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.
“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.”
This is why my next (modern) Cadillac will be an Escalade. The XTS we just bought is nice (CC article soon) but not as roomy as I would like…and why my wife uses the Suburban as her daily driver still.
Without the Escalade and the profit in generated, would GM have continued to invest in development of other new Cadillacs, or would they have dressed up Chevys, Cimarron-style?
This design has really grown on me. The GMT900s would go a little too far with the fake fender vents and chromed lower mirrors.
It looked ugly and cheap at debut, and the fogging headlights and loosening plastic molding of age have only made that worse. That’s a nasty cynical dashboard for a “luxury” vehicle. I respect the Denali, but this is garish and sad.
Best review I’ve ever read of this vehicle:
I just read it, that article is hilarious!
This was the vehicle where Cadillac really settled into this market. The Navigator found the market but the Escalade came to define it.
As for why Cadillac never entered the SUV game sooner – I have become convinced that auto execs (anyone, actually) who can truly get a sense of the trends that are coming are rare people. Nobody like that was making decisions for GM at the time.
You might think that innovative thinkers would tend to rise to the top in the competitive business world. But corporate culture is a funny thing and GM is well documented to have had a culture that advanced executives that excelled at thinking like other GM executives, with a few notable exceptions like Delorean (whose innovative thinking brought him success but also caused him to butt a lot of heads and eventually have to leave).
To no one’s surprise (I suspect), I don’t want one, but if you do, enjoy.
But that limited rear legroom in a vehicle this size is surprising. As in “shocking”.
Looking at the Cadillac website, I will admit the current car’s interior looks good though.
As one who grew up in a household where Dad would by a new Cadillac every two to three years beginning with his first, a ’68 Coupe de Ville, Cadillac’s current line-up leaves me cold. I don’t want to drive around in an urban assault vehicle. The 1963 Fleetwood Sixty Special pictured has that commanding presence, yet gently screams “Cadillac.” I am admittedly aging, but I still remember the thrill of Dad bringing home that first Cadillac. Unfortunately, the more I cringe when I think back at my touting my Dad’s relative business success in friend’s faces. What an insufferable boor!
The recent alpha-numeric mish-mash of Cadillac sedans and CUVs leave me stone cold. Their have been some past glimmers of hope in Cadillac’s concept vehicles; the 2003 Sixteen and the Elmiraj gave me hope that maybe they could bring back the old magic, but naturally, they never went into production.
The CT6-V with the Black Wing V8 held appeal, but hardly any were built before it was ash-canned. The CT6 in the other variants are missing the Cadillac V8 and the ephemeral quality that once defined Cadillac.
I’m glad that the Escalade has been there to keep the brand afloat, but an Escalade is still a GM truck with a GM truck engine built in a GM plant operated by GM – to paraphrase the statement that appeared on its autos in the aftermath of the 1970’s engine swap debacle. Then again the events swirling around us all remind me that the Cadillacs and other cars that were popular when I was young will probably never come back.
I think this article pinpoints why these Escalades have always grated on me so much.
I’ve never been too fond of the sharply-creased Art & Science theme, but over time I’ve warmed up to some of the designs a bit (like the CTS). But you identified the dissonance here with the Escalade, where the creased and edgy front meets abruptly with the conservative rear 75% if the car. I find it just forced, and annoying. And it hasn’t grown on me in the years since it was introduced.
To me, the example here with the “Art and Science deer guard” is the best-looking one of the bunch, since it hides that front clip.
Oh, and thanks for the callout on the Bose article too!
The deer guard is ridiculous in its own way, but it does do a good job of covering the grille doesnt it!
You’re welcome on the Bose article. I really liked that one because I had never realized how much those stereos advanced high quality audio in cars.
This generation still looks terrible and terribly grafted on with the obvious Tahoe/Suburban base under it all, like the first one but even more so. The next one is still obviously based on those but somehow looks more cohesive, i.e. not just extra bits attached to the basic thing, but more like different versions created at the same time with the aim of some basic but integrated-looking differentiation.
I suppose the aim is to separate people from their money and it does that quite well. From what I understand, the owner base’s socioeconomic demographics of this and the GMC Yukon Denali are like what has occurred with the Toyota Land Cruiser vs Lexus LX, in that the “lesser” one is chosen more often by those with the higher income/net worth.
In regard to the Sixty Special, I never before noticed how poorly integrated that fender skirt looks. Overall it reminds me of those actual skirts made of leather rectangles sewed together that were popular for a while there a long time ago now. It worked better on the mini-skirts though, on the car the way the skirt cuts into the door is just not good.
The Escalade front end grafted onto a more round-lined vehicle reminds me…
Holy Moly what is that thing?!
Seeing this generation Escalade instantly brought to surface a phrase I haven’t heard or at least tuned out since 2006: “Bling Bling Yo!”
It’s funny how some designs I’ll inherently dislike from the beginning, such as Escalades, and years and years later observe something that reenforces it that I never even noticed before. In this case it’s the coke bottle beltline of the GMT800 – if you asked me to draw a 2002 Escalade from memory it would be flat like on most other art & science era Cadillacs, it’s quite an odd disconnect really, and ironically if you asked me what the most “pure” design of Escalade is(meaning the one that pops in mind) it’s these second generations with these big square headlights, not the followup generations that were more squared off in body and more forgettable faces. The other thing unique to the second gen are the taillights with that odd skeg at the bottom, it’s almost interesting if it weren’t flanked by obvious plastic cladding in order for it to flow with the body.
Lincoln really fumbled with the Navigator in the wake of these, Luxo pickup based SUVs aren’t remotely my thing but I kind of liked the first gen Navagator for the reasons I “should” like the second gen Escalades, but there seemed to be less kitsch in them(the Lincoln emblem wasn’t that big) and their Expedition roots weren’t hidden under obvious cladding, there seemed to be cleverer ways to distract from it like the the distinctly shaped front end, which, come to think of it, reminded me of the nose of the 94-01 Dodge Ram. By 2003, with the new F series body, the Navigators nose got squared off and it looked more like a tarted up Expedition than ever, and never regained relevance. Mercifully though, at least Lincoln was spared being the poster car for the dearth of mid 2000s era pop culture the Escalade enjoyed, where everyone needed to “throw some D’s on that bitch.” These things were the return of the superfly pimpmobile, taken to a new level of absurdity with spinners.
I know what you mean, no vehicle had probably been the recipient of more Bling than 2nd gen Escalades.
When I think of Escalade, probably the 4th gen pops in my mind first because they are extremely popular in my area and I personally find them the best looking generation. The new 21’s are my least, at least so far. Haven’t grown on me at all, though they are the most differentiated yet from the other GM suvs.
You and I have the same feelings Matt. That’s why I could never warm up to the Escalades at all, they were the symbol of all of the ostentatious, cringe-inducing, Glam-Rap and MTV inspired trappings of mid-2000s conspicuous consumption that are just painful to look back on. I may have been pretty young when that was going on, but even then I wasn’t exactly enamored with that subset of popular culture in the slightest, and looking back at the pre-housing market crash trends that seemed to be everywhere from 2003-2007 or so, they’ve aged like cottage cheese in death valley.
Of course, I also had my issues years later when I did drive these vehicles (Same cheap feeling and looking Early 2000s GM interiors, lack of any meaningful differentiation from their platform stablemates other than badge), but it was just pouring gasoline on a napalm strike as far as I was concerned.
Ironically enough, that’s also why I came to really like the second-generation Navigator. Because it wasn’t in the public eye fitted with Dubs, spinners, and bass-boosted sound systems, I could better look at the car on it’s own merits. It may not have been as distinctive in appearance, but that meant the design aged better to me because it came off as more subtle. It’s not a perfect car, but it’s grown on me in a way these two could never achieve. (Plus, a second gen Navigator was the last vehicle my Grandpa had, so it has more sentimentality that is a factor)
I dont think much of them to much cheap bling on a tall station wagon , someone nearby doesnt share my opinion and has a yard full of Escalades I counted 9 then realised there were more around the back which models they are Ive no idea
Escalade hoarder, that’s a new one!