New York–based Cadillac might portray itself as cool, edgy, and urban these days, but it can’t live without a vehicle whose DNA is deeply encoded with heartland perceptions and values. A vehicle that, like the hapless Cimarron, started life as a cynical corruption of a brand that once proclaimed itself “The Standard of the World.” Yes, we’re talking about the Escalade.
The original Escalade was a GMC Yukon Denali—itself a fancy Chevy Tahoe—with wreath-and-crest badges and some wood ’n’ leather inside. It was GM’s panicked riposte to the Lincoln Navigator, the gussied-up Ford Expedition that helped topple Cadillac from its position as America’s No. 1 luxury brand for the first time in history. Today’s Escalade more deftly riffs on current Cadillac design cues, and the interior is laden with luxury car prerequisites. But no amount of window dressing can disguise the fact that it remains a truck in a tux, obviously related to quotidian Tahoes and Yukons.
That hasn’t stopped it from outselling all of Cadillac’s car lines in the U.S., and by a considerable margin at that. Combined Escalade and Escalade ESV sales through August this year made it the brand’s No. 2 model line—only behind the much less expensive XT5 crossover. As the priciest Cadillac you can buy, the Escalade is also hugely profitable. Most of the $24,000 to $40,000 price premium the Escalade commands over a fully loaded Tahoe is pure gravy. GM’s bean counters love this thing.
There’s no polite way to say this: An SUV that’s more truck than limousine is Cadillac’s flagship vehicle, its halo model. That sound you hear is Brooklyn marketing hipsters sobbing into their Aperol spritzes.
Over the past decade, Cadillac planners have looked several times at the idea of moving the Escalade off GM’s truck architecture. But the math has proven inescapable, so the next-gen Escalade will also share hardware and key components with forthcoming Tahoe and Yukon models.
Well-placed GM insiders insist Caddy’s flagship will benefit from the fundamental improvements in performance, refinement, and quality being baked in across GM’s next-gen pickup and full-size SUV architecture. The new Escalade will get independent rear suspension and air springs that will deliver significant improvements in ride quality and overall refinement.
Ditching the current model’s heavy, cumbersome live axle will also enable GM designers to lower the floor at the rear, allowing—at last—decent legroom for third-row passengers. GM’s 420-hp, 460-lb-ft 6.2-liter V-8 will remain the workhorse engine, but Cadillac will likely also offer a supercharged V-8 similar to that used in the CTS-V, tuned to deliver more than 600 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque. Both engines will drive through the new 10-speed automatic jointly developed by GM and Ford. (It’s still odd to hear that, I know.)
The next Escalade should be the best version ever, though it remains to be seen how thoroughly Cadillac will sweat the details. The current model’s clunky and clumsy analog column shifter, something straight out of a Silverado pickup, is one obvious gargoyle that needs slaying. Escalade drivers ought to be able to shift between park, reverse, and drive with their fingertips instead of having to arm wrestle a relic from the 1960s.
Regardless, the next Escalade will be a stopgap. No matter how well dressed or how well engineered, a body-on-frame truck simply cannot deliver the performance, ride, handling, quietness, interior room, and energy efficiency customers outside North America will demand if they are seeking a legitimate alternative to a full-size Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz GLS.
In the meantime, Cadillac is racing to determine exactly what sort of vehicle can finally redefine one of America’s great luxury brands in the 21st century. This much is clear: With the market for large sedans collapsing, it will be a unibody crossover of some kind. Tougher emissions rules mean it will likely be available with a high-performance hybrid powertrain or even be fully electric drive from the get-go. To make it happen, though, Cadillac needs its truck in a tux to keep the cash registers ringing well into the 2020s.
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