2011 Cadillac Escalade Driving Impressions

On the road, the nimbleness of the Cadillac Escalade is a pleasant surprise. The steering is light and reasonably precise, a nice compromise between the weight of the BMW X5 or Audi Q7 and the lightness of the Lincoln Navigator. In spite of having a live-axle rear suspension (as opposed to an independent rear suspension like that on the Navigator), the Escalade manages bumps very well, thanks to its three-ton mass and the road-sensing Autoride system.

Handling and body control are impressive given the Escalade's bulk. The Escalade suspension feels more supple than that of the BMW X5 or Mercedes GL550 but firmer than that of the Lexus LX570 or Range Rover. The Lincoln Navigator works better than the Escalade on marginal road surfaces due to the Lincoln's independent rear suspension.

Magnetic Ride Control uses a variety of sensors to measure road surface and vehicle parameters 1,000 times per second and adjust the shock damping accordingly. That adjustment is done magnetically, changing the thickness of the shock fluid (that's filled with tiny magnetic particles) for maximum control of the shock. This system has been used advantageously on expensive imports and the Corvette for a few years, and is often paired on the Escalade with the 22-inch wheels.

In addition to seat time in a standard Escalade, we drove 335 miles in a long-wheelbase ESV. We weren't surprised by the ride that's even better than it is in the standard-length Escalade, but we were further impressed by the cornering. We almost couldn't believe how well it got around corners at a spirited pace.

With sound-deadening improvements in the glass in 2011, the interior is exceptionally quiet, enhancing the ability to hold hushed conversations as well as hear the Surround Sound system without extraneous noise. Also noteworthy is the plush ride. On the optional 22-inch wheels and low-profile tires you'd expect more harshness and sharp impacts from things like parking lot speed bumps and lane divider dots, but they're muted because the sheer size of the tire means there is still some usable sidewall, the first point of any suspension system. Those vehicles with the 18-inch wheels offer even gentler ride characteristics without a corollary drop in grip. On many trucks low-profile wheels reduce the tow rating and make winter tire or chain fitment a nuisance.

All Escalades (except Hybrid) are powered by a 6.2-liter V8 that produces 403 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration is brisk for a truck. The Escalade is quicker than the Navigator, Range Rover, Audi Q7, and even a Police Tahoe, though the equally practical Mercedes GL550 has the edge here. The BMW X6 V8, Infiniti FX50, and Mercedes G-wagen are quicker, but they are smaller and less practical with much less cargo and passenger space. The 6.2-liter V8 engine has a wonderful throaty growl under acceleration, making you feel like you've got a hotrod underneath.

Towing is aided by this prodigious power. Depending on how they are equipped, Escalade models are rated to tow trailers of up to 8,300 pounds.

Hitching up a trailer is made easier by the Escalade's rearview camera, which provides a view behind the vehicle when backing up. What the camera sees is projected onto the navigation screen. It eliminates jumping out of the truck repeatedly to get the ball lined up under the trailer tongue. As with other vehicles, the rearview camera is useful everyday when backing up close to another object. It's very helpful for parallel parking and a great safety feature as it can reduce the chance of backing over a child.

The 6-speed automatic transmission shifts imperceptibly except during full-throttle acceleration; it's tuned for mileage so it up-shifts quickly and needs a firm shove on the gas pedal to downshift. A Tow/Haul mode holds gears longer, or the driver can select gears manually via a button on the column-mounted shift lever. The multi-information display in the instrument cluster clearly displays the selected gear.

All-wheel drive is available for the Escalade. It's a full-time system oriented around sure-footed traction on slippery pavement, rather than creeping through boulder fields or climbing steep grades. There is no low-range gearing. It works particularly well in slushy conditions with inconsistent grip, improving handling stability and traction and helping the driver better control the vehicle. We strongly recommend it for winter weather, and it's a great aid in the rain or on any slippery surface.

The brakes are powerful and quite responsive, more than up to the task of bringing this big truck to a halt with little drama and surprisingly little dive because of the Autoride damping. The pedal feel is good, if not as pleasingly firm as that of its German competitors. ABS and electronic brake force distribution come standard for stable braking while turning or when the grip is inconsistent.

The StabiliTrak electronic stability control system manages wheel slip by applying the brakes at the slipping wheel without interrupting power delivery to the wheels with grip. StabiliTrak also helps maintain stability in corners by providing braking force to individual wheels when the vehicle's path doesn't match the driver's intentions. It works well and is not as intrusive as some of the systems used by some competitors.

The Escalade Hybrid features GM's two-mode, gas-electric hybrid propulsion system developed in conjunction with other automakers. It combines a 6.0-liter V8 tuned specifically for hybrid use with a 300-volt battery pack and dual electric motors encased in a common housing with a conventional four-speed automatic transmission. The V8 has Active Fuel Management so, when its full output is not required, the engine can operate on four cylinders to reduce fuel consumption, and if power requirements are very low the truck may run up to 30 mph on electric drive only.

In most instances, the gasoline engine stops whenever you come to a stop in the Escalade Hybrid; electric drives run the power steering, air conditioning and so on so the only clues that there's anything unusual going on are the auto-stop indication on the tachometer, the lack of engine noise, and that there's no creeping. Essentially the hybrid system takes energy otherwise turned into heat by the brakes and stores it as electrical energy, to be used later to help get the vehicle going again. It is all fully automated and can be monitored on the navigation display. This is why the Hybrid's primary fuel economy advantage is in city driving. The government says the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid gets 20/23 mpg City/Highway.

The Hybrid drives like a regular Escalade in most respects but markedly different in others. To turn it on you twist the ignition key just as you do in a regular vehicle, but the engine doesn't automatically start and when it does it is quieter and is felt as a small momentary vibration. The steering feels the same, but the brakes are more responsive (plan on some bobble-head initial test drives) because the energy they generate is used to recharge the battery pack.

Driven back-to-back with a non-hybrid you may notice the Hybrid feels heavier, and in fact it is by about 450 pounds. Hybrid Escalades are also offered with 4WD that has an auto setting for on-road use like the standard Escalade's all-wheel drive system but also has low-range gears for maximum effort, for dealing with such conditions as deep sand or rocky terrain, for example. Tow ratings for the Hybrid are down by a ton compared with the standard Escalade.

When we drove a GMC Yukon, a Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, and a Mercedes-Benz GL-Class with diesel back to back over a mixed course of city stoplights and freeway cruising, the gas-powered Yukon got mid-16s, the Tahoe Hybrid averaged 20 mpg, and the Mercedes diesel 23 mpg.

1Dealer Discount applied to everyone.

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