The Detroit Newspapers's view

Whenever I leave Detroit, I take special note of the vehicles people drive. It’s my informal survey of the current automotive market. I’ve sat outside of LAX and observed all the vehicles dropping off loved ones — not a GM, Ford or Chrysler in the bunch.

Same goes in Miami and New York City. Foreign cars rule.

So imagine my surprise when I pulled behind a 2009 Cadillac Escalade hybrid while driving around Los Angeles. It was big and black and intimidating from the seat of a midsize sedan. As I drove through a few neighborhoods, I saw another Escalade hybrid parked in the driveway of a million dollar home (in L.A., that could be just about anyone’s house).

And then another. And another. What’s going on? I thought big SUVs had died. Victims of their own gluttony, they had become political curse words and parking lot pariahs. They were the vehicles people could frown upon and tsk, tskat Starbucks.

But not when the word “hybrid” is scrawled across the front, back and sides of this big SUV. It creates a moral dilemma even Dr. Laura may not be able to solve as well as a jagged little pill for to swallow. Can an American have a vehicle with room for eight but be environmentally sensitive? Could the crest and wreath really create the Cadillac of hybrids?

Apparently so. The new Escalade hybrid offers prestige, power and just enough greenness to annoy environmentalists. Naturally, I love it.

Big fuel savers With this behemoth of a machine, you get a luxurious SUV that can silently creep around parking lots without emitting one ounce of carbon dioxide. This hybrid can get 20 miles per gallon in city driving; that’s 8 miles more than the gas-only Escalade and more than a 50 percent increase in fuel efficiency. Here’s another way to look at it: the big engine on the Escalade sips fuel around town better than the V-6 midsize sedans built by Honda, Nissan and Toyota — oh, and GM, Ford and Chrysler too.

The heart of the hybrid Escalade beats with GM’s modified 6-liter V-8 and two electric motors tied to a 300-volt battery pack. The motors can drive the car at low speeds on electric power only, but don’t expect this to happen for long periods. The Escalade weighs 6,000 pounds — more than two V-6 Camrys. EV mode happened so rarely that I got all excited when all I could hear was that futuristic electric whine.

Most of the time, the 332-horsepower V-8 kicked in at even the mildest acceleration. But this engine is no normal hunk of cast aluminum. It runs on the Atkinson-cycle, which burns fuel more efficiently, and uses GM’s Active Fuel Management, which can turn off four cylinders when power is not needed. Cruise on the highway and the four cylinders turn off. Even then, the electric motors will assist the gas engine to keep it in four-cylinder mode longer.

The power steering and air condition are electric so belts no longer strain the engine. The liftgate and hood are aluminum, cutting weight. A drop of fuel saved here, another drop there, that’s how the Escalade hybrid rolls. Of course, it rolls on low-rolling resistance tires, too. This Escalade also includes regenerative braking, which captures the energy used to stop the SUV and sends it back to the batteries.

Another big fuel saver is the automatic engine shut off. If the Escalade is stopped, the engine is off. The electric motors kick on the engine whenever it’s needed without a rumble or a bump inside the cabin. The Escalade doesn’t have a starter.

But it gets up and goes. One of the problems with some earlier hybrids was their underwhelming gas engines. Every aspect of the vehicle’s powertrain was developed to maximize fuel efficiency, making the two-mode hybrids boring to drive.

The Escalade, however, doesn’t. Acceleration is quick and smooth. When you need power, such as merging onto the highway, it’s there. When you don’t need it, such as stop-and-go rush hour, the Escalade hides it. Now, Cadillac could have opted for a smaller V-8, a criticism many environmentalists have made (though it’s not like they were going to buy one anyway). So give the customer what he wants: power, eco-distinction and the ability to tow 5,800 pounds.

Wide breadth of technology Of course, PETA, another politically oriented group, may not be happy with the Escalade either. The interior uses a small herd of cattle just to wrap the three rows of seats, doors and center console in beautiful leather. It smells delicious every time you enter the SUV.

Just let the rocker step kick out as you open the door; hop in and enjoy. There’s a wide breadth of technology at your finger tips. New for 2009 is a blind-spot detection system and XM radio with NavTraffic, a system that provides live updates for traffic problems. The navigation screen includes one of those hybrid learning screens, so you can see where the power is coming from and how effective your driving skills are.

Cadillac has also upgraded other cabin features, adding audio jacks in the back seat, a new tilt and telescoping steering wheel and magnetic ride control with all 22-inch tire combinations.

But, really, there was little reason to upgrade most parts of the Escalade. It was already at the top of its class, with: 14-way power front seats; second-row seats as nice as the front; a roomy third row; Bose 5.1 surround sound; Bluetooth connectivity for cell phones; remote vehicle start; and a power liftgate. Everything you wanted and a whole bunch of features you didn’t know you wanted are available with the Escalade.

Luxury should never know compromise.

And the Escalade hybrid maintains its over-the-top good looks with the distinctive, powerful grille, the giant wheels and the sharp chiseled lines along the body. Every line is drawn to denote power. The Escalade is one of the few vehicles that can pull off fender vents that don’t make me giggle.

All of that luxury does come with a price: roughly $70,000. But I think most people buying this particular Escalade aren’t worried about the price tag.

See, despite all of the environmental hubbub we hear today, I don’t believe most Americans want small cars. We like to say we want them, but we don’t. We are victims to automotive fashion and fuel economy is all the rage.

We want luxury and performance and sport and utility. We want Escalades that get 40 mpg.

And at least this Caddy is half way there.

Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 223-3217 or

2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

Type: Rear-wheel drive, seven- or eight-passenger large sport utility vehicle. Four-wheel drive is available.

Price: $70,735

Engine: 6-liter V-8 and 300-volt electric motor

Transmission: Electronic variable transmission

EPA gas mileage: 20 mpg city / 21 mpg highway

Report card

Overall: 3.5 stars

Exterior: Excellent: Distinctive and all Cadillac. This is a big vehicle, meant to look powerful. It carries this look well.

Interior: Excellent: Luxurious and complete. High-tech features blend well with upscale look and feel of the Escalade.

Performance: Good: Lots of power with the gas engine. Would have liked to be able to stay in electric-only drive longer.

Pros: Excellent mileage for big SUV.

Cons: Price puts Escalade out of reach for many people.

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