicles. It’s been a rolling monument to vehicular excess for over 20 years now. It embodies everything both good and bad about the SUV phenomenon. The big, loaded SUV has taken over the high ground of the auto industry, as it’s an aspirational vehicle for many car buyers, and automakers aspire to sell as many as they can since they bring some of the highest profit margins. Could the big SUV become an endangered species? These days it certainly seems possible, at least in the form we’ve come to love (or loathe) it. That may be good, or bad, or a little of both, but there is something to be said for giving people what they want and they have certainly wanted big boys like the Escalade.
I’ve had the Escalade in the back of my mind for a while, with an eye out for a nice first generation example, which was only made for two years. I don’t have registration stats, but Texas is surely the Land Of The Escalades. My locale is practically crawling with Escalades new and old, but would you believe that in well over a year of looking, I’ve spotted exactly two first generation models and only this one parked (and I drive a lot, all over town)? Have you seen any lately where you live?
This is the second article in a series on flagship SUVs from early in their rise to dominance. In part 1 of Give Them What They Want on the Lincoln Navigator, I covered how Ford’s SUVs led to that trendsetter. Here, we’ll look more specifically at luxury SUVs that led up to both the Navigator and the Escalade.
The 1978 Jeep Wagoneer Limited (later Grand Wagoneer) was the first truck to be marketed explicitly as a luxury vehicle. It had most of the power and comfort features found on luxury cars of its day, plus it had the rugged Jeep mountain goat skills, at least as much as it could while using street tires and a softer suspension. This was a major foreshadowing of the character of many future SUVs.
The next big step for luxury SUVs in the U.S. was the Range Rover. The English Rover was actually quite old when it hit the U.S. market officially in 1987, but it notably had a full coil spring suspension and a host of luxury features. And a big status-inflating price tag.
GM came along with the Oldsmobile Bravada for 1991. Not as upscale (or as aged) as the Range Rover, riding on the seven-year-old S10 Blazer platform in its new 4-door form, it was nevertheless a pretty novel concept. It had standard full time all-wheel-drive, street tires and had no off-roading packages available. It was squarely aimed at upscale buyers who wanted more height and traction, but didn’t have any interest in serious 4x4ing. Those are the buyers who would make up a massive chunk of the car market of the future, just not quite yet. Production was in the low 10k’s/year for its first generation through 94.
That dam would break in the mid to late 90’s. Lexus came out with the LX450 in 1996, a luxed-up version of the Toyota Land Cruiser, which itself had moved upmarket in the early 90’s. The LX managed to cosset its occupants very nicely while maintaining the Land Cruiser’s serious off-roading chops.
In quick succession, the luxury SUV market welcomed the 1997 Infiniti QX4 (based on the Nissan Pathfinder), the 1998 Lexus RX300 (not based on a truck, it was one of the first front-wheel-drive-based crossovers in the U.S.), the 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320 and the 1998 Lincoln Navigator.
The Navigator was built on a fresh platform and had very modern mechanicals, which were tuned for comfort over off-road prowess. The majority of its buyers had no interest or intention of leaving paved roads. The Navigator was a big hit, and most significantly to Cadillac, pushed Lincoln’s total sales above Cadillac’s for only the second time ever (I forgot about 1988 in the Navigator article and surprisingly nobody caught it!).
Prior to the Expedition/Navigator, Ford had been caught flat-footed as big SUV sales started rocketing up in the mid-90’s and they had nothing besides the archaic Bronco. GM had the Suburban they had been able to modify into the popular but aging 4-door Tahoe/Yukon. In much the same way, when Lincoln’s Navigator took the luxury SUV market by storm in 1998, GM was caught flat-footed with only their 10 year old truck platform to base a luxury SUV on.
Making lemonade, GMC did have the Yukon Denali that they introduced during the 1998 model year as they sought to differentiate themselves from Chevrolet with a luxury version of their SUV that wasn’t available in the Tahoe. It sold for almost the exact same sticker price as the Navigator and had similar equipment levels.
With all this happening in the market, Cadillac’s cupboards were bare and the guests were showing up expecting dinner.
In dire situations that test one’s mettle and reveal the character of men, some intrepid souls are willing to step into the breech. Cadillac saw the huge sales, impressive price premiums and amazing profit margins that Lincoln and GMC were getting and bravely declared, “Me too!”
Some might say that the 1999 Escalade was the very definition of badge engineering and that it was indistinguishable from the Denali. They are selling Cadillac short, as the visual differences go well beyond the badges. As you can see in the photos above, Cadillac used a completely different grille insert with a bright surround that was thicker on the top than the Denali’s. Not only that, but GMC placed their bright Denali door script on the cladding, while Cadillac had their bright door script above the cladding on the sheet metal. The differences are huge!
If you couldn’t tell, I’m being sarcastic. Yes, the Escalade was a stopgap measure if ever there was one. With Lincoln whipping them in sales and dealers screaming, Cadillac had no time to meaningfully distinguish its entry into the category from GMC’s. One can imagine that one Friday afternoon Cadillac’s manager asked GMC’s manager if he could borrow his Denali for the weekend. He replied, “No problem, just get it washed and don’t mess with my radio presets”, only to see Denalis show up in Cadillac showrooms two weeks later with a wreath and crest. “What the…?!”
OK, maybe it took a little more than two weeks to develop. Where there are differences, they show up in the interior. Cadillac did use different upholstery patterns in creamier leather, put a partial wood rim on the steering wheel, placed additional wood trim (real, like on the Lincoln) on the door panels and instrument panel surround, and gave it higher grade carpet. Both the GMC and Caddy came with an early version of OnStar.
The $45,855 Cadillac stickered for $3,000 more than the Denali. In addition to the feature differences, it had an extra year of warranty, Cadillac’s 24hr roadside assistance program and the inestimable prestige of being the Standard Of The World. Good value? Perhaps, if a luxury brand SUV is your desire. The Denali was already approximately $5,000 more than a regular loaded Yukon.
Since my curbside photo of a well-used interior in less-than-ideal lighting doesn’t show detail too well, here is a shot from Car and Driver’s road test. It actually does look pretty darned inviting. You couldn’t ask for a nicer spot in which to take an extended road trip, as long as you can keep your mind off the gas mileage.
Mechanically, the Escalade was pretty standard GM truck fare. The engine was a 255hp/330lb-ft 5.7L Vortec V8 identical to those in the Tahoe/Yukon/Suburban. Cadillac used the same upgrades as the Denali with its standard automatic full-time four wheel drive system, highway-comfort-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks and Firestone Firehawk touring tires.
Comparing it to the Navigator, it didn’t have rear air springs or adjustable front air shocks or rear disc brakes. It also didn’t have fancy second row buckets and didn’t offer a third row, so it was only rated as a 5 passenger. Where it perfectly matched Lincoln was in a gluttonous desire for fuel, with the same 12 city/16 highway EPA rating.
My curbside (make that ditchside) find exchanged its original wheels for a set off a later generation Chevy Silverado and had its grille painted white. It’s clearly had many miles of concrete pass under it, but overall isn’t too bad considering most all of its brothers seem to have vanished from the road. When new, the Escalade came across as rather cynical marketing. With 20 years of hindsight and several newer generations to compare it to, the original version is perhaps worth a second opinion. I can actually see it as kind of subdued and tasteful, almost modest, at least compared to the more garish later models.
Whatever criticisms could be levied at Cadillac’s copycat approach, the Escalade did its job. It gave plenty of folks what they wanted: the Cadillac of SUVs. Happy dealers partied like it was 1999 by selling 34k, while holding Lincoln’s Navigator to only 39k sales (down from aprox 45k in 98), getting themselves a good chunk of those sweet premium SUV profits. Y2K sales were similar. Perhaps more importantly for Cadillac’s pride, the natural order was restored when they once again beat Lincoln in total sales.
While Cadillac rushed the original Escalade onto dealer lots, it was working on a long term plan. That will be the subject of part 3 in the series.
photographed in Houston, TX February 21, 2020
The GM Heritage Center has the very first production Escalade, in white, just like our subject truck would have looked sitting on the dealer lot once upon a time.
Then there’s this. A few days ago, after this article had already been completed and scheduled, I sighted this in traffic. I had about 5-10 seconds after I spotted it to grab my phone and pull up the camera, managing two shots, one surprisingly not half bad for not even having the window rolled down. This is the elusive curbside creampuff I would have liked to have found parked. It was coming out of the River Oaks neighborhood, which is the toniest one in town, filled with Old Money estates and many new mansions built after tearing down the old mansions. This Escalade looks to me like it’s being driven by its original owner and has spent all of the last 21-22 years parked in a River Oaks garage, except for the occasional local
journey excursion trip.
And then the CC Effect kicks in! On the day the article ran I find this, a 99 or 00 in much better condition than my feature Escalade. Leaved me wondering: Are they really that rare now or was I just unlucky for 1 1/2 years?