Expansion teams rarely start out as contenders. It takes at least a few seasons for them to be able to make a run at the championship. In the 2002 championship for the poshest, fastest, and most advanced big luxury SUV, Cadillac was finally ready to take on all comers.
I wrote about the first generation Escalade in part 2 of the Give Them What They Want series on early SUV flagships. That story is really not complete without also covering the second generation. The 1999 Escalade got Cadillac in the game, but the Navigator was still beating it. If Cadillac wanted to lead the segment, it needed a bold and distinctive design of its own. Starting when the 1999 model got the green light, Cadillac had sufficient lead time to come up with something worthy of being the Cadillac Of SUVs.
The question naturally springs to mind of why it took them so long to field a team. Cadillac should by all rights have already been the champion in the mid 90’s when luxury brand SUVs first started to appear. In fact, if Cadillac were the leader they would like people to think of them as, they would have come out first with a very hard to beat trendsetter. That’s not how things worked out.
Perhaps it was GM’s huge financial losses in the early 90’s, perhaps it was just conventional executive thinking, but the idea of a Cadillac SUV for release in the mid-90’s was discussed and rejected, the final rejection reportedly coming from GM North America President Ron Zarrella. Cadillac watched other luxury makers come out with SUVs in quick succession from 1996-98 and only then hastily decided to “borrow” the GMC Yukon Denali to base their 1999 entry into the segment on. Mirror images have more differences than the Escalade and Denali had. While lacking any originality, the hurried design did save them from the indignity of being beaten by Lincoln in the 1999 sales race again as they had in 1998.
I probably spent a year and a half of looking for a first generation Escalade to be a subject car. In that time, I spotted one well-worn example parked, which I photographed, and two others on the road. I definitely didn’t have that problem with the second generation. Where I live in Texas (The Land Of The Escalades), I can hardly drive anywhere without seeing a second gen, so it was simply a matter of choosing. In keeping with my theme in this series, the featured vehicle is a white one, but I will show pictures of a few others in different colors.
GM launched the GMT800 redesign of their Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon twins for the 2000 model year, based on the pickup trucks released a year earlier, as a clean sheet design but conservatively styled. They looked kind of like if the old 1988-98 GMT400 trucks were a new bar of soap, the GMT800 was the bar after it had been used for a few showers. They were softer around the edges and more modern looking, but still unmistakably a Chevy/GMC. Oddly, GM began production after the start of the model year, so one line of Tahoes and the Yukon Denali were made off the old GMT400 through the rest of 2000 and sold alongside the new models. This also left the original Escalade to continue unchanged for all of 2000.
Cadillac took their time and weren’t ready to assault the SUV fortress again until early in the 2001 calendar year, so they skipped the 2001 model year and called it a 2002. For those waiting for the latest version of the biggest Caddy, it didn’t disappoint.
Where the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon were conservative in appearance, the Escalade was anything but. Frontal appearance is where Cadillac raised the highest ladders in their attack on the luxury SUV market. Where the Navigator looked like a Lincolnized Expedition, the Escalade from the front looked like its own thing entirely.
As they did with the 1999 model, Cadillac debuted the new Escalade at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2000, sitting alongside the Evoq showcar (later the XLR), showcasing their new “Art and Science” design language. All Cadillacs would eventually have this theme, starting with the CTS in 2003. For 2001/02, though, Escalade had it all to itself and it was very unique. The Art and Science theme used sharply creased edges, seen on the whole car in the Evoq and CTS. Where one could fault the Escalade is in grafting that front end theme onto the otherwise round-edged GM truck body, making for a bit of dissonance in the Escalade’s overall design. It would have been ideal for it to get its own sheetmetal for the doors and rear fenders, but I suppose there was a limit to how much GM wanted to spend to distinguish their flagship SUV.
As it was, though, it was still quite distinct from GM’s other SUVs, including from the Yukon Denali that had originally spawned it and to which it was nearly identical in their first generation.
Cadillac sought distinction in more than styling. The headline feature of the Escalade was that it was now the “most powerful SUV in the world*”. It boasted a 6.0L High Output Vortec V8 (LQ9, truck version of the LS engines) making 345hp and 380 lb-ft torque. That’s 90hp more than the old model as well as 20hp and 20lb-ft more than the 2001 Denali or any other 6.0L truck application at the time.
Unlike the first generation, the 2002 Escalade was available with two wheel drive but unfortunately that only came with a 285hp 5.3L Vortec (LM7), which was exactly the same as the optional engine in regular Tahoes and Yukons. In 2005, the 6.0L would be enhanced to make 365hp and become standard in all Escalades. The 2002’s fuel economy, if you can call it that, improved slightly according to the EPA to 13city/16hwy for the two wheel drive model, but went down to 11city/15hwy for the all wheel drive (and EXT and ESV, seen later).
*”2002 Escalade and EXT compared to 2001 model SUVs and SUTs based on GM segmentation” GMese taken from the brochure
The new Escalade also boasted some state-of-the-art electronic safety and handling features. Stabilitrak was GM’s electronic stability and traction control, used here in its first truck application. The suspension had a variable damping system with shocks capable of adjusting up to 1000 times per second, as well as auto-leveling under heavy loads. Naturally, it had anti-lock brakes as before, now applied through four wheel discs. The four-wheel-drive system was completely automatic, full-time 38%front/62%rear torque split with no low range (it’s not clear to me what it did automatically as no adjustability is ever described). An ultrasonic rear parking assist was standard (pretty whizbang in 2001) as well as side impact airbags.
Cadillac’s efforts to distinguish the Escalade continued inside. The bones were still obviously the same as other GM SUVs and trucks, but Cadillac put a fair amount of effort into their version. It had its own gauge package, upper dash pad and center console, and naturally featured its own colors, trim and better leather and carpet. A Bose Acoustimass® stereo was standard (see Eric703’s excellent CC Bose article).
The console had a trip computer, 6-disc CD changer and Bulgari analog clock. The wood trim is real, much darker color than the Denali’s, and looks pretty nice. It seems odd to me that Cadillac merely modified the universal GM truck steering wheel, rather than coming up with their own. The wheel style changed for 2004 along with other GM trucks.
Cadillac did not offer rear bucket seats like the Navigator until 2004, but the rear outboard seats in the standard split bench reclined and were heated and the center section had a drop down armrest/cupholder. No toilet either (see Navigator article for that reference). Also like the Navigator, Escalade had a third row for three (small) people. If you compare this photo to the rear seat photo in the Navigator article, the Escalade definitely looks like it has less leg room.
Rear passengers got their own HVAC and audio controls. Rear seat DVD player and headrest screens were an option, though I believe the ones here are aftermarket.
The Escalade went from being a model to being a lineup. In 2003, Cadillac borrowed the Suburban to make an extended wheelbase version called Escalade ESV. In this generation, ESV production would be roughly a third that of the regular Escalade, give or take, and in later generations it would make up a half or more.
Not only that, but starting in the 2002 model year, Cadillac borrowed the Chevy Avalanche to offer the first and only Caddy pickup truck as the Escalade EXT. This would be built through the Escalade’s third generation, but it sold much better during the second gen’s run. The first year’s sales of about 13k were the highest, with steady, incremental declines after that.
This refined and enhanced Escalade put Cadillac in the luxury SUV leadership position it wanted. The new model was stiff competition both functionally and stylistically for other SUVs in the segment, especially the Navigator. The standard “short” Escalade outsold the Navigator every year except 2003, when it was slightly beaten by the Navigator’s second generation debut. If you include the ESV (Suburban) and EXT(Avalanche), its 50k-62k totals handily beat the Navigator every year.
Cadillac was now a leader in other ways, too. The bold new Escalade’s outsized personality was a perfect fit, and became the vehicle of choice, for those who liked to, um… enhance their ride and make it a symbol for their lifestyle. This is the elephant in the room for many people who can’t stand Escalades: they may not have a big problem with the vehicle itself, but find the cultural phenomenon off putting.
More generally, the Escalade became the poster child for people who hate SUVs, the ultimate symbol of sport utility excess. I guess that’s the “cost of leadership”, as the 1915 ad said (which will be featured in my article running tomorrow). When it came out, I didn’t hate it. I respected it for being probably that season’s Most Improved Player and for being rather audacious. I was just always more of a Cadillac traditionalist and had no desire to own a Cadillac truck (not that I could have afforded it!). I remember the first thought I had when I saw the 02 model was that the Cadillac emblem front and rear was so BIG. Understatement was not in the Escalade’s playbook!
|1930||Sixteen||5310-6005lb||Depending on which of the 73(!) body styles cataloged.|
|1940||Sixteen||4830-5330lb||Depending on which of the (only) 11 body styles cataloged.|
|1996||Fleetwood||4461lb||last RWD, BOF Cadillac passenger car|
|2003||Escalade||5,407lb||Add aprox 250lb for all wheel drive. Factory curb weight, some magazine as-tested weights more.|
|2003||Escalade ESV||5,869lb||same as above|
Just how big was the Escalade? The ESV was shorter by a foot than the longest regular Caddy ever, the 74-76 Fleetwood. But how does it tip the scales? The chart above illustrates how even the road-hugging weight of some of the largest vintage Cadillacs compares to the tank-like mass of modern full size luxury SUVs.
Obviously, the Escalade was one portly gentleman! Though not the highest technology Cadillac, the Escalade essentially became the flagship of the division. Only the Seville STS had a higher base price in 2002. A vehicle based on a truck could hardly be considered a traditional Cadillac, but in some ways it actually continues a Cadillac tradition. When the Escalade came along, the Fleetwood and other gilded beast Caddys were long gone. As appealing and dynamically competitive as many modern models could be, they just didn’t have the magic, charisma, and indeed bulk, of yore. In a way, the brobdignagian Escalade was a godsend for the type of flamboyant folks who in the past would have bought Eldorado coupes and convertibles and Fleetwood Brougham sedans. A bragging-size, rear-wheel-drive, body-on-frame Cadillac ideal for cruising boulevards or turnpikes was something plenty of people were glad to be able to buy again.
Escalade was really a great name that Cadillac came up with for their SUV, and wisely kept even as all other model names became hard-to-remember alphanumeric designators. Dictionary.com defines it as “a scaling or mounting by means of ladders, especially in an assault upon a fortified place.” This is perfect for a Cadillac, which has been the choice vehicle for those who have climbed, or are attempting to climb, the social ladder to the fortified place of status. The military association is probably welcome for many Caddy owners, and even if many people don’t know what escalade means, the word just sounds big. Everybody knows what a Cadillac Escalade is, though, and there are few that don’t have an opinion, good or bad. That’s a priceless thing for an automaker.
All Escalades photographed in Houston, TX 2020-21.