Test Driven: 2011 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

I’ve gotten used to hybrids in the four years I’ve driven them.  They aren’t glamorous, they aren’t designed to make you feel like Ayrton Senna in the mountains, and they’re certainly not designed to tow a boat.  That is, of course, until General Motors decided otherwise.  Meet the Cadillac Escalade.  It’s the most expensive, most blinged-out, and most conspicuous SUV GM offers, and it now comes as a hybrid.  I wonder what Greenpeace thinks?  Well, in reality, I don’t give a damn what they think, so I decided to see what this V8-powered mild hybrid, full-size, full-frame truck was all about at the Radnor Hunt Concours last September.

The hybrid version of the Escalade has been around since the 2009 model year, and not much of it has really changed.  Under the hood is a combined electric motor to a 6.0L Vortec V8 engine, producing a combined 332hp and 367 lbs-ft of torque.  Rear and four wheel drive are both available, in either standard or Platinum trim.  Be aware, the Platinum is not for those who dislike chrome on their truck; the grille, 22-inch rims, side molding, and mirrors have enough chrome trim to reflect the Sun into an entire family’s eyes.  Not that I cared, as I think a Cadillac without chrome is a crime.  My test car happened to be the top model, a 4×4 Platinum, equipped with scads of chrome, leather seats, a wood-trimmed steering wheel, real wood on the dashboard, heated and cooled seats, a power tailgate, and a DVD player for the kids in the back.  The Platinum trim even comes with the Advanced Magnetic Ride Control from the CTS-V.  The 2012 model happens to cost nearly $87,000 in this trim, about 7 grand higher than a similarly optioned Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTEC or Audi Q7 TDI.

The EPA rates it at 20 city, 23 highway MPG, and Cadillac does indeed claim that the Escalade can tow up to 5,600lbs with 4WD.  Numbers-wise, it gets better city mileage than the diesel three-row German SUVs (the BMW X5, Audi Q7, and Mercedes GL350), but it cannot tow as much as the Q7 (if the tow bar is equipped) or the GL350 (which can tow up to 7500 lbs with the tow package equipped), and falls behind all but the Mercedes on highway mileage.  The Escalade Hybrid is a better towing vehicle than other luxury hybrid SUVs, but it falls short of the diesels.  Despite its offering of 332hp, the big Escalade weighs in at 6149lbs at the curb, compared to the Audi’s 5,567 pounds and the Benz’s 5,512 pounds, blunting the V8’s punch a bit.  So, on paper, the diesels are ahead of the game.

The big Caddy is a handsome-looking thing on the outside, but after opening the door, I realized once again why people buy Range Rovers or GL-Class Mercedes.  Staring right at me is a steering wheel, shifter, and instrument panel right out of the Tahoe, a big minus in my book, especially considering that the Cadillac is positioned against the German luxury brands, plus Lexus and Infiniti.  The leather on the inside is nice, on the other hand, and the wood trim, unlike on previous Cadillacs, doesn’t look fake at all.  Thanks to the body-on-frame design and 4WD system, step-in is on the high side, but once inside, I found the seats to be comfortable (soft, cosseting, and plenty of cushioning), and the instrument panel to be very easy to understand.  Visibility is typical GMT900, so it’s very good, and the navigation system and sound system are easy to manage.

The layout’s great but it still uses parts out of a cheapo Tahoe for some of the smaller stuff, not a great thing to say about a 80-grand truck.

On the move, the big Cadillac is surprising.  The big V8 pulls with the expected thrust, although it’s no ball of fire with over 3 tons holding it back.  Still, it’s no slouch off the line, and makes a pleasant rumble.  The ride is comfortable, but the insane 22-inch rims and tires don’t absorb bumps the way a set of higher-profile tires with smaller wheels do.  That said, the special magnetorheological dampers do work hard to keep the big brute stable on back roads.  The brake pedal felt great, with only a small amount of travel and plenty of feel.  Nosedive was as expected, but not as bad as I thought for such a heavy truck.  Body lean is noticeable but not overtly problematic, as the truck is stable around corners.  The column shifter is well-organized, and doesn’t get in the way of major radio or HVAC controls, a big plus over other manufacturers who use it, but the small “+/-” manual mode switch on the column’s far end isn’t really that useful, as the transmission works better when left to its own devices.  The instrument panel is easy to read and pretty simple, with no confusing hybrid-style readouts to distract save for a center-mounted meter which can be  switched off.  While visibility isn’t at all bad, maneuverability in tight parking lots and around narrow driveways is a real pain in the neck thanks to the Escalade’s size.  Thankfully, the backup sensors tend to help.  While there are definitely good points about the big Escalade Hybrid, they aren’t enough to justify the $87K asking price at this point–a Mercedes diesel, Audi Q7 TDI, or even the BMW X5 diesel are all better options for less money, offering the same or more features, a more car-like demeanor (as all are crossovers), more towing capacity, and similar fuel economy for a good degree less.

-Al

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