Ah, the Cadillac Escalade. It’s hard to believe the General’s range-topping luxury behemoth has annoyed environmentalists and pleased the nouveau riche crowd for more than two decades. Yet it shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, even as it enters its fifth generation. It remains one of most polarizing vehicles to survive the 2000s, a harbinger of the meteoric rise of the luxury SUV and a poster child for wretched excess and conspicuous consumption.
Despite more than 800,000 Escalades sold in the U.S. since 1998, you likely haven’t given much thought to the first few generations. Older examples were typically quickly discarded—much like any other mass-produced luxury sled—and left to cycle through third and fourth owners on buy-here-pay-here lots. With the recent debut of the all-new fifth-gen 2021 Cadillac Escalade, let’s take a step through the history of the model and remind you what made the original Caddy Escalade a pillar of the luxury SUV market.
“Escalade”—a term referring to the act of using ladders to scale defensive fortress walls—is a fitting name for Cadillac‘s first SUV, considering the first Escalade was a hurried riposte to the Lincoln Navigator, which had arrived the previous year, and to a lesser degree the Lexus LX 450, which had been around since 1996.
GM needed to respond. Dealers were hungry, so Cadillac’s design department performed a rushed badge swap for the existing GMC Yukon Denali, changing only emblems on the grille, front doors, steering wheels, wheel centers, and embroidery. Nearly everything else was identical to the Denali, including interior equipment, but that doesn’t mean it was as barebones as a Chevy Cavalier. Quite the opposite; the Escalade came in one trim, with a leather interior, OnStar, a Bose sound system, power seats, heated side mirrors, keyless entry, and rear climate system among the highlights.
The only engine available was the Yukon’s 5.7-liter Vortec V-8, pushing out a contemporarily average 255 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque. A beefy four-speed automatic handled this power, sending said motivation to either the rear wheels or all four. Fun fact: This is the only generation of Escalade sold exclusively with a five-seat layout.
The first-generation Escalade was sold only in the 1999 and 2000 model years, with just under 50,000 units produced in that time. No surprises there; it was designed from the start as a placeholder until the new GMT820 platform arrived in 2000 to slot under a new Suburban and Yukon and pressed into service for the new Escalade.
Cadillac Escalade Second Generation: 2002-2006
The second-generation Escalade is probably the one you think of when someone mentions “an old Escalade.” Since Escalade development entered late in the GMT820 platform party, it skipped the 2001 model year for a 2002 debut. The new Escalade wore a bold, angular design in line with Cadillac’s then-new “Art and Science” design language exclusive to the marque, and shared little with the look of the Suburban and Yukon. Interior trimmings were summarily posher than the Chevy and GMC, incorporating a substantial amount of Caddy-only leather colors and “Zebrano” wood paneling. This is also where much of the initial glitz and glam that made it such a rap video favorite came in—a Bulgari-branded analog clock was standard, after all.
Range-topping variants packed the potent 6.0-liter Vortec 6000 V-8, good for 345 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. The industrial-grade four-speed automatic carried over to manage this boost in power, as did an optional full-time four-wheel-drive system. Adaptive suspension was introduced for the Escalade, making the Nimitz-class SUV handle less like a Carnival cruise ship.
Apropos of watercraft, an 8,000-plus-pound tow rating meant you could have your weekend at the lake without borrowing your cousin’s F-250, and keep your cooled seats, satellite radio, and rear-seat entertainment to impress the visiting in-laws. If you really wanted to be the talk of the time-share, the Platinum Edition, introduced in 2004, offered such niceties as heated and cooled cupholders, a moon roof, and a chrome grille.
Cadillac Escalade Third Generation: 2007-2014
This is where the Escalade shifted from a lumbering Cadillac truck into a bona fide luxury hauler. The chrome “Art and Science” schnoz was chromier and crisper than before, though the profile and platform couldn’t hide all its Suburban/Yukon roots. Cadillac did its best to move the truck upmarket, with a global debut in 2005 at a Rodeo Drive event attended by celebrities including Paris Hilton, Regina King, and Adrien Brody.
When the third-gen Escalade first hit dealers, gas prices hadn’t quite yet exploded as they did in the later part of the decade, so it was still “drill, baby, drill!” with an all-aluminum Vortec 6.2-liter V-8. Standard power was now a solid 403 hp and 417 lb-ft of torque, managed by a new six-speed 6L80 automatic transmission. If you were the rare ecologically conscientious Escalade buyer, a slow-selling hybrid variant was offered for the 2009 through 2013 model years.
The Escalade Hybrid received a 6.0-liter V-8, augmented by a pair of 60-kW motors fed by a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery. The “green” Escalade also used a complex transmission design that incorporated both electric motors, three additional planetary gearsets, and four additional clutches. Combined power was a reasonable 379 hp. It wasn’t perfect, but for a three-ton V-8 leviathan, the 20/23 city/highway mpg was a generous improvement over the regular rear-wheel-drive Escalade’s 14/18 numbers.
Inside, it was more baller than ever, building on the same more-is-more formula set forth by the second-gen Escalade. Leather, wood, and soft-touch plastics were everywhere, as were entertainment screens, premium sound systems, and heated-and-cooled everything.
Cadillac Escalade Fourth Generation: 2015-2020
If the second-gen brought the Escalade into the diamond-studded limelight, and the third-gen cemented it as the big-bling hauler, the outgoing fourth-gen is when the Escalade shifted into an ultra-luxe tech-laden mega-sled that incorporated the full extent of General Motors’ technology and design.
At its core, it’s still an evolved Suburban/Yukon, but the fourth-gen took a bigger step away from its siblings with heavy use of a bespoke Cadillac CUE infotainment and top-shelf materials. The driver-assistance package was expanded, as was all the adjunct tech that went along with that, including cameras, cruise control, and onboard diagnostics.
Still, it’s a big brute when you compare it to the current full-size luxury SUV market. While there really aren’t any direct competitors save the current Lincoln Navigator, we’re sure some buyers have defected for the large-SUV offerings of Mercedes, Audi, and BMW. Cadillac doesn’t seem worried—with a standard 6.2-liter V-8 and a six- then eight- and now 10-speed transmission managing 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, nothing from overseas can out-tow or outhaul the Caddy.
Despite an exterior design that appears just as fresh as it did upon debut, the interior style and tech is beginning to smell a bit ripe. So it’s time for the new 2021 Escalade to take center stage, especially given the recent debuts of the all-new GMC Yukon and Chevy Tahoe. If history is anything to go by, expect more of the same deliciously gluttonous excess we’ve come to know and love from Caddy’s big beast.
Bonus: Cadillac Escalade EXT, 2002-2013
You didn’t think we’d forget about one of the goofiest GM trucks of all, did you? For 11 model years and two distinct generations, Cadillac Escalade-ified the existing Chevrolet Avalanche sport-utility truck to court buyers away from the dismally unpopular Lincoln Blackwood and later Mark LT pickups. The truck sold reasonably well, but wasn’t renewed for the fourth generation of the Escalade, mostly due to poor sales during its final few years and the discontinuation of the Avalanche on which it was based. Maybe we’ll see another EXT in the future, but we’re not holding our breath.