It's probably best known as the venerable ride of choice for hip-hop stars and professional athletes, but the 2009 Cadillac Escalade is much more than just a fashion accessory. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more capable and appealing full-size luxury SUV in today's marketplace. Given the upward trajectory of gas prices, some would-be Escalade owners may elect to look elsewhere for rolling testaments to their wealth and influence. But realistically, folks who can afford to drop anywhere from 55 to 80 large on a people hauler probably aren't too concerned about what they're paying at the pump. What they want is status-symbol styling, coddling luxury and physics-defying power -- and few vehicles deliver on all counts as resoundingly as the Escalade.
Some might be tempted to write the Escalade off as a mere "badge job," given its shared lineage with the relatively plebian Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon. This was uncomfortably true of previous Escalades, which were basically Tahoes in tuxedos. But the current third-generation Escalade clearly stands apart from its more basic brethren thanks to distinctive exterior styling, a unique interior layout and an exclusive 403-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 (though the nearly-as-expensive Yukon Denali does offer a detuned version of this engine). Of course, blatant badge engineering didn't exactly hurt the sales of the first- and second-generation Escalades, but owners of the third-generation model should have a much easier time explaining why they anted up for the top-dollar Cadillac.
For many buyers, the Escalade's unmistakable look will be enough to clinch the deal. Edgy and intimidating, this is hands-down the best-looking Escalade ever. And now that Cadillac has wizened up to buyers' lust for 22-inch wheels, you don't even have to resort to the aftermarket to pimp your 'Slade. For those not immediately smitten with the Escalade's shape, the cabin makes a case of its own with an exclusive dash design, sumptuous leather seating and mostly high-quality materials. And then there's that beefy 403-hp V8, which whisks the 5,500-pound Escalade past the slow-moving masses with almost frightening ease.
We don't hesitate to recommend the 2009 Cadillac Escalade to those who need the functionality and/or tough-guy image of a full-size luxury SUV. The Lincoln Navigator is underpowered and stylistically overwrought by comparison, and the Infiniti QX56 is competent but frankly rather uninspiring next to the iconic Caddy. The Escalade's stiffest competition comes in the form of the Mercedes-Benz GL450, which is quicker, equally comfortable and generally more rewarding to drive; it's also blessed with an opulent interior that trumps the Escalade by offering a fold-flat third-row seat. But if you want to flaunt your prosperity in the boldest way possible, there's still nothing quite like a 'Slade.
The 2009 Cadillac Escalade is a full-size luxury SUV that's available in the base or an upgraded, "Platinum" trim. Beyond the expected smorgasbord of standard amenities, the base Escalade comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlamps, a power liftgate, an adaptive suspension with electronically controlled shock absorbers, park assist and even a heated windshield washer fluid feature. Inside, there's triple-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, power-adjustable pedals, heated first- and second-row seats, remote starting, Bluetooth connectivity, and a navigation system with real-time traffic and an integrated rearview camera. Additionally, the 2009 Escalade is equipped with the latest incarnation of OnStar, which can download updates to the navigation system. A premium stereo with satellite radio, MP3 playback and an in-dash six-CD/DVD changer is also standard.
The V8 Ultra Luxury Collection package adds adaptive headlamps, a blind-spot warning system, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, power-release second-row seats, a sunroof, 22-inch chrome aluminum wheels and a Magnetic Ride Control suspension system that utilizes more sophisticated electronically controlled fluid-filled shocks to adjust damping continuously. Additional options include power-retractable running boards and a rear-seat entertainment system; the sunroof is also available as a stand-alone option.
Much of the base model's optional equipment comes standard on the thoroughly pimped-out Escalade Platinum. Anteing up for this exclusive (and exclusively priced) trim level yields unique 22-inch chrome wheels, LED headlights, upgraded interior leather upholstery, a special rear-seat entertainment system with additional video monitors and even heated and cooled cupholders.
While first- and second-generation Escalade interiors were hardly more than tarted-up layouts from Chevy pickups, the 2009 Escalade is easily distinguishable from its lesser GM siblings. Tasteful alloy trim, faux walnut inlays and high-quality materials imbue the big Caddy with an appropriately luxurious feel, and the buttons and controls exemplify ergonomic excellence.
Depending on its second-row configuration, the Escalade can seat seven or eight people. One of the Escalade's few obvious flaws is found in the third-row seat, which doesn't fold flat into the floor like a Lincoln Navigator's or Mercedes-Benz GL450's. This hampers cargo capacity and requires owners to remove the exceedingly heavy 50/50 sections if more space is required. On the bright side, the Escalade boasts class-leading cargo capacity with those seats removed -- 60.3 cubic feet -- and it balloons to 108.9 cubes with the second row folded.
All 2009 Cadillac Escalades are equipped with a 6.2-liter V8. It cranks out 403 hp and 417 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode routes power to either the rear wheels or all four, depending on whether buyers check the box for all-wheel drive. AWD versions feature a default 40/60 front/rear power split. Escalades aren't meant for off-roading (don't want to scratch those dubs), so there is no dual-range transfer case. Towing capacity for a properly equipped AWD model is 7,400 pounds. EPA fuel economy estimates stand at 12 mpg city/19 highway and 14 combined for 2WD models; AWD Escalades drop to 18 mpg highway but otherwise share the 2WD model's ratings.
The 2009 Cadillac Escalade is eerily quick for such a heavy vehicle -- that's what 403 hp will do for you. We've clocked the AWD version at 7.5 seconds to 60 mph, but even that relatively impressive number can't convey the broad-shouldered responsiveness of the Escalade's 6.2-liter V8 at all speeds. The 'Slade isn't the sportiest SUV around, but its handling is surprisingly well sorted given its humble beginnings as a GM truck. Thanks to a relatively tight 39-foot turning circle, parking is easier than you might expect; however, the Escalade's massive measurements mean that maneuvering in tight spots is still nerve-wracking, even with the optional rearview camera. While the ride is admirably hushed and supple over most surfaces, keep in mind that ride quality will suffer with the optional 22-inch wheels.
Stability control with a rollover sensor is standard, as are antilock disc brakes, traction control, side curtain airbags for all outboard occupants and the OnStar telematics system. Front seat-mounted side airbags are not available. In government testing, the Cadillac Escalade received a perfect five-star rating for front- and side-impact collisions.
The 2009 Cadillac Escalade receives a few changes and upgrades, including E85 "FlexFuel" capability, optional LED headlights, an available blind-spot warning system, a navigation system with a rearview camera and real-time traffic updates, Bluetooth connectivity and a revised version of OnStar.