Versus the competiton:
Hybrids have gone from one extreme to the other here in the U.S. Honda introduced hybrid motoring with the 2000 Insight, a 1,847-pound two-seater whose gauntlet of features included door handles and a horn. Today we examine a 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, a vehicle that weighs more than 6,000 pounds and has eight seats, four-wheel drive, 22-inch chrome wheels, Magnetic Ride Control, GPS navigation, a backup camera, a video entertainment system, 14-way-adjustable heated and cooled power leather seats, and power actuation for the pedals, side mirrors, liftgate and running boards. The Insight wasn’t quite enough car. Is the Escalade Hybrid too much?
Though it had its fans, the Insight wasn’t a mass-market product. The Escalade is a massive product looking for a market — something that’s now elusive given volatile fuel prices and a troubled economy. So which of these two extremes makes more sense? To my own surprise, I’m thinking it might be the Escalade.
The Escalade Hybrid is an incredible hulk — a big, green beast. If it seems perverse to call a full-size SUV green at all, you have to consider that there are Americans who will buy such a model. Whether they truly need or just want it is immaterial. They will buy. If this is the case, isn’t it better that they get an EPA-estimated 20/21 mpg city/highway rather than the 12/19 mpg that comes with the non-hybrid — with the added bonus that it costs more and stimulates the economy a bit?
The rear-wheel-drive Escalade Hybrid lists for $71,915, and the base non-hybrid goes for $60,985. The Cars.com Smart Target Price suggests that the actual sales price would be slightly above sticker for the hybrid, but you can also subtract a $2,200 federal tax credit, which puts it below $70,000, theoretically. Then there’s the fact that the Hybrid falls between the base Escalade and the $80,115 Platinum Edition in terms of equipment. Among the high-value features it shares with the more expensive non-hybrid are an adaptive suspension and a blind-spot monitor. See the hybrid and non-hybrids compared side-by-side.
What the Hybrid gives up is second-row captain’s chairs, but it instead gets an eighth seat. If you compare the specifications, the Hybrid’s four-speed transmission seems like a loser to the gas-only model’s six-speed, but the Hybrid’s transmission is the heart of the 2-Mode Hybrid system, which is shared with the full-size Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and Silverado pickup, among other present and future models from both GM and unrelated brands that partnered in the development. Two motor/generators in the transmission aid in acceleration, recharge the battery when coasting and braking, and effectively broaden its gear ratios beyond the four speeds you see in the specs.
Compared to most early and smaller hybrids, the Escalade sacrifices very little. Its total power is 369 horsepower and 380 pounds-feet of torque, compared to the regular model’s 403 hp and 417 pounds-feet, and its payload is down only 241 pounds, to 1,369 pounds. Towing capacity is 5,800 pounds versus 7,900 pounds, which represents the majority of trailers. The first GM 2-Mode hybrid was the Tahoe, which had many additional provisions to improve its efficiency, such as a lightweight aluminum hood and liftgate, and lighter seats, wheels and suspension components. For all the added manufacturing expense these items represent, the Tahoe Hybrid boasts only 1 mpg better fuel economy than the Escalade Hybrid: 21/22 mpg.
With the exception of the drivetrain, the Escalade Hybrid is pretty much the same as the non-hybrid. If the EPA estimate is correct, 20/21 mpg is quite good when you consider the Escalade’s added features, including heavy items like the powered liftgate — a Tahoe option that’s prohibited on the hybrid version — and optional power-retracting running boards. The Caddy doesn’t offer the power-folding second-row seat option, but it’s practically worthless, in my opinion, because all it does is pull the lever for you, and it only folds; it doesn’t raise the seats.
The regular Escalade is detailed in an earlier review, so I’ll focus on the hybrid differences: There aren’t many. Because it has a more conventional transmission, it has the familiar shift feel many other “full” hybrids lack, and its braking feels natural. Though it has less power than the regular Escalade, it’s certainly not lacking for oomph. Occasionally you hear a little whirring, but it’s nowhere near as intrusive as the same sound is on the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen hybrids that use the same system. (I should say used. After less than three months on the market, both SUVs are being discontinued, and the hybrids along with them.) What whir you do hear seems a fair tradeoff for the fact that the Caddy accelerates almost silently in electric-only mode if you accelerate lightly up to 25 or 30 mph. This hybrid does a better job than some at staying on electric power alone. Others fire up the gas engine if you want to accelerate at more than a slow creep.
Much more annoying than the electric-motor whir is the whoosh and swirl of the standard GPS navigation system’s DVD drive, something I noticed in the regular Escalade as well. It’s rather noisy when it accesses the map disc, which is especially noticeable when you first start the car and it’s booting up. For that matter, all of the regular model’s shortcomings carry over to this one. Most notably, the third-row seats are sort of low to the ground and best suited for smaller people, at least for long drives. Also, this row folds flat but not into the floor. You can tumble it forward 90 degrees and you can remove it entirely, but the ease and versatility of the Lincoln Navigator’s third row is light years ahead, and its passenger space, likewise, is unmatched.
If you don’t see the need for a luxury hybrid, you might be missing a major point of luxury vehicles: status. Nowadays hybrids are status symbols in their own right. Combine the two, and you have something even more exclusive. Automakers recognize that the Prius has succeeded, in part, through recognition. Everyone knows it’s a hybrid, where the dozen or so other hybrids on the market are versions of gas-only models. This might explain the hybrid badges and decals — some of them large and conspicuous — on the Escalade. If you don’t like the decals, they can be removed pretty easily.
In practice, this full hybrid system characteristically has only a small advantage in highway driving (2 mpg) — not enough to make it worthwhile. But the difference in city driving is dramatic, more than 60 percent, so one could argue that the hybrid addresses the use for which detractors get the most peeved: driving around town shopping. Full-size SUVs have always seemed more justifiable for road trips or towing. Adjusted for the tax credit, the hybrid adds roughly 13 percent to the Escalade’s cost. On a cost-benefit basis, this is more impressive than most hybrids sold today.
Back to the original Honda Insight, which delivered 49/61 mpg using today’s EPA calculation. Direct comparisons are difficult, because there was no non-hybrid Insight. The closest (apart from the S2000 sport roadster) was the Civic, which came in an efficient non-hybrid version called the HX. The Insight was 63 percent more efficient in the city and 56 percent more efficient on the highway, but here’s the rub: The Insight cost 39 percent more, at $18,800. Further, it sacrificed its backseat and had nowhere near the cargo space.
Is this a fair comparison? Heck no. But it does illustrate the difference between two extremes. Replacing the Insight with the Toyota Prius would change the story, but the more affordable Tahoe Hybrid would fare better in that comparison than the Escalade would. Certainly, if money burned and carbon released are your main issues, literally hundreds of other vehicles will give you better mileage than the Escalade Hybrid. But if you accept the notion that certain people will buy certain vehicle types, a small-car buyer can get an efficient non-hybrid pretty cheap. If you’re looking for an efficient non-hybrid full-size SUV, you’re just not going to find one.