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Twenty Years of Cadillac Escalade: A Vision of the Future, with Lessons, a Nod Toward the Past

It was around this time twenty years ago that the now legendary Cadillac Escalade started hauling the ruling class and celebritydom on the streets of the big American cities as if they were elegant stage coaches of the Victorian or Edwardian Eras over 100 years ago. So after reading a story about the disastrous 2009 hybrid I decided to do a flashback ode to the iconic 20th century truck that lives on today.
Posted: November 27, 2018 - 1:00AM
Author: Al Castro

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This is an ongoing series of Torque News reports taking a closer look at the Cadillac brand, as Cadillac makes major transformations based on the recent GM plans to focus on EVs and autonomy, cancellation of variants, anniversary of production of this model, and an analysis of what Cadillac needs to do to get back on top. Cadillac is radically but slowly changing and improving, and Torque News is evaluating those changes.

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Cadillac Escalade, and with that we remember the good and bad that came with her. Starting as a response to the SUV craze that began in the 1980’s and took off in the 1990’s with Jeep and Land Rover to roll on into the Japanese truck market with Isuzu and Mitsubishi, the craze took off and went upmarket to start getting within Range Rover reach as Lincoln introduced their Navigator in 1998:

  • The Cadillac Escalade is the “Official Car of the Ruling Class.” With late model ownership comes status, especially when chauffeured.
  • Cadillac Escalade is Cadillac’s longest running production vehicle.
  • It is their last surviving and only model left from the 20th century still in production.
  • She is the first truck to become a Cadillac.
  • She is the first passenger wagon branded Cadillac. There was a time back in the day a Cadillac station wagon can only be conceived as being a hearse or EMT bus, anything else was laughable. Then came Escalade then Sportwagon.
  • She is the largest Cadillac of the range and the last Cadillac made on a body on ladder frame like Caddys were made, back in the day. She represents “old school” big Caddy.
  • She’s a guzzler but still a hotcake seller which is why she’s still here.
  • There were some setbacks over the years, CUE infotainment and the 2009 hybrid were some of them.
  • Escalade ownership has advantages and disadvantages.
  • 2020 comes a new generation with a floor shifter, spruced up interiors, “jazzy” styling but still “arts and science” design language.
  • If Caddy takes on Rolls Royce with an all electric saloon next decade, expect Escalade to go upmarket too, like a LWB variant with back seat room like Range Rover Autobiography, the “Rolls Rover.”
  • We’re not done with Escalade. She’s a metal wholly mammoth of the Ice Age, but she’ll survive the next decade even with Climate Change if we keep buying her.

The Race was On: The Birth of the Competitive Luxury SUV Segment

Although some may say Range Rover in the 70’s and Jeep’s Grand Wagoneer even earlier from the 60’s up to the early 90’s started the segment of upper end SUV’s, the segment didn’t get competitive until Lincoln and Cadillac began their SUV arms race. Not to be outdone by Lincoln, Escalade was developed in a quick turnaround of 10 months time from the Chevy/GMC Suburban/Yukon/Tahoe/Denali to be a ‘99 model exclusively for Cadillac dealers, Cadillac’s first entry into the SUV market.

This was one of those rare cases where “rebadged engineering,” of taking essentially the same vehicle for different brands, and switching grilles, trims, lights, panels and hubcaps, was actually successful, especially after 2001 when they skipped a year of production for the second generation which debuted with the “arts and science” design language in 2002. Escalade has been outselling Navigator ever since. She continues to be a hot seller even today.

What is it About Escalade?

What I call “the official car of the ruling class,” when you think of it, the Cadillac Escalade, is the first full production Cadillac branded passenger wagon available for retail, save for the Cadillac Commercial Chassis used to make hearses and ambulances back in the day.

There was a time in the late 20th that the idea of a Cadillac station wagon was a laughable prospect, if you wanted a Caddy station wagon you had to have it custom made from a Fleetwood or Sedan deVille variant, and you had to get a Funeral Coaching outfitter, like Superior, to do so, as they had the tools and materials to convert a sedan to a wagon. This is what Elvis did. Not only did Elvis the King had his Caddys custom coached into station wagons, he used them for separate wardrobe hauling for airport transfers to and from Graceland for his multiple wardrobe changes during his Vegas performances . His 1972 Sedan deVille wagon (pictured above) sold in 2015 for $1.5 million USD. Ironically had he lived this long, these duties probably would’ve been assigned to Escalde. In 2004 the smaller SRX came, and 2010 the first and only “station wagon,” the CTS Sport Wagon (both pictured above).

She is the first truck to become a Cadillac, the last Cadillac vehicle made on a body on chassis ladder frame, and the first Caddy SUV. She is the only and last Cadillac still in production from the last century, so she brings history and heritage with her as the last big 20th century Caddy.

Although she is Cadillac’s largest and one of their most successful vehicles to become a kind of halo car on her own, she isn’t a sedan, so she doesn’t have the coveted flagship status. We all really know she does anyway: “She don’t need no stinking flagship!” But her size makes her fit prominently at the top of the line as any Cadillac model range family picture clearly shows.

She is the only Cadillac model that has a proper name, they tried coding her, but as the last model to survive the 20th century, it was too late to give her an EX or ES or XT#, so buyers and dealers weren’t having it when Cadillac tried. That’s like coding to discern Sedan deVille from Fleetwood: Fleetwood is Fleetwood, you don’t code an iconic car like Fleetwood; Escalade is Escalade as the name now has cachet and status like Fleetwood once did, and still does. Thank God the iconic Cadillac Sixteen Phaeton isn’t still around in production, I can only imagine the blowback if they tried to code the Sixteen as CT16 or a SUV variant XT16 after the iconic saloon created by Harley Earl 90 years ago. Many a heart attack!

With her status, however, comes virtues and issues that follow her wherever she goes.

“Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown:” Setbacks and Controversy

The controversial: for example, the Escalade is the most stolen vehicle in America, and one of the top vehicles that loses most resale value in depreciation, so owning and insuring her comes with a heftier price. This is another Cadillac model that if you decide to purchase her the most inexpensive way to keep her is for the long haul of many years. Better off getting her late model used CPO!

There were some minor hits and misses with features she came with as the years went by, early CUE infotainment one of them, that detracted from the brand. The 2009 mild Hybrid, was one of those misses, the first full size SUV to be hybridized, the first time an Escalade got over EPA 20 mpg in either EPA category with a 50% increase in fuel efficiency, but all the problems that came with the hybrid system as the hybrid variant got older, didn’t make it one of those better memories.

2020 Arts and Science: A Fusion of Design and Technology Looking Ahead:

Escalade gets a new generation model in 2020, and it will be based on the new Silverado/Sierra pickup platform. A dealer owner described the new truck displayed at a dealers meeting as “jazzy.” Expect changes in Escalade to be evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, as Cadillac is no fool on its return journey to greatness, to go back to its roots to stick to what it knows. That includes continuing the design language of “art and science,” and using that 6.2-liter V8 engine with 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque with active fuel management the truck is famous for “the most powerful SUV on the planet!,” and will be the only power plant offered on the new model. The new truck for the very first time will have a console shifter instead of the traditional one on the steering column.

The Rivian Factor and Going Upmarket

With Rivian’s introduction of the first all electric pickup and large SUV in the world recently, this is a game changer for the segment, and with GM’s all electrification plans, expect Escalade to compete with Lincoln and Rivian.

So with Rivian’s debut, this almost seals Escalade’s longevity, to expect her to eventually become electrified as a truck. Expect Escalade to be around for quite awhile. Another reason: if Cadillac is looking to make an exclusive and expensive saloon to go upmarket, don’t be surprised if they take Escalade along with that ride. Escalade has cachet, and Caddy will need that if she competes against nameplates like Bentayga and Cullinan.

Help is on the way: Full Size XT6 for CUV Backup as Two Full-Sized Segments Emerge

The full size utility segment has mutated into two separate full size groups, each with at least two sub-segments.

There’s the full sized trucks like Range Rover, Escalade/Yukon/Denali, Navigator/Expedition, Cullinan, Bentayga, maybe Durango and GLS550, now definitely Rivian. They’re designed for rugged terrain, and raw power for ascent/descent and speed for interstate autobahn duty and for tow capability. This segment has shrunken with three sub segments, ultra bespoke exotic, regular luxury, and mainstream so competition will intensify among participants. These vehicles may be similar to their CUV sister’s, but they’re built like trucks, are trucks, some on ladder frames, all may eventually have battery tray platforms, but are designed for rugged all terrain and will remain large in size. Tow capability is mandatory for this segment whether mainstream, bespoke, or regular luxury. Anything less than a 300 mile range if electrified will be considered unacceptable, not having the fastest charging times too if luxury or bespoke.

Then there’s the large CUVs like Tesla X, Caddy XT6, Audi e-Tron, maybe Lincoln Aviator as a three-row. This segment too has two sub segments, luxury and mainstream. This segment is new and intensifying in competition. I expect all of these full size CUVs to eventually have three rows as mandatory, and all wheel drive, not necessarily 4WD capability, as this will be left to their truck sisters to have. For electrified lower CUV variants, a new battery range trend of only 230 miles for the base trim and 300+ miles for an upper trim is emerging. This is controversial, but most likely as competition and technology improves, ranges will also. And because at present some of these vehicles have paltry ranges, some of them will not be towed rated, at least for now. Jaguar i-Pace is an example: 512 lb ft of torque but because of a paltry battery pack, no tow rating.

In the meantime XT6 is coming, and this is the kind of segment, issues, and market that will be waiting for her. XT6 will be Escalade’s three-row full size sister in CUV format. XT6 will help Escalde and visa versa for the things that each other has in lacking. If Escalade survives GM’s electrification program, and I think she will because the sole reason is she’s a truck, expect her at some point to also become a BEV. That’s when once again, as she was when she debuted, the Cadillac Escalade will become revolutionary, once again. The Cadillac Escalade is a truck that Antoine Laurent de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac would be proud of if he was still with us, probably driving himself or riding in one chauffeured today! Her journey with us is not over, stay tuned!

Photos: All photos of Escalade and CTS Wagon are from GM or Cadillac Media. The 1959 Cadillac Hearse and 2010 SRX are from Wikimedia. The 1972 Cadillac Sedan deVille Station Wagon, coached by probably Superior Coaching Corp., the Elvis wagon, appears from eBay.

How do you feel about Escalade? Is her time past or is she the wave of the future? Let us know below!

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DeanMcManis (not verified)    November 28, 2018 - 10:21AM

It is amazing that the Escalade missed the gas guzzler purge that killed off the Humvee marque, but it definitely is a favorite of GM bean counters because the Escalade easily makes more profit than any other vehicle in Cadillac's line up. It makes sense that they were recently offering up to $10,000 in discounts and rebates for the Escalade to keep current owners from moving over to the redesigned Lincoln Navigator. I doubt that the Rivian was ever a consideration of GM Execs before, but with the latest R1T/R1S announcement it could have a critical influence in Cadillac releasing a BEV version of the Escalade in 2021. Along of course with the new announcements from Jaguar, Range Rover, Mercedes and others of their luxury BEV SUVs coming soon. I just hope that Cadillac formally makes the announcement of their upcoming BEV Escalade this year before it's European rivals steal the market.

Al Castro    December 22, 2018 - 12:07PM

I say a bit later for an electric Escalade. And once here, it’ll be a bit smaller, sleeker, and fit right in somewhere to compete better with Rivian and Range Rover. Watch. It’ll be an interesting time!