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The Cadillac Escalade has high hopes

By Marc Stengel

APRIL 12, 1999: 

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

--Genesis 28:12

And, lo, it came to pass that Cadillac, for the first time since its own genesis 96 years ago, begat a truck, and Escalade was to be its unsubtle name.

It's tempting to believe that ebullient Cadillac dealers are the ones scampering up and down the Jacob's ladder of salvation that Escalade suddenly represents for them. Last year, with its luxury car sales essentially flat, General Motors' Cadillac Division faced the very real prospect of ending the year with fewer overall sales than Ford's Lincoln Division--for the first time in the history of their arch-rivalry. Lincoln's sales surged an impressive 12.5 percent in '98, owing to the 43,859 customers who flocked to its Navigator super-deluxe SUV.

As fall approached, Cadillac trailed Lincoln by some 5,000 units--until the '99 Escalade fell from the heavens and tallied a precious 5,192 sales in calendar-year '98. It was enough: Caddy eked past Lincoln by a scant 222 units to end the year with 187,343 sales. For '98, Cadillac Division sales were up just 2.6 percent overall; Escalade's portion of that total was 2.7 percent.

There's a sneaky little secret regarding the Escalade that many people don't yet know. It's not the fact that trucks in general are the automakers' potent weapon-du-jour for ratcheting overall vehicle sales to irrationally exuberant levels. And it's no longer hush-hush that Cadillac ambushed its own sibling, GMC Division, by interfering with the promise that GMC's Denali would be GM's sole, luxury-larded, ne plus ultra SUV. The real secret is that Escalade banished Denali to penultimate status by refusing to give customers the one thing they expect most: an options list.

For the one-and-only price of $46,525, an Escalade customer acquires every factory-installed goodie, gadget, and gewgaw that it's possible to imagine pasting onto an SUV. Your salesman may yet importune about dealer-installed extras like brush guards, undercoatings, maybe even those cheeky little "blue dots" for your brake-light lenses. As far as the factory goes, however, Escalade represents a no-haggle, one-size-fits-all package raised to new heights of ostentation.

It's actually a challenge to describe such a beast, but here goes: Rides like a truck, thanks to a basic design it shares with the lowly Chevrolet pickup and Tahoe SUV. Floats like a boat, thanks to an immense 5,573-lb. curb weight perched on cushy springs and giant P265/R7016 all-season tires. (Impressive as it is, the speed-sensitive steering system fails to eliminate Escalade's nautical demeanor over the road.) Thanks to a premium Bose sound system, Escalade does a fair job of impersonating a mobile concert hall, appointed all in leather and striped with Zebrano wood accents.

Of course, there's a remote garage-door opener, an auto-dim rearview mirror, air-conditioning (of plebeian manual variety, surprisingly), heated seats (front and rear), and accessory power jacks galore (which conveniently retain current after the ignition is off). Four-wheel ABS brakes (front disks, rear drums) combine with a proprietary AutoTrac all-wheel-drive system to deliver versatile stop-'n'-go performance over a variety of road conditions. The system features two-wheel (rear) drive for clear roads and, in a departure from many luxo-SUVs, a grunt-level, low-gear four-by mode for really gooey and icy conditions. Best of all, however, is an automatic, slip-sensitive, all-wheel-drive setting that shuttles back and forth between rear-drive and all-drive as wheel sensors dictate. It's just the thing for the typical pseudo-sport who knows where he or she is going but doesn't really want to bother about the mechanics for getting there.

Of all the Escalade's heavenly pretensions, the redesigned Generation II OnStar system is simultaneously its most innocuous and most apt. OnStar is GM's newest and, arguably, boldest free-standing division; formerly, it depended upon a complicated package of satellite communications and dealer-installed cellular phone to deliver navigation and safety assistance. This meant billable subscriptions both to OnStar and to a cellular-phone service. Gen II eliminates the phone and the mysterious actuator paddles on the steering wheel. Three factory-installed buttons are now all that's required to engage in hands-free voice communication with a disembodied human angel, who speaks through the stereo system and ministers to a range of needs.

If you're lost, Angel OnStar knows where you are and how to set your route aright. If you're hungry, thirsty, or sleepy, OnStar can make recommendations and reservations for restaurants, taverns, and hotels. If you've crashed and the airbags deploy, OnStar directs the nearest 911 emergency crew to your location via global positioning satellite data. Heck, even if you've simply locked your keys in the Escalade, a pay-phone call to OnStar can automatically unlock the doors from heaven above--at a prescribed time, so that the vehicle remains locked until you've had a chance to return to it. A free first year of OnStar service is included in the sticker price. The option to renew a year later, I suppose, is the only real choice you get with this SUV.

If Escalade does indeed serve as Cadillac's presumptive stairway to heaven, this fact begs the question: whose heaven? It has been suggested, for example, that the ancient Hebrews' conception of Jacob's ladder was inspired by the daunting stairs of a pagan ziggurat. Today, some 4,000 years later, Cadillac's social-climbing new super-SUV blatantly turns its back on all the sophistication, style, performance, fuel-efficiency, and affordability that contemporary passenger cars represent. It's as if, in the midst of so civilized a car society, Escalade and its Golden Horde of SUV fellow travelers have tapped a pagan, truckish urge that lurks just beneath the surface of our modern roadways. Perhaps this is what to expect each time we ford a new millennium: that we will become but a mirror-image of what we have been.

Bitin' the bullet

Enthusiasts applauded last week's New York Auto Show announcement that Nissan will resurrect its afforda-sporty Z-Car. Some of the money guys, however, fret that the recent Renault-Nissan nuptials represent a shotgun marriage with both partners facing the barrel. Citing Nissan's indebtedness of $21 billion and Renault's recent election to Standard & Poor's CreditWatch, the Wall Street Journal has noted analysts' concerns whether the two newlyweds "can do better together than they have separately."

The trade journal Automotive News has editorialized that "Renault and Nissan must recognize that much difficult work lies ahead. Otherwise, they will be like two drunks trying to steady each other after a night of carousing." Knowing that successful matrimony will depend on Nissan's forthcoming line of new products, Nissan sales and marketing veep Mike Seergy has been quoted thus by AutoWeek: "If we screw this one up, we all deserve to be taken out and shot."

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