How do you know when you have a hot vehicle?

If you're a dealer, you can't keep one on your showroom floor.

If you're a thief, you can't avoid stealing one. And so it goes with Cadillac's awesome new Escalade, a new luxury SUV popular with buyers, as well as thieves. (The large Caddy just made the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's 20 most stolen vehicle list.)

Now I can hear you say, "Wait a minute. A Cadillac? Hot? What are you smoking?"

Well, here's the scoop.

This Caddy is hot because it's true to its heritage in a way most of Detroit's large cars no longer are -- distinctive styling, large comfy accommodations, lots of toys and the power to move along quickly.

And, it's a truck.

Chiseled lines accent a massive new grille with equally sharp edges. The stacked headlamps lend a unique look. The chiseled lines continue back to the vertical tail lamps and large Cadillac crest. The look is assaultive, yet handsome and very much in the in-your-face Caddy styling tradition of the past four decades.

Inside, you'll find an interior that makes all but the hardest-hearted people melt. The sumptuous interior is welcoming and comfortable. Large front bucket seats do what few Caddy seats manage to do -- they're soft without giving up anything in the way of support. A two-position memory feature is standard.

Sadly, the dash is familiar to anyone who has driven other large GM trucks. While there are differences, it's quite insulting to expect someone to pay for a Cadillac and have the same dashboard as a Chevy. There are some differences. The instrument panel is finished in Zebrano wood, as are the doors, center console and steering wheel.

The gauges are complete and include fuel, temperature, oil, volts and transmission cooling. They share an expressive feel with the exterior, lending the interior some of the exterior's panache.

The transmission lever is chrome trimmed. The steering wheel houses an airbag and audio controls (which it shares with lesser GM stablemates.)

The center console houses automatic climate controls, a Bose Acoustimass audio system with 6-CD in-dash changer and a driver-information center.

The stereo system fills the interior with the music of your choice. Each door has a speaker, tweeters in the front pillars, extended-range speakers on either side of the front console, two smaller speakers in the rear pillars and a sub-woofer in the rear quarter panel transform the Escalade into a rolling concert hall. Just keep in mind at intermission, there are no rest rooms.

The middle row is equally accommodating.

Seats are high and comfortable. A large armrest with storage has room contains two Sony headphones. The headphones can be plugged into a set of audio controls that allow middle-row passengers to listen to different music from front row passengers. A set of power po ints is included.

The rear row should either be used for children or folded and removed for cargo space.

Okay, so it's comfy and has the toys. That's a long Caddy tradition -- as long as its tailfins. But what's it like to drive?

It's like most large GM vehicles only better.

The drivetrain comes in two configurations. Rear-wheel-drive and a 285 horsepower 5.3-liter V-8 or all-wheel-drive with a 345-horsepower V-8. Both run through a GM 4-speed GM automatic transmission.

Opt for the bigger engine. Its smooth, strong pulling power made this truck feel like the luxury vehicle it is. Acceleration is strong for a truck, with a 0 to 60 time of under 9 seconds. Also, by opting for the bigger engine, GM throws in a heavy-duty transmission.

The all-wheel-drive system features traction control and maintains a 38 percent-front/62 percent-rear power split under normal conditions. A viscous coupling transfers power where it's needed when things get rough.

Power from the V-8 comes on stronger than a Vegas comedian. It's always there when you need it. It's distant, muffled roar is comforting. There is no substitute for cubic inches.

All the power does take a toll in mileage, with the test vehicle yielding 14 mpg on premium gasoline in mixed highway/city driving.

Ride and handling match the car's luxury mission. Steering is light and the ride has a sumptuous, soft somewhat disconnected feel. Yet it handles well despite the ride. Cornering is well managed, thanks to a combination of electronic controls that help keep you on the road and safe. (Those include a computer-controlled Road Sensing Suspension and Stabilitrak.)

With awesome power, a silky ride, fine accommodations and extravagant styling, it's easy to see why the 2002 Cadillac Escalade has become the darling of hollywood stars, sports stars and rap artists.

While it shares its DNA with cheaper GM brethren, this package works as a fine symbol of what Cadillacs should be. It's big, it's powerful, it has exaggerated cuff-popping style and swagger.

And it is really hot.

Just don't park it in a dark alley.

CADILLAC ESCALADE
Engine: 6-liter OHV V-8
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Tires: Goodyear P265/70R17
Wheelbase: 116 inches
Length: 198.9 inches
Width: 78.9 inches
Curb weight: 5,809 pounds
Cargo volume: 63.6 (rear seat removed)
Ground clearance: 10.7 inches
Towing capacity: 8,500 pounds
EPA rating: 12 city, 15 highway
Test mileage: 14 mpg