It was rather like walking up to a frisky horse (they always KNOW a tenderfoot when they see one). "Easy, big fella, we're going to have fun together, and then I'm going to get you some really nice oats." In this case it was, "I'm going to get you
the highest-octane fuel I can find." The Cadillac Escalade nominally stands just an inch higher than I do (74.2 inches), but with its roof rack and twin protuberant antennas on the front part of the roof, it was effectively about 6-6. With its shiny
black paint and deep-tinted windows, it looked like some battle wagon the Secret Service would tool around in - or a ride for a mid-level contraband pharmaceuticals distributor. Subtle, it's not. But what Cadillac ever was? Hasn't the point always
been (carefully inculcated through decades of advertising), "I have a Cadillac, and you don't, you poor slob." Lest anyone miss the message, a grille-mounted Caddy crest is echoed by one of near-pie pan size mounted, like a diamond solitaire, on the rear
hatch. The tester even had chromed wheels to dazzle the plebeians. The new Escalade was introduced last year as a 2002, parting ways with the GMC-truck-based predecessor. It is still more truck than car, with a ladder-frame unitized structure,
although an independent front suspension and some tricky chassis engineering have imbued it with the kind of ride the high rollers expect from a truck. For 2003, it picks up important enhancements: power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals;
dual-level and passenger-sensing air bag system; high-intensity-discharge headlamps; a satellite radio system; optional second-row bucket seats, a restyled instrument panel, enhanced audio system and numerous small improvements. (For those who need to
make an even stronger statement than this 199-inch garage stuffer makes, there's an extended version due out before year's end, based on the Escalade EXT (the rich man's version of the mutating Chevy Avalanche sedan/pickup), that will take up 221 inches
of parking spot). The 116-inch-wheelbase standard Escalade should do for most folks. With naught aboard save a half-tank of fuel, it goes 5,809 pounds in base form, which of course is anything but shabby. Equipped with the standard bench-type
second seat, it nominally will carry eight people. Mini Me wouldn't have too much problem with that fantasy, but most of us would. Go for the second-row buckets and fold or remove the third row, and you have first-class accommodations for four adults,
plus 63 cubic feet of their stuff, about four large-auto trunks' worth. If you prefer to travel as a twosome, lose the third row, drop the second row seats and see how long it takes you to fill 108 c.f. GM's thought is that many buyers will be
interested in using Escalade as a prime mover for a boat or horse trailer. It's rated at 7,300 pounds of drayage with the rear-drive setup, or 7,800 with all-wheel drive. If that doesn't s
uffice, better go check some dualies at the GMC store or look for "hauling services" in the Yellow Pages. There's a $3,400 difference between the 2WD and 4WD versions of Escalade, but the AWD version gets an upsized engine, too, a fire-breathing
6-liter. It may be "old tech," with its iron block and overhead-valve construction, but you can't beat cubes for torque - here, 380 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm, and a bunch below that. Less relevant but more advertisable is the horsepower figure: 345 at
5,200 rpm. Burdened only with me, this baby scoots - 0-60 in 8.4 seconds would be good for a sedan. In a leviathan like this, it's impressive. To realize those numbers, you'll need to buy premium fuel, although GM says it will be content with regular.
It would be worth trying 87-octane for non-stressful activities. EPA estimates are 12 mpg city, 16 highway. You'd be crazy to take this machine very far off-road, so I confined my four-wheeling to a muddy lot. Mostly, though,
cruised highway and byway, and somehow wound up with a mileage figure of 17.2 (using premium). Perhaps it's because in such running the throttle doesn't need much cracking. The tester, like all Escalades, had traction control, a road-sensing
suspension and StabiliTrak. This lattermost is the increasingly-familiar electronic overseer which works to keep a driver's excessive cornering demands in check by selectively applying a brake or brakes and/or cutting power if desire exceeds ability.
It can be turned off, but this is no sports car, and I found it not at all obtrusive, but then, I had taken my meds that day and didn't try to powerslide and hang the rear end out. I did, however, seek out the same stretch of road on which the
previous-generation Escalade had given me a major dose of religion. This one did far better, although it was still slave to the laws of inertia. That adjustable suspension (effected with variable shock valving) made for a very comfortable ride, even over
moderately disgraceful pavement. The real test came when the heavens opened and gave us a serious deluge. Adventuring on capricious Hoosier roads, I felt the only limitation was how well I could see the road ahead. The Escalade was rock-solid upon its
265/70/17 all-season Goodyear's. In this weight range, 18s or even 19s would not be out of place, but they're not offered yet. The Escalade would spoil most anybody's day in a crash, and that surprisingly might include its own driver. The National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration crashed a 2002 into a fixed barrier at 30 mph. The supposititious co-pilot made out pretty well, with a four-star protection rating on the feds' 5-star scale. The driver, however, only had 3-star protection and there
was even a special note that there was a high probability of a thigh injury. Side-impact tests were not performed, and the calculated rollover resistance was average for SUVs, three stars. Unfortunately, the Insurance Institute has not tested any large
SUVs. It would be interesting to see how the dreadnoughts handle a 40-mph frontal offset test, and how their bumpers fare. This year the big guy gets four-wheel disc brakes with antilock and they were of suitable size, rendering surprisingly short
stopping distances along with good pedal feel. The Escalade's running board step-up was deadly in the wet - slippery despite its textured look. A passenger noted that the assist grip was misplaced, on the A pillar instead of farther back and higher.
This was my first experience with the new satellite radio and it was impressive, if you like that sort of thing. A hundred channels are beamed down to anywhere in the 48, and you can even dial in a musical preference. Sound quality, through the
awesome upgraded Bose system, was excellent - clear as a CD, but of course vanishing in tunnels. That radio receiver is an extra, but GM's OnStar satellite-directed system is standard.
Also included, commendably, is a rear sonar system which alerts the driver via a chime and interior lights when she is getting close to a barrier OR when someone is behind the vehicle. A little someone would be impossible to see, given the size of the
rear window and its distance from the driver's eye. GM offers the Escalade as an alternative to the Lincoln Navigator, Lexus LX 470 and Mercedes-Benz M-class machines. They are different enough that a potential buyer would be well-advised to check the
specs and spend some pleasant seat time comparing them. Escalade certainly is a contender, very nicely finished and the most potent of the bunch. Base price on the big E is $53,205. Tester had rear-seat DVD and wireless headphones for $1,295; chromed
wheels, $795; XM satellite radio, $325, and trailer package, $169. Heated bucket seats were provided at no charge for second class in place of a bench. Total price, with freight, was $56,559. Edmunds.com says on average,
buyers are wangling about $3,500 discounts. At manufacturer's suggested, payments on the tester would be $1,147 a month, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 coupons.