Oct. 11, 2013 at 12:42 PM ET
Most cars just blend into traffic. You can’t say that about the Cadillac Escalade.
With its carriage-sized wheels and acres of chrome surrounding the maker’s oversized crest-and-wreath logo, the ‘Slade, as it’s known to fans, is the dictionary definition of the hip-hop term “bling” – appropriately, as rappers and professional athletes loved to be seen in the full-sized luxury SUV.
At the same time, the Escalade became the poster child for environmentalists who hated the excess that the fuel-guzzling vehicle represented.
The folks at the Sierra Club almost got their wish. With fuel prices rising, and with its own finances collapsing as it plunged into bankruptcy, General Motors initially decided to pull the plug on the big Caddy SUV. That is, until company planners took a closer look at the bottom line and realized that the Escalade delivered one of the highest profit margins of any product in the GM fleet.
And so, GM this week pulled the wraps off an all-new 2014 remake of the Cadillac Escalade, hoping to win back affluent buyers by offering more flash and high-tech features while also trying to make amends with critics by boosting its mileage.
“I want to buy one,” billionaire Donald Trump loudly proclaimed after attending the New York preview.
Long the dominant player in the luxury full-size SUV segment, Cadillac has lost some of its grip in recent years as the old ‘Slade grew dated and new competitors took it on. When it was first launched in 1998, it had only the Lincoln Navigator to challenge. Today, the high-line segment is overrun with offerings that include the big Mercedes-Benz GL, the BMW X5, Audi’s Q5, Infiniti’s QX80 and the Lexus LX 570.
“Our clear objective is to once again assume the leadership position among luxury SUVs,” said Bob Ferguson, the head of Cadillac’s global operations, during the New York preview. But he quickly acknowledged that it will “take time” to get there.
In many ways the decline of the Escalade, along with the ambitions for the new model, serves as a metaphor for Cadillac itself. During the Manhattan “reveal,” the program’s chief engineer, Jeff Luke, repeated the long-running mantra, declaring Caddy, “the standard of the world.” But there are few willing to buy that claim these days, not when brands like Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW handily outsell the Detroit luxury marque both at home and abroad.
Nonetheless, the Escalade has been Cadillac’s de facto flagship and the new model could help regain some of the brand’s lost luster as it targets the younger, better-educated and more affluent motorists who have largely migrated to imports, especially along the East and West Coasts.
For 2014, the Escalade migrates to a new platform shared with other redesigned GM products, including the Chevrolet Silverado pickup and Tahoe full-size SUV. But the Caddy SUV gets its own look and lots of high-tech features. That includes the Magnetic Ride Control suspension that, at 60 miles per hour, can shift its shocks from soft to stiff in the time it takes to travel 3 inches.
Of course, there’s plenty new in the cabin, including the Cadillac CUE infotainment system, which can detect when the driver’s hand is moving toward its screen, adding the most likely touch “buttons” to the display.
Taking a cue from its import rivals, Cadillac is adding even more chrome, as well as a variety of woods and hand-stitched leathers, to the cabin.
It even gives a nod to the Escalade’s traditional foes, with the big 6.2-liter V-8 under the massive hood getting new fuel-saving technologies such as direct injection, variable valve timing and the ability to shut off half of its cylinders when power needs are light. GM isn’t ready to release mileage numbers, but it hints of a 20 percent improvement or better over the outgoing model’s 13 mpg city/18 highway/15 combined.
The new model should do well, says analyst Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting, who says that in its heyday, the Escalade was one of the few GM products to crack the code and win over buyers along the coast.
“True,” he says, the new model is still likely to get dinged for “wretched excess,” but he also says GM would have been foolish to cede the market to the competition considering the Escalade routinely provides “extremely valuable gross profits.”
To satisfy critics, Caddy boss Ferguson hinted that the maker is also looking at an alternative version of the Escalade that would use a car-based or crossover-style platform to further reduce fuel consumption. No decision has been made on adding it to the lineup.
Over the past decade, demand for full-size SUVs has steadily declined, both in the mainstream and luxury segments, as buyers have migrated to smaller crossovers. But in recent months, as fuel prices have settled back, demand for some of the market’s biggest products, particularly full-size pickups, has gained momentum. And there’s a consensus among analysts that the 2014 Escalade could be hitting the road at just the right time.
It isn’t alone, however. Mercedes updated the GL last year, and BMW’s redesigned 2014 X5 is just reaching showrooms.
As for Lincoln, whose original Navigator actually predated the Cadillac Escalade? Its fate has also been up in the air in recent years – as has the entire Lincoln brand’s – but with parent Ford Motor Co. now committing billions to rebuild the Lincoln lineup, a new Navigator is under development and should follow Escalade to market a couple of years from now.