Machine Design

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV

The General proudly notes that the Cadillac ESV is the largest SUV in America.

While most tree huggers view that as a dubious distinction, they might be won over by the vehicle after a lift to a rally. In fact, everyone who climbed in was impressed with the spaciousness, ride, comfort, and view. Small cars are supposed to be "fun." But the ESV is too. Now how can I explain that?

Several ways. For one, this is a darn good-looking vehicle. I like the confident smile the silver grille exudes on black sheet metal. Seeing this handsome SUV in my driveway for several mornings made me feel fortunate and successful.

Because fortune rides high, getting in is a bit more involved than slipping into the family sedan. Well-placed handles and running boards simplify the task. And before you whine about that challenge, let me tell you that my 80-year-old stepmother hoisted herself in with only a little coaching. And thereupon, she discovered another benefit to heated seats. Of course they warm your tush on cold mornings, but after a ride to the grocery store Ann remarked, "That heat is wonderful. My back hasn't felt this good in days."

Of course, the seats are comfortable. They'd better be with 10-way power controls. Like most luxury cars, seat and mirror positions can be customized for drivers. What's better is that the positions can now be saved with the push of a single button. A previous GM car took no fewer than three separate selections to save similar positions. The vehicle is also 22-in. longer than the standard Escalade. That allows comfortable spacing for three rows of bucket seats while still providing plenty of room behind the third row for luggage.

The get-up-and-go from such a large vehicle is another source of entertainment. It's powered by a 345 hp, 6-liter, V8 engine that gives it enough oomph to go from 0 to 60 mph in under 9 sec - a figure I can generally confirm. The real reason for such a large engine is to pull things. It produces 380 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. According to GM, the ESV can pull a heavily weighted two-horse trailer.

The vehicle gets all-wheel drive and StabiliTrak, GM's traction-control system. The company says when the new four-channel system senses a tendency to skid or slide, it brakes an appropriate wheel quickly and precisely to bring the vehicle back into a straight line. Sadly, one of the snowiest winters on record left us no snow to play on. But a few weeks previous and with plenty of snow, we tested the same system in a Cadillac CTS. In straight-line acceleration, the car took off a lot faster than the family van did in the same test. And in a turn, the system removed power from the slipping wheel to keep the car from fishtailing.

Other electronic systems include road-sensing suspension. But without being able to turn it off, it's hard to say how much it helps. The ESV does seem to float along but I thought a smooth ride from a heavy car and a long wheelbase was a given.

The Ultrasonic Rear Parking Assist is supposed to help in parking, and it does. But it does a better job of keeping drivers from backing over their kid's bicycle or into garbage cans. Additional safety equipment includes a passenger sensing system. GM says it calculates the size and weight of a front-seat passenger and turns off the front-passenger air bag when it detects a child or booster seat, or a child in the front-passenger seat.

The only thing that will keep me out of an ESV is its price tag: $58,765 for the vehicle we drove. The 16-mpg highway also doesn't help. But if I could rent one for a family road trip, I'd jump on it in a heartbeat.

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