It only took 96 years, but Cadillac finally got into the trucking business.

Of course, it's a pretty fancy truck, with an equally fancy name of Escalade to soothe the sensitivities of the country club set.

Actually, the new 1999 Cadillac Escalade is a luxury sport/utility vehicle, with a luxury $45,875 sticker. But it still is the first truck based vehicle in Cadillac's illustrious 96 year history.

This was necessary to get the sport ute to market in the shortest possible time. The Escalade is based on GMC truck architecture, but it's as far removed from a Jimmy relative to luxury features as you can get.

Inside the Escalade is pure Cadillac.

The seats are tuned specifically to the sport ute's ride characteristics. They are covered with soft Nuance(cq) leather with perforated inserts for enhanced comfort.

Any vehicle bearing the name Cadillac is expected to have woods and leathers in abundance, and the Escalade covers this role with Zebrano wood accents on the doors and a wood and leather steering wheel.

Everything is standard, the full power accessories, new integrated OnStar system, Bose Acoustimass music system, front and rear independent audio controls, AutoTrac four-wheel drive system, and on and on and on.

One thing about the Escalade sport/utility is that it may be a Cadillac but overall it still looks like a sport/utility. However, by anybody's standards, it's a pretty slick one.

The functional shape of a full sized sport/utility is clean and uncluttered. The Cadillac wreath and crest is positioned in the center of the grille. The grille is surrounded by a chrome bezel that is one of the few bright accents on the vehicle.

Dual halogen headlamps feature jewel-like reflector optics that are covered with tough polycarbonate lenses that resist stone chips. Projector-beam fog lamps and recessed tow hooks round off the styling of the front end.

The Escalade's designers had the good sense to put full length running boards on the vehicle for ease of entrance and exit. And cargo carrying capabilities are enhanced by a standard roof rack.

At the rear, a split tailgate features a wiper and window defogger. A body-colored step bumper makes cargo handling easy. And an integrated trailer hitch provides over three tons (6,500 pounds) of towing capacity.

Couple this with 16-inch aluminum wheels and all- season tires designed for rain, snow, or mud while still delivering a quiet highway ride, and you have a 4X4 that is at home off-road as it is at the club.

The Escalade is a five seater built on a 117.5 inches of wheelbase. Overall length is 201.2 inches, a convenient length that offers 118.2 cubic feet of cargo space when the rear seats are folded. Either side of the 60/40 split rear seats can be folded down to carry items longer than six feet.

There are five power outlets, three in front, one in the rear passenger compartment, and one in the cargo area. And all doors can be locked or unlocked by a switch in the cargo area.

Driving all this is General Motors' long time old friend, it's 5.7-liter (350 cubic inch) small block V-8 engine.

The Escalade's V-8 has been designed for heavy duty use, with cast iron block and heads. It is good for 255-horsepower, 330 foot pounds of torque, and the ability to run forever if you give it maintenance.

An interesting performance facet of this engine is that 0- 60 miles per hour is rated at 10.5 seconds and top speed at 110, not too shaggy for a sport ute. Preliminary fuel economy ratings are 13 miles per gallon city/ 16 mpg highway.

The remaining element of the powertrain package is GM's Hydra-matic 4L60-E four-speed automatic transmission and the innovative AutoTrac four-wheel drive system. Two-wheel or four-wheel drive is available with the push of a button.

A traditional 4HI setting splits the drive equally between the front and rear axles. Also available is a 4LO position that engages low-range gearing for travel though mud or heavy snow.

The drive eleme nts of the chassis as well as the suspension system is GMC oriented. All this stuff is as strong as a bridge.

With the sport/ utility and truck market continuing to grow, it is obvious that Cadillac couldn't sit on the sidelines and watch the competition cut into its market. The Escalade gives the local Lockhart and Tutwiler Cadillac agencies their first shot at the SUV arena, one that will play a vital role for the luxury car manufacturer.