Driving down the road in the new Cadillac Escalade EXT, one can see the look of awe in people's faces.

Strangers offer their unsolicited opinion of the truck's sharp, aggressive styling. And here's the wild thing: it's positive.

Built on the goodwill and positive response to the luxurious, over-the-top Escalade sport utility vehicle, the EXT is Cadillac's next version.

Is it time to bury the Geritol and Depends jokes when talking about Cadillac?

The Escalade EXT certainly states its case boldly.

It uses the same basic configuration as the Chevrolet Avalanche, a vehicle that's not exactly bland when it comes to styling.

The EXT shares the basic flying-buttress styling of the Avalanche, but adds the daring sharp-edged Escalade look all over the vehicle. All the gray plastic cladding is given a body-color treatment, lending the EXT a more sleek look, despite its somewhat imposing, awkward shape.

The shape comes from the basic purpose of this vehicle, which is to combine the passenger room of an SUV with the utility of a pick- up truck.

Like the Avalanche, the EXT has a 5-foot-3-inch bed that has a removable three-piece cargo cover that provides weather-tight cargo space. The bed can be extended to 8-feet 1-inch using GM's mid- gate. The mid-gate allows for the rear wall of the cab to be folded, along with the rear seats, to carry long items. The rear window also can be removed.

The EXT shares the Avalanche's platform, derived from the Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Tahoe XL.

Power is supplied by the Vortec 6000, a 6.0-liter 345-horsepower V-8 that's good for 380 pound-feet of torque. This same engine is available in the Avalanche. It has lots of low-end grunt, which is capable of propelling the 5,752 pound EXT to 60 mph in a factory- claimed 8.41 seconds. It certainly feels that quick.

Power is fed through a heavy-duty version of GM's electronically- controlled 4-speed Hydromatic automatic transmission. Shifts are typical of this transmission -- smooth and prompt -- although tromping on the throttle brings a hasty and abrupt downshift.

Towing is rated at 8,000 pounds, which is okay for a small weekend toy. If you need more grunt, the Avalanche has a more powerful version.

While not the driver's truck that a BMW X5 is, this EXT still excels at giving the driver a car-like driving experience. There are myriad features that accomplish this feat. The first is all-wheel- drive, with 38 percent of the power going to the front wheels and 62 percent going to the rear. That coupled with all-speed traction control means the driver never feels the wheel slip. In addition, Cadillac's stability control system, StabiliTrak, helps maintain driver control when not tromping through the woods.

If you do tromp off-road, which few owners will ever do, you'll find the electronically-contr olled suspension will smooth out the bumps. Indeed, both Stabilitrak and the electronic suspension give the car a ride and handling quality that is indeed superior to that of the Avalanche.

Of course, all the trendy types who adore Caddy trucks love the power and style, but comfort is key.

The ride is extremely quiet and comfortable, with bumps being unnoticeable. Roadway expansion joints can be felt, but they barely register. Body lean is well-controlled, especially for a truck.

As you might expect, the interior is upgraded from its more pedestrian sibling.

The basic dash is identical, save for wood trim and the usual Cadillac features. Gauges are the same as the regular Escalade and have a sports watch feel. The center stack has a generic GM large- truck feel, but it does have an analog clock and buttons to work Stabilitrak and Ultrasonic Rear Parking Assist, which alerts the driver if the vehicle is about to back over somethin . Of course, OnStar is standard.

The front bucket seats are large, comfortable and have good support for long trips. Ditto the rear seat, where three can sit if they're friendly, but two will find it much more comfortable.

A power sunroof, six-CD Bose audio system and power folding side mirrors are all a part of the package.

Premium unleaded fuel is required. The Escalade EXT is rated at an OPEC-pleasing 12 mpg city, 15 mpg highway. A test loop of two- thirds highway driving, one-third city driving returned 14.5 mpg.

While this may not bother the rap stars and athletes who routinely purchase these vehicles, it is something to consider. Although the mileage isn't great, it's better than some competitors.

Whether it's worth the price is up to you.

Do you feel trendy? Well, here's the scoop on that score.

A four-wheel-drive Avalanche started at $33,245 and topped out at $37,556. An identically equipped Escalade SUV started at $49,290 and topped out at $51,540. The EXT starts out lower, at $49,245, but ends up with the same bottom line.

Pricey? Maybe. But staying in fashion always has its price.


Engine: 6-liter OHV V-8

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Tires: P265/70R17

Wheelbase: 130 inches

Length: 221.4 inches

Width: 79 inches

Weight: 5,752 pounds

Cargo volume: 53.9 cubic ft.

Base price: $49,245

As tested: $51,540

EPA rating: 12 city, 15 highway

Test mileage: 14.5 mpg

Fuel type: Premium

Built in: Mexico