Enormous and enormously uneconomical, the Cadillac Escalade deserves only novelty status away from its indulgent native North American market. Compared with the modern and sophisticated European luxury SUVs with which it’s cracked up to compete, it’s oversized and poorly packaged. It drives very much like ‘truck’ 4x4s made elsewhere in the world used to, before monocoque construction and advanced chassis technology made them so much better behaved. And yet, even with an American truck this old-school, petrol-electric propulsion is now part of the mix.
The notion of hybridising a V8-engined behemoth like this in the name of eco-worthiness seems a rather incongruous one to put it politely. Still, Porsche has done very much the same thing with the equally ostentatious automotive statement that is the Cayenne, and Lexus has quietly been getting on with selling useful numbers of its appealing RX SUV hybrid for some time now.
Both of those manufacturers, however, chose to mate their fuel-saving electric tech to an efficient V6 engine (we’re talking relatively here). Not so Cadillac. Instead, it has kept a mighty V8 under the Escalade’s bonnet, albeit one reduced in capacity from the non-hybrid version’s 6162cc to a marginally more parsimonious 5967cc.
In non-hybrid form the Escalade’s mighty V8 puts out a hefty 409bhp and 415lb ft of torque. It also returns just 19.5mpg on the combined cycle while contributing 339g/km of CO2 to the atmosphere. In contrast, the price for a cleaner, greener conscience is that the petrol-electric hybrid produces just 337bhp and 365lb ft, but claimed combined economy improves to 25.9mpg with CO2 emissions falling to 256g/km. Hardly Prius-rivalling figures. But like we’ve already said, these things are all relative.
The petrol-electric Escalade uses GM’s two-mode hybrid system, which mostly operates as a CVT but also has four fixed gears that are used when the Caddy’s a-haulin’. And given the vehicle’s 2.7 tonnes, it’s easy to see the sense of harnessing its kinetic energy when coasting and braking. The electricity generated is stored in a 300-volt battery stored under the middle row of seats – the Escalade swallows it almost unnoticed – which propels it at low speeds. The Atkinson-cycle 332bhp 6.0-litre V8 has automatic stop-start, and can also operate on four cylinders to save fuel.
Inevitably, though, the Escalade is truck-like to drive in both low-speed manoeuvring and cornering, though for a vehicle almost as big as a house it gets around bends with less drama than you’d expect. This is a tall, ponderous-looking vehicle, and that’s how it feels on the road. The car’s titanic mass makes performance well below the order of the modern fast 4x4, too: the 2.6-tonne 6.2-litre standard model takes 6.7sec to crack 62mph, while the 2.8-tonne hybrid takes 8.4.
More disappointing than this is the near-ceaseless vibro-massage accorded to your lower legs in both cars - the consequence of riding on 22-inch wheels with 45-section tyres.
In the hybrid, it’s impossible to ignore the curious hums and whirrs of the multiple electric motors that not only propel the Cadillac but power the compressor, the brake pump and more, these especially evident when the V8 is switched off. But the worst refinement issue affects the brakes, whose transitions between regenerative and hydraulic retardation make it near impossible to bring the Escalade to a smooth stop.
The simpler 6.2-litre car is a little better mannered, but still entirely commercial-feeling from behind the wheel. Cadillac’s leather-derived luxury veneer is thin; in most ways and situations, the Escalade is a brutish, lumbering challenge to keep on the straight and narrow.
Yet for all its crudities, there’s something fascinating about the way this complex beast goes about its business, and there’s no question that you get a great view out from a vehicle this vast.
If you want an Escalade it’s probably only an Escalade that will do, in which case your choice is whether to buy hybrid or not. A part-electric drivetrain makes the car marginally more defensible, though many may judge its plentiful ‘hybrid’ badging at best ludicrous, at worst offensive. Plus, the Escalade feels like the gussied-up, workaday Chevrolet Tahoe that it is, with an interior finish vastly adrift of any premium SUV’s.
It’s ingenious, but it’s hard not to see the Escalade as an alcoholic brandishing a water bottle and claiming reformation – you can see clear liquid in there, but is it really H2O?