2011 Cadillac Escalade: What Makes for an Award Winner?

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AutoPacific, as a well-respected automotive research firm, uses the voice of real consumers like you, the VehicleVoice panel member, to help automakers make the best possible cars and trucks.  The data that we collect also helps identify what vehicles are most satisfying to their owners, as well as being the closest to their owners’ ideals.  Hence, each year we publish our annual list of AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Award (VSA) winners (most satisfying vehicles in their segments, as rated by owners) and AutoPacific Ideal Vehicle Award (IVA) winners (closest to their owners’ ideals).  These awards highlight what the best vehicles are doing right as reported by their owners, and can serve as a tool to you as the consumer in finding a vehicle that you will be extremely happy with for many years.  Despite the vitriolic rants of the angry and ill-informed, we simply report on what you as the consumer tell us.

With that said, we found it noteworthy that the 2011 Cadillac Escalade not only won its segment for the Vehicle Satisfaction Award and the Ideal Vehicle Award, but in fact was the top scoring vehicle period for the Vehicle Satisfaction Award!  As such, we needed to get behind the wheel of one to see what it was that made owners so enamored with their Escalades.

Cadillac provided us with a loaded Escalade Platinum Hybrid with 4WD.  This is the pinnacle of the Escalade lineup, as reflected by its $88,140 sticker price.  As a Platinum model, it added to the Escalade’s already luxurious feature roster with tons of genuine walnut and ash wood trim, generous slatherings of real aluminum trim, leather-wrapped dashboard and door panels, some of the softest leather we’ve seen recently, rear seat entertainment with three screens, and more.  As a Hybrid, this Escalade sported GM’s 2-Mode Hybrid system, which uses a trick transmission and 300v nickel metal hydride battery pack in conjunction with a 6.0L V8 to provide 332HP and EPA fuel economy ratings of 20 MPG city and 23 MPG highway.  That’s incredibly impressive for a vehicle so big and heavy.

It must be said that Escalade belongs to something of a diminishing breed of SUVs.  While most luxury SUVs have become crossovers with more car-like ride and handling, Escalade remains a real truck under the imposing skin.  As can be readily seen in its profile, it shares much with the much cheaper Chevrolet Tahoe, which in turn is an SUV version of the Silverado full-size pickup truck.

So aside from the trick hybrid powertrain, Escalade is, on paper, a gussied up version of the plumber’s pickup.  What’s so satisfying or ideal about that?  In our drive of the vehicle, quite a bit, actually.  It may be old school in using a big truck frame and a solid rear axle underneath, but there is something gratifying about driving such an unabashedly big and brash SUV like this one.

The ultra-high seating position and big windows (increasingly a rarity in this age of smaller windows and lower, more car-like crossover SUVs) make for an insanely panoramic view around you.  The V8 growl is audible yet well-mannered, and pickup and passing power is immediate and satisfying.  And while the somewhat vague steering and slightly truckish ride quality (not helped by those massive and blingy 22-inch wheels) feel a bit yesteryear, it does feel satisyingly, well…American.  This is a cruiser in the ultimate sense, the kind you drive with one arm hanging out the window.  Oh, and this hybrid’s fuel economy (we averaged a bit over 20 mpg overall) was simply amazing for this type of vehicle – and likely better than any number of luxury crossovers in the marketplace.

Compared to modern crossover SUVs, there are plenty of nits we can pick.  The second row seat has a shortage of room for such a large vehicle, and the third row is not only useless, but its inability to be folded into the floor is almost laughable today.  The navigation and audio interface looks and feels a few generations old, the Bluetooth hands-free doesn’t import your phone’s contacts, and despite the sumptuous interior trimmings, many of the buttons and knobs feel low rent, right out of that Silverado pickup that the Escalade shares much of its DNA with.

But for the sort of person looking for a big, traditional luxury SUV, Escalade pushes all the right buttons to its owners’ delight, hence its sweeping performance across AutoPacific’s awards.  Despite its imperfections, we certainly were delighted in so many ways by the Escalade and could certainly see why it’s so satisfying and ideal to its owners.  It’s not necessarily the right vehicle for everybody, but if you are searching for a big luxury SUV, knowing that it won the awards it did – due to the way its owners rated it – might help you make a more informed choice.

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