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The History and Evolution of the Cadillac Escalade

Dismiss the Cadillac Escalade as just another luxury SUV in an already overcrowded market, and you not only do the vehicle’s heritage and pedigree a disservice, you risk the wrath of its legions of loyal fans. The first Escalade was introduced to the world exactly 20 years ago. While it was by no means the first SUV to hit the US market, it was the first of its kind from luxury car manufacturer, Cadillac. Until the Escalade, Cadillac was, to put it bluntly, seen as a brand for traditionalists and the older generation only. The young and the dynamic may have heard of Cadillac (after all, who hasn’t?), but they certainly weren’t buying their cars.

Cadillac was founded in 1902 from the leftovers of the by then defunct Henry Ford Company. The brand quickly established itself as a premium manufacturer of luxury, high-end vehicles, and by the 1960’s, it was the status symbol de jour for the rich and the famous the world over. The 1970’s and ‘80’s saw Cadillac strengthen its grip on the luxury end of the car market; by the 1990’s, however, the brands image was starting to feel just a little bit stale. It was still producing the same high-quality vehicles as it always had, but the young and the restless with money to burn had started to shift their attentions to more youthful and forward- thinking car manufactures like Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

All that changed with the Escalade. Introduced as a means for Cadillac to compete in the new SUV marketplace opened up by Ford and Chevrolet, the Escalade was big, and bold, and completely different to anything Chevalier had done before. Cadillac was suddenly no longer the preserve of the old; the young and the newly minted were just as eager to pick up an Escalade as previous generations had been to snap up an Eldorado.

Like us all, the Escalade has gone through some changes over the years. However, its place in US automobile history as an SUV phenomenon remains both unchanged and undiminished. With the fourth generation Escalade currently working its magic on a brand- new generation of fans, it seems unlikely Cadillac will be giving up on this particular honeypot anytime soon.

First Generation (1999-2000)

1999 saw Cadillac introduce the first Escalade to a waiting public. When compared to the monster SUV’s of today, Escalade’s first-generation model was a relativity understated affair, and could boast only 5 seats to its name. However, despite its small stature, the Escalade fed the nation’s growing appetite for full-sized, luxury SUV’s (which had been triggered the previous year by Ford’s introduction of the Lincoln Navigator), and it quickly developed a cult fan-base among petrol-heads. Critical reception, on the other hand, was less than favorable. In an effort to compete with the SUV offerings from Mercedes-Benz and Ford, it seemed Cadillac had rushed production and released what was essentially a gussied up Chevy Tahoe.

Undoubtedly, there were similarities between the Escalade and other SUV’s: its underpinnings were the same as those used in the Yukon Denali line (but with the GMC logos ripped off and replaced with the Cadillac motif) and in terms of the visuals, the two vehicles could have been mistaken for one and the same. The innards of the two vehicle were also a match, with both the Denali and the Escalade sharing the same 5.7 L Vortec 5700 V8 engine. One way the vehicles did differ was in the added touch of luxury offered by the Escalade. The interior boasted a cushier appearance than the Denali, with leather seats and a Bose Surround system (a first for any SUV on the market). The added opulence apparently made all the difference to discerning automobile fans, and in the first year alone, the Escalade achieved global sales of 23,897 units.

Second Generation (2002-2006)

Despite its initial success, production of the first-generation Escalade ran for only 2 years. In 2002, it was replaced by the 2nd generation model, which, for many, predicated the Escalade’s ascension to the SUV Hall of Fame. Unlike its predecessor, the 2nd generation Escalade was not simply a crude copy of the GM Denali. Don’t be mistaken… it still shared some similarities to other full-sized SUV’s, but its design and features were very much its own. Across the range, rear wheel drive was standard, while all-wheel drive was standard in the ESV and EXT versions, and optional on the short wheelbase Escalade. The high-output Vortec 6.0 L V8 engine was standard across all- wheel models, while other models continued to use the 5.3 L V8 until 2005, when it was dropped entirely for the superior 6.0L V8.

In a major leap forward from the Escalades previous 5 seat limitation, all second-generation models (bar the EXT), came as standard with seating for 8. Further improvements included an upgrade to a four-wheel version of the StabiliTrak Electronic stability control system, and, from 2003, the addition of HID low beam headlights, power-adjustable pedals and, as a little touch of class, a Bulgari clock as standard.

2004 saw the Escalade clock up three new standard features in the form of XM Satellite Radio, 2nd row bucket seats, and a tyre monitoring system. The same year also saw the introduction of the first Platinum Escalade ESV – a luxury trim which came with the added benefit of 20 inch chrome wheels, a lowered suspension, heating and cooling functionality on both the seats and the cup holders, and a pimped up interior that included an ebony and shale dashboard, shale leather upholstery, a chrome grille, and a 6.0 liter V8 engine (345hp) as standard. The new features clearly found their audience; by the end of its run in 2007, the Escalade was shifting 60991 units a year.

Third generation (2007–2014)

2007 saw an explosion in the SUV market, with new offerings from both Yukon and Chevrolet. Cadillac joined the race for SUV supremacy with its third generation Escalade. It also added a new addition to its portfolio in the form of the EXT sport utility truck. The new Escalade began production in January 2006, and was put to market the following year with an average retail price of $57,280. The third generation Escalade was Cadillac’s most modern and lavish SUV offering to date. A new coil spring front suspension and fully boxed frame gave the model its smoothest ride yet, while its handling was said to be more predicable than on previous models. The new edition came with climate control, nuance leather seating, leather wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, adjustable seat heating, memory system, power-lift gate, remote engine start and outside temperature indicator as standard.

In 2008, Cadillac introduced the Premium Escalade trim, which came with the added benefit of an entertainment and navigation system, heat adjustable cup holders, rearview camera, Tehama upholstery, and power-retractable running boards. 2008 also saw the launch of the Hybrid Escalade. The model debuted at the 2008 South Florida International Auto Show, and became available to buy in that same year for an average retail price of $74,085. The main selling point of the hybrid was its power: thanks to the combination of a powerful 6.0-liter V8 (332 hp) engine and two 60-kilowatt electric motors, the new vehicle managed to achieve an overall horsepower of 379. The Hybrid received a favorable reception from the buying public, and in the first year of its production alone, it managed to represent 20% of all Escalade sales.

When it came to the standard Escalade, the third-generation model saw fewer changes over the course of its run than previous versions had. The few changes there were tended to be minor. A few notable exceptions included the 2009 introduction of E85 fuel capability, and the addition of optional features such as blind-spot warning, LED headlights, Bluetooth and a rearview camera. 2009 also saw the introduction of a number of new and improved safety features, which were perhaps inspired by the findings of a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which gave the death rate of drivers of the 2007-08 Escalade as 33, compared to the average of 15. New features included side-impact airbags and reinforced doors. A major change did eventually come in 2014, when the EXT and hybrid models were discontinued. 2014 would also see the final year of production for the third generation Escalade.

Fourth Generation (2015- present)

After months of anticipation and promotional teasers, production on the fourth generation Escalade finally got underway in January 2014, with the first vehicle going up for sale in April 2014. Available in a limited range of trims (Base, Luxury and Platinum) the 2015 model saw a pretty substantial price hike on past versions. The base trim retailed at a jaw-dropping $71,695- a staggering $8000 more than its predecessor. As justification, Cadillac cited how the new model boasted more standard features than the 3rd generation model, including a new surround view camera, 4G LTE Connectivity, and a hands-free electric tailgate opening and closing feature. Magnetic Ride Control, LED headlights and taillights, 20-inch wheels, and a change from the previous six speed automatic to an eight speed completed the list of upgrades.

If the upgrades to the standard trim weren’t enough, petrol-heads with money to burn had the option of stepping things up a notch with the Escalade Luxury. For just $4000 more, Cadillac devotes could benefit from the addition of 22-inch wheels, head-up display, power fold-and-tumble second-row seats and safety systems such as forward collision warning and lane departure warning.

If even the Escalade Luxury failed to meet the grade, motor fans in search of the high life had their chance to buy the ultimate status symbol when the Escalade Platinum was introduced in 2015. The Platinum trim dialed up the ante even further, with a rear-seat entertainment system, illuminated exterior door handles and a Driver Assist Package consisting of front and rear automatic braking and adaptive cruise control. Handstitched, wrapped leather center consoles, dashboards and panels, along with seats encased in nappa, semi-aniline leather, completed the plush look of the interior. Altogether, the added luxuries of the Platinum model stacked up to a cool $90,270 (

The 2015 model was received with a generally favorable reception from the automobile world, with CNET’s Anutan Goodwin praising Cadillac for not abandoning the Escalade’s signature features: - "Fans of the Escalade will appreciate the automaker's sticking with the original message and not "ruining" its former flagship”. USA Today’s James R. Healey and Fred Meier, meanwhile, were moved to comment:- “The once-unthinkable big Cadillac SUV has become indispensable," while Scott Burgess of Motor Trend summed thing up nicely with the simple comment:- "It's bigger, it's bolder and it's more beautiful."

Since the start of its run, the 4th generation Escalade has seen a number of improvements. In 2016, four new colors were introduced to the range: gray silk metallic, red passion tintcoat, crystal white tricoat and dark emerald metallic. That same year, Cadillac also introduced an upgraded Drivers Awareness package, along with Lane Keep Assist and a rear seat entertainment unit.

2017 saw a few minor upgrades, including two new colors (dark adriatic blue metallic and bronze dune metallic), a refresh to the front grille and headlights, and a restructuring of the trims to include Standard, Luxury, Premium Luxury, and Platinum. The following year saw a further color added to the collection (satin steel metallic) and the modification of the center console. 2018 also saw the 8-speed transmission upgraded to a 10 speed. 2019, meanwhile, has seen its fair share of change already, with the addition of yet more color options (Manhattan noir metallic and shadow metallic) and a new sports package for the Luxury, Premium Luxury, and Platinum trims.

The Future

Despite the SUV market seeming to expand on a daily basis, its fair to say the Cadillac Escalade has captured a corner of the market that other manufactures simply can’t compete in. With 33,798 Escalades sold in 2018 alone, it seems the popularity of the Escalade is in no danger of dying out anytime soon.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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