When bling is your thing

by Jil Mcintosh . Oct 07 2016

When I went to pick up my Cadillac Escalade test vehicle, the person who handed over the keys joked and asked if I had my hat on backwards. There is something to that: Introduced for 1999, largely in response to the Lincoln Navigator that debuted the year before, the Escalade soon gained a following with rap stars and pro athletes.

That helped put a new shine on Cadillac, which was feeling the pinch from overseas competitors. It would follow up with Escalade extended-wheelbase and pickup truck versions, and by 2002 it pulled well ahead of the Navigator. It’s anybody’s guess as to why, given that both were roomy enough for oversized athletes, but I have a half-baked and completely unverified theory: it’s the three-syllable name. Drivin’ downtown in my Cad-i-llac rolls smoothly off the tongue, where Lincoln sticks, and so it became the vehicle of choice in rap songs. (This also definitively proves why Aubrey Graham is Drake, and I am not.)

Fast-forward to my 2016 tester. The Escalade is based on the GMC Yukon Denali and still comes in two wheelbase lengths. Both have three-row seating, although the pickup disappeared when the corresponding Chevrolet Avalanche was discontinued. The Escalade was completely redesigned for 2015 and so changes for this year are minor, consisting of a new lane-keeping assist feature and some new items in its infotainment suite, including Apple CarPlay.

I had the regular-wheelbase model, which starts at $84,145 and moves through the Luxury trim at $89,830, my Premium tester at $94,830 and the top-level Platinum at $103,745. All use a 6.2-litre V-8 engine and eight-speed automatic transmission. The four-wheel-drive system, standard on all Canadian-market models, offers RWD, 4High, 4Low and an Automatic four-wheel setting that can be used on hard surfaces.

For all its high-end features, the Escalade is still a truck, but that’s not a bad thing because it comes with capability. It offers up to 8,100 pounds (3,675 kilograms) of towing capacity — less than the Navigator’s maximium 8,600 lbs (3,900 kg) or the Infiniti QX80’s 8,500 lbs (3,855 kg), but more than other luxury SUVs, such as the Range Rover or Lexus LX.

But it also drives like a truck, and a big one at that, which might turn off those who expect it to be more like a sport ute, along the lines of a Mercedes-Benz GLS or BMW X5. As they say, it is what it is.

The interior lacks some of the finesse found in those German competitors and it feels like a truck gussied up with a lot of leather. But the first- and second-row seats are supportive and comfortable, and there’s a lot of room. That ends at the cramped third row, which features hard slabs for seat cushions. The two rows fold down electrically to produce a flat floor for extra cargo space. The rear hatch opens automatically if you kick your foot under the bumper and it contains a pop-up window.

GM’s truck engines are really well done, and the 6.2-L in the Escalade is a smooth and stout performer, cranking out 420 horses and 460 pound-feet of torque. It includes fuel-saving cylinder deactivation, which runs on half its cylinders when full power isn’t needed; the switch is seamless and you’ll likely only know if it’s on eight or four by checking the indicator in the dash.

All Escalade models include Magnetic Ride Control, which uses magnetic force on tiny metal particles inside the shock absorbers to instantly tighten or soften the suspension, depending on the road surface. It does a great job of smoothing out the ride over bumps and can be adjusted for Comfort or Sport settings.

Many of the Escalade’s features are accessed via a system called CUE, which stands for Cadillac User Experience. The best thing I can say is that it’s pretty. To get things done, you tap the tiny icons on the glass, which vibrates to let you know you’ve hit the right place. But sometimes, it takes too much time away from the road to look for what you want to do and requires too many taps to make it actually do it, especially when the glass is cold. This stuff really should be much simpler.

My tester contained several driver-assist systems, including blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, lane assist and automatic front or rear braking if you’re about to smack into something.

Some warnings are delivered through the driver’s seat, which vibrates harshly if you’re about to do something such as back into another car. Alert is the key word: It startled the hell out of me when I was waiting to back out of my driveway and it detected cross traffic, but I guess that’s the point.

The Escalade is pricey and unless bling is your thing, I’d suggest also looking at the GMC Yukon Denali, which includes such items as the Magnetic Ride Control, premium seats and much simpler controls for a starting sticker of $6,500 less than the base Escalade. It’s just as good a drive, plus you can wear your hat any way you like.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016