Yet this time I am not suffering.
Cadillac has dropped its all-new 2015 Escalade in my driveway. Instead of battling city congestion, attempting to reason with misinformed government agents, snacking on a too-small bag of pretzels and physically rubbing shoulders with a dubious stranger for 90-plus minutes within the confines of a bumpy aircraft, I have chosen to forgo air travel and drive myself door-to-door in a fullsize luxury sport utility vehicle.
The trip should be less expensive, less stressful and it may even be quicker. Most importantly, if what Cadillac is saying about its all-new Escalade holds true, my drive will be more comfortable and unquestionably more enjoyable.
Last year, if someone were to have asked me to drive an Escalade from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and back within 36 hours, I would have politely declined. Truth is, I have never been a big fan of the big luxury SUV. To me, it has always been an expensive, gussied-up Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban or GMC Yukon – in my mind all are nothing more than light trucks with passenger bodies bolted on their frames. Their driving dynamics have always mirrored that architecture, too, meaning each felt big, heavy and isolated. To be more concise, none offered an enjoyable way for this driving enthusiast to pass the time.
Yet the debut of the all-new 2015 Cadillac Escalade late last year piqued my interest. For the very first time, its attractive physical appearance captured my attention. Plus, I was curious about the automaker's claim that it was vastly different from its standard GM siblings in terms of cabin appointments and driving dynamics. When a planned trip to Monterey coincided with the new Escalade in my driveway, I hatched a quick plan; cancel the Bombardier CRJ-200, I would drive the Cadillac.
My chariot arrived as a Dark Granite Metallic standard-wheelbase Escalade 4WD Luxury model, absent of factory-installed options. No worries, as its standard equipment list includes nearly every imaginable luxury appointment known to the automotive industry, with the exception of rear seat entertainment and a few electronic driving aids (e.g., radar-based cruise control), features offered on premium trims. A glance at the Monroney reveals an as-tested price of $79,290 including destination (costly, but a genuine bargain compared to the $23-million list price of the small jet that was scheduled to fly me between LAX and MRY).
Subjectively, the exterior of the sleek T-tail CRJ-200 is more striking than the all-new Escalade – it's a jet, after all. But that doesn't mean the earthbound Cadillac doesn't turn heads. The fourth-generation sport utility cranes necks whether parked in a driveway or cruising down the open highway. Credit the automaker's edgy "Art and Science" design language, which beautifully ties five-segment vertical LED headlights, sharp shoulder lines, bright cargo rails and laser-thin LED taillamps into a very cohesive, well-planned and properly executed theme. I can't recall any single exterior styling cue on the Escalade worthy of a demerit, but if asked to offer input, I'd recommend a couple of exposed exhaust tips, with satin finishes to match the rest of the brightwork and add some muscularity to its rear view.
Not worrying about baggage allowances, weight or dimension, I toss my loosely packed suitcase and camera bag into the trunk of the Cadillac and hang my suit jacket on the hook behind the driver's seat. The cabin seats seven, but I'm soloing on this trip, so I use the rocker switches just inside the rear cargo area to lower the power-operated third row of seating, and manually fold the second row – dropping the seats improves rearward visibility out the back glass.
The cabin of the Escalade is anything but bland, hard and utilitarian – sorry Bombardier. Instead, the Cadillac's passenger compartment reeks of luxury, with every inch covered in silky leather, soft Alcantara, polished wood, aluminum or plush carpet. The fit and finish is world class, very inviting and on a level I consider equal or better than the Europeans.
Best case, I would have been sitting in a 17-inch wide Economy Plus seat with a few degrees of recline in the CRJ. In no way, shape or form would they come even close to the 12-way power adjustable, heated and cooled, leather-surfaced front thrones in the Cadillac. I climb into the driver's seat and make a few quick adjustments to the rake, recline and lumbar, electronically adjust the telescope of the steering wheel and then move the pedal cluster a bit further away from my shoes – a chiropractor can't make your back feel any better than the Escalade's front seats.
My planned route is up US Route 101, which should take just under five hours with respect to local speed limits. I push the round start/stop button, just to the driver's right knee, and a muted growl emerges from ahead of the firewall.
The jet boasts a pair of General Electric CF34 turbofans mounted on its fuselage. In contrast, Cadillac fits all of its Escalade models with GM's proven 6.2-liter V8, which is rated at 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. Whether driving two or four wheels, the engine effortlessly moves the 5,840-pound SUV quickly off the line (0-60 in under six seconds, says the automaker). The standard gearbox is a column-controlled six-speed automatic, which some may argue is a bit archaic considering that most of the industry has moved to eight ratios, but its operation is buttery smooth and nearly transparent. (The eight-speed unit confirmed for GM pickups is widely expected to hit the SUV range as soon as next year.)
I negotiate a few minutes of urban traffic and then merge onto the highway. Seconds later, I'm at my cruise speed of 74 mph (about 400 mph slower than the cruising speed of the CRJ-200). The jet takes top honors in velocity, but its cabin is annoyingly loud. The Escalade, on the other hand, is much, much quieter. Standard active noise cancellation, combined with a heavy dose of sound deadening, triple-sealed doors and acoustic front glass help the Cadillac's cabin maintain library levels of silence – you can easily hear a soft voice. Rather than hear myself think, I run Pandora audio through my smartphone and crank up the 16-speaker Bose audio system.
The driver's cockpit in the Escalade is futuristic, in an aircraft way – right down to the four-color head-up display (which, interestingly enough, the CRJ does not have). Nearly all of the Escalade's controls are backlit, meaning the dashboard is eerily dark until the ignition sequence is complete. The configurable primary instrument cluster is well-lit, logically laid out and easy to read even with polarized sunglasses.
Unfortunately, I've got fewer pleasantries to extend with regards to the automaker's CUE (Cadillac User Experience) infotainment controls, which are capacitive touch and haptic feedback panels centered around a high-mounted eight-inch full color touchscreen that is canted slightly upward. Even after hours and hours of familiarization, I can't think of anything nice to say about it. The system continues to be as slow, illogical and frustrating today as it was more than two years ago when I first tried it. Its use while parked is maddening and trying to operate it while driving borders on it being considered a safety hazard.
On a much more pleasant note, the ride is excellent – completely free of turbulence, of course – with credit going to the independent front and five-link rear suspension with standard two-mode (normal and sport) Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) damping. The magneto-rheological shocks are a game-changer in this segment, significantly improving the ride compared to GM's other conventionally sprung full-size vehicles and rivaling the best air-based systems. The MRC suspension allows the Escalade to glide magically over smooth roads and takes the rough edges off the bumpy sections. Cadillac has fit the Luxury model with standard 22-inch alloys wrapped in low-profile 285/45R22 tires, which look great but slightly affect the ride – I wondered aloud how much better it could feel with a bit more rubber between the wheels and asphalt.
Cadillac has fit its flagship SUV with a new electric power steering unit that provides excellent weight. The feedback to the driver is a little bit isolated, as expected, but the heaviness of the system, and the steering ratio, is top notch. Holding the vehicle steady at highway speeds doesn't require a constant stream of minor corrections, which is a huge improvement over its predecessor – I'd argue that the steering is the Escalade's most surprising attribute. Its 39-foot turning radius is also incredibly impressive, almost sedan-like, coming within a foot of the Honda Accord's turning radius (the Bombardier regional jet needs 75 feet of tarmac to do the same).
Worthy of mention is the Cadillac's commanding driving position, which puts the driver's eyes above most of the traffic. Whether realized or not, being able to see far down the road reduces stress, especially over the long haul. The Escalade's LED headlights, with automatic dimming, also deserve praise, as their beam is well spread and very strong – further lowering driving anxiety (I used them for hours on my return trip).
Although some consider road trips a bit boring, I look forward to them. Rather than forced chattiness with strangers inside a cramped and noisy aircraft cabin, I passed the hours singing with Pandora, making calls through hands-free Bluetooth, observing the poor driving habits of other motorists (there are some real award winners out there) and scanning the horizon and my mirrors for law enforcement – thankfully, I went by unnoticed.
Once I arrived at my destination, I pulled out a sheet of paper for some quick calculations. My total driving time, door-to-door, was just under five hours. Had I flown, the trip would have taken me an identical amount of time once travel to the airport, check-in, boarding, flying time and taxi service were accounted for – the time was a wash. However, the numbers weren't even close in terms of cost, as the Escalade burned slightly more than 14 gallons of premium unleaded at a rate of 20.8 mpg (a bit lower than the EPA highway figure, likely due to my higher average speed) which cost me just under $60 each way. The round trip airfare on United was $300.20 with taxes – subtract my meals and I had saved about $170.
Of course, it's easy to argue that most cars and trucks are more cost effective than a regional jet over a 300 mile drive, but the Escalade wasn't just financially advantageous – I actually arrived happier and more relaxed and rested than when I had left. More importantly, I had enjoyed the long drive, which is something I can't say after climbing out of many vehicles.
A year ago, I would have put the Cadillac Escalade near the bottom of the list if asked to rank its segment. I'm not surprising anyone by saying that competitors like the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, Infiniti QX80 and Land Rover Range Rover were far superior in both design and execution. But an intimate 600-mile trip in the all-new Escalade not only left me pleased and impressed, it left me convinced that it has the features, build quality and driving dynamics to strike new fear in the segment – and keep a few regional airliners nervous, as well.