A few months ago, New York-area automotive writers were treated to a first look at the all-new 2007 Cadillac Escalade.
But, since we were not allowed to drive it, we could only say for sure that it looked like a fancier version of the 2006 truck. Overall design was slightly changed and the interior was given a major upgrade.
Outside, a bigger grille, seven layers of chrome accents and just-for-show vent ports on the front fenders gave the vehicle an even bolder look than its predecessor. The styling, inspired in part by the Sixteen concept car, came across as reasonably tasteful. But the extra bright work was no doubt added for the pleasure of the celebrity athletes and entertainers who have given the edgy Escalade and its extroverted Cadillac relatives a renewed vigor in the world of luxury vehicles.
Still, the initial impression was that this vehicle was going to make its way into the world more on its looks than on any substantial alterations to its functionality. Passenger room was about the same. Cargo space was not a lot bigger. Third-row seating was knees to chin, just like before.
Wrong assumption! We finally got to drive this three-ton country club taxi a couple of weeks ago and the differences are pretty remarkable.
The all-new, all-aluminum, 6.2-liter V-8 engine corrals 403 horses and 417 pound-feet of torque to carry the workload. The six-speed automatic transmission dispatches all that power to the wheels almost seamlessly and with a lot more efficiency than the four-speed shifter it replaces.
Acceleration is brisk (0-60 mph in less than 7 seconds) and passing power is more than adequate. But, the lasting impression is that this sophisticated powertrain is the proper centerpiece for an expensive luxury sport-utility vehicle.
Cadillac officials made much of the fact that the new Escalade is easier on fuel than the old one. But Im not sure that bragging rights are really in order for a truck that essentially equals its rivals in city traffic and ekes out one or two extra miles per gallon of fuel on the open road.
For the record, the EPA numbers for last year's Escalade are 13 mpg city/17 highway. The new Escalade is expected to bring the highway mileage to about 19 mpg. Its unlikely that Escalade owners trading up will notice the difference, or care.
Working with a new platform that is almost 50 percent stiffer than the old one, Cadillac engineers have made great strides in tuning out the ride harshness inherent in what is still basically a body-on-frame pickup truck architecture. Were not quite talking luxury car here, but were certainly not talking buckboard, either.
The rest of the driving experience is much improved, too. Wheels that have been moved three inches farther apart in front and one inch at the rear enhance stability. Revisions to the front and rear suspension improve handling and ride. Power rack-and-pinion steering responds more crisply to driver inputs. The all-wheel disc brakes are well modulated and bring the Escalade to a quick stop. The revised all-wheel drive setup goes about its job unnoticed.
But all things are relative. This Cadillac is still a truck - a big truck, a heavy truck, a truck with a high center of gravity. The driver may love the command-and-control feeling in the cockpit, but the first sharp turn will serve as a reminder that agile is not a word to be found in the Escalades vocabulary.
If there is one thing that shows Cadillac is working hard to regain world-class status, it is the fit and finish. Exterior gaps have been reduced or eliminated. Inside, redesigned front seats, soft leather, plush carpeting, wood trim, noise reduction materials and a new dashboard offer a feeling of genuine opulence. Cadillac has made up all lost ground in this department.
Safety features have been enhanced, too. In addition to all of the expected seat belts and airbags, three-row side-curtain airbags are standard.
And, not surprisingly, there is a truckload of luxury features. Among the standard items are a power rear liftgate, heated front- and second-row seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated windshield washer fluid, back-up warning system, surround-sound audio system, remote vehicle starter.
Optional accessories include a rear-set entertainment system with eight-inch screen, navigation system, rear-view camera, automatic headlights, heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, power fold-and-tumble second-row seats, a sunroof and 22-inch wheels.
But a few of the expected conveniences are missing, too. The power windows do not have a one-touch up and down feature. There is no easy way to raise folded third-row seatbacks from the rear of the vehicle. The third-row seats do not fold flat and they are not easy to remove. There is no power tilt-and-telescope feature for the steering column. There is a tilt feature, but it is manual. Theres no driver-side grab handle to assist entry into the car.
Asked about these seeming lapses, Cadillac officials said they are aware of them and are working to correct them.
Right now, the Escalade comes only as an all-wheel-drive vehicle with a base price of ,280. In May, Cadillac will introduce the extended wheelbase Escalade ESV, starting at $,680, and in August it will bring a two-wheel-drive version of the standard Escalade, starting at ,725.
Minor mysteries aside, the effort Cadillac has put into its new Escalade is obvious and the results underscore its commitment to restoring the entire brands reputation as world class.