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FIRST DRIVE

Cadillac Gussies Up the Chevy Tahoe

September 03, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Cadillac's 1999 Escalade is one of those recurring factors that Detroit does, well, so adroitly.

In the beginning it was the Chevrolet Tahoe, a linebacker among full-size sport-utilities and coiner of that immortal phrase: "Honey, I Shrunk the Suburban."

Tahoe was adopted out at an early age to GMC, crafters of cargo vans and hearty pickups. It was given new badges, a loftier price, and emerged from General Motors' finishing school as the Yukon.

Early this year--with super-cushioned luxury sport-utilities lurching everywhere--Yukon was stuffed with wood accents, two-tone leather armchairs, softer tires, an OnStar navigation and communications system, a $10,000 price increase and yet another handle: GMC Denali.

We're not done yet.

Along comes Cadillac, which is into instant gratification, immediate profits and having an anxiety attack about the years it will take to build a fresh platform to compete against the goofy but successful Lincoln Navigator SUV.

So Tahoe-Yukon-Denali has been given the fourth-over. Large block letters on both sides. Wreaths front and rear. And the God-awful name of Escalade, which sounds like something best ordered with chocolate sprinkles and an almond biscotti.

Two responses are appropriate here:

* Cadillac could be criticized for huckstering its faithful into paying an estimated $45,000 for a tarted-up Chevy Tahoe, which fully dressed in fine leathers costs only $32,000.

* Or Cadillac could be applauded for canniness in plumbing parental heritage, and the tried and truth of the GM truck experience that stretches back to 1937 and the first Suburban.

*

No matter the argument, the Escalade, which goes on sale next month, is a thorough vehicle with gray glove leathers and Zebrano woods elevating its luxuries to traditional Cadillac levels. Seats have been padded to be as soft and marginally mushy as the suspension and ride, with added insulation for deeper silence.

Appointments are first-cabin and include a Bose sound system with six-disc CD (plus headphones so rear-seat passengers can listen to different audio sources); holders tailored to fit 10 containers (from Dixie cups to a bottle of Moet); heated seats (best known as High Sierra bun warmers); plus that OnStar concierge. Unless you insist on a refrigerated wine locker, there are no further options.

Power is by GM's trusted 5.7 V-8 delivering 255 horsepower and 330 foot-pounds of torque, should you want to tow your house to a better neighborhood. Gas consumption of 13 mpg running around Encino, and 16 on the interstate, is a guzzle. But, hey, this is a Caddie and a sport-ute to boot.

There's more than enough four-wheel-drive muscle for towing horse trailers or braving Grants Pass in mid-December because Escalade looks like a Tahoe, which is a Yukon, and that's about as tough as they come.

"Love these seats," says Mrs. Dean, wriggling into the perforated leather and playing Ultimate Consumer. "More comfortable than Mercedes' sport-utility." Cadillac will be happy to hear that.

"How much is this Escalade?"

About $45,000.

"How much is the Mercedes?"

About $35,000.

"If I were looking for status, why not buy the Mercedes?"

Cadillac will weep if asked that.

*

Paul Dean is The Times' automotive writer. He can be reached via e-mail at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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