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Review: 2003 Cadillac Escalade

Cadillac Escalade In Snow

SEE ALSO: Cadillac Buyer's Guide

Manrico Delcore & Mary Beth Debicki

Luxury with room for the whole family.

Eleven thirty P.M., finally, after a 5 hour delay we landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Stepping curbside, we were amazed we had landed at all. It was snowing heavily and the windy city was living up to its name. By the time we located our car, we were chilled to the bone and snow covered as the howling wind was blowing snow into the parking garage.

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“Our” vehicle for the next week was a 2003 Cadillac Escalade. We opened the tailgate and were delighted to be able to figure out how to tumble forward the 3rd row seats without having to dig out the owner’s manual or a nuclear physicist. With the 3rd row seats out of the way, there’s about 60 cu ft of space. The optional second row bucket seats also fold creating a flat load floor and 108 cu ft of cargo room. These volumes are pretty consistent with other large luxury SUVs like the Lincoln Navigator. Our suitcases and camera cases fit easily behind the folded down third row seats.

Maybe we were tired, but pulling down the tailgate seemed to require a little extra oomph. The grab handle was much appreciated since we are both average height folks, but an electrically operated tailgate would have been very welcome.

We jumped in the front seats, made easy thanks to the running boards and grab handles, closed the doors, and there was silence. No more howling wind. We were in our own little oasis. The doors have a nice hefty feel, not clunky or bulky.

For the first time in 6 hours we were comfortable (is it just us, or are economy airplane seats getting smaller and harder?). The front leather buckets are very comfortable and supportive, not like an overstuffed sofa. The seat’s “piece de resistance” was their soothing and warming heaters (also available on the rear buckets). We could have sat/napped right then and there and been very content. But we had a 200-mile drive to make.

By the time we reached the Indiana border, traffic was down to mainly trucks, the large cargo variety. Being passed by semi after semi, all going way too fast for the road and weather conditions, we were glad we were encased in nearly 6,000 pounds of steel.

No one can deny the primal sense of safety and security that one feels inside a large, solid SUV. It’s like being inside a medieval castle with the ‘barbarians’ at the gates. Of course the big negative is you pay more at the pump. The Escalade gets 12/16 MPH in the city/highway respectively. Personally, we are willing to pay a bit more when we fuel up and have a vehicle that gives us that sense of security and protection.

There is more to the Escalade’s safety than just its mass and solid construction. For 2003 there are passenger sensing, dual-level airbags for the driver and front seat passenger. When an accident happens, sensors determine to what level the passenger airbags should be inflated. And if the sensor determines that a child or small adult is seated in the passenger seat, the system automatically deactivates the airbag.

The Escalade is big, 16 ½ feet long with a wheelbase just shy of 10 feet. Yet we were surprised at how easy it was to maneuver around the tight confines of the parking garage. This feeling of ease continued as we merged with the thousands of other travelers fleeing O’Hare in a mad dash to get home. Switching lanes and moving around slower traffic didn’t require filing a flight plan.

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Our “castle’s” interior was sumptuously elegant. The layout, design, finish and materials, including a Bulgari designed clock, reminded us of top end European sedans. The redesigned instrument cluster and console have a clean minimalist look. The steering wheel has sprouted controls for nine functions. Letting your thumbs do the walking, you can control the XM satellite radio (an option), initiate voice recognition for the OnStar system, program vehicle functions, or do a variety of trip and fuel calculations.

Interstate 90 curves around the southern end of Lake Michigan and often receives the brunt of Chicago’s winter storms. We found ourselves driving in near blizzard conditions with at least 3 inches of snow on the road. Our “all wheel drive” Escalade took it in stride.

In addition to all wheel drive, the Escalade has “all speed” traction control and for 2003 an improved stability control system that now is able to act independently on each wheel. For example, if the vehicle understeers, meaning that it steers wider than the driver’s intended course, StabiliTrak applies the brakes to the inside wheels to help the vehicle turn tighter.

One advantage of the Escalade’s stability control system is that the driver is able to continue applying throttle while StabiliTrak is working. We appreciated this feature while we were passing a truck. As I began to steer back into our lane, I jerked the steering wheel to miss a large chunk of ice on the road and momentarily lost grip on the rear tires. The semi I had just passed was chugging along behind me, so I really didn’t want to slow down; StabiliTrak regained grip without slowing down the vehicle.

Like traction control, StabiliTrak works automatically requiring no driver action. It is remarkably smooth, to the point that most drivers will probably not notice that it has engaged.

After driving 200 miles of snow-covered interstate, we were impressed at how well the Escalade handled the snow and ice. Even when jack-knifed semis turned the median into a truck stop, the Escalade was sure-footed and we felt in control.

Although our Escalade easily handled snow and ice, it is still only an “all wheel drive” SUV and not a “4x4”. If you need a luxury SUV with off road capability, perhaps a Range Rover would be a better choice, as all the “all wheel drive” SUVs will leave you wanting.

Over the next few days the weather improved and the snowplow crews got a handle on the roads allowing us to drive the Escalade on pavement and not snow.

The 345 horsepower Vortec 6.0L V-8 gives plenty of power for quick acceleration, passing and cruising. Step hard on the throttle and the 380 lb-ft of torque gets your attention as the vehicle surges forward.

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With a 0-60 time of 8.44 seconds, the Escalade is no slow moving behemoth. The 4-speed electronic automatic transmission features a “tow/haul” selector on the shifter stalk, which, when engaged significantly reduces the transmission’s “hunting” for the correct gear.

After a day spent in the woods, six adults in their bulky winter gear, including parkas, snow boots, and daypacks clambered aboard for a ride. We all had plenty of room! There are a number of SUVs (Navigator, Durango, Lexus GX) that offer seating for 6 adults, but few pull it off as comfortably as the Escalade. With second row heated seats, tri-zone climate control, not to mention the optional Panasonic DVD entertainment system and headphone plugs (which allow passengers to listen to different radio stations, CDs or cassettes) the Escalade may be just the vehicle to take those independent-minded teenagers on a trip across America. And with a towing capacity of 7800 pounds, you can bring along your 28 ft Airstream or your classic Chris-Craft motorboat.

The Escalade doesn’t handle like a 2-seater sports car or even a Cayenne; you never quite forget you are driving a 6,000 lb vehicle. Throw it into a tight curve with a bit of gusto and you do get some vehicle lean, but the vehicle’s electronic wizardry (including road sensing suspension and yaw controls) keeps the Escalade tracking well. In reality, the Escalade handles remarkably well for a 6,000lb body-on-frame, solid rear axle vehicle.

With a powerful engine, a comfortable suspension and responsive steering, the Escalade, although not a performance SUV, delivers an extremely pleasant ride. Add the fact that it can carry 6 adults and their gear in refined luxury, enveloping the occupants in a sense of security, tow nearly 8,000 pounds, handle wintry (as well as dirt and gravel) roads with aplomb, and give the driver a pleasant and “no surprises” driving experience, and do it all for just over $50,000, and the Escalade gets our nod for best large all wheel drive SUV.


Models: 2003 Cadillac Escalade AWD (all wheel drive). Construction: all-welded, fully-boxed, ladder-type channel design, with hydroformed front and rear sections.

Engine Type: 6000 6.0L V8 (LQ9) Displacement (cu in/cc): 366 / 5967 Bore & stroke (in/mm): 4 x 3.62 / 101.6 x 92 Block material: cast iron cast iron Cylinder head material: cast aluminum cast aluminum Valvetrain: OHV with two valves per cylinder Fuel delivery: sequential central-port fuel injection Compression ratio: 10.1:1 9.5:1 Horsepower (hp/kw @ rpm): 345 / 257 @ 5200 Torque (lb-ft/Nm @ rpm): 380 / 516 @ 4000 Recommended fuel: premium recommended but not required Estimated fuel economy (mpg city/hwy/combined): 12/16/13

Transmissions Hydra-Matic 4L65-E four-speed heavy-duty electronic automatic. Gear ratios (:1): First: 3.06 Second: 1.63 Third: 1.00 Fourth: 0.70 Reverse: 2.29 Final drive ratio: 3.73

Chassis/Suspension Front: independent with torsion bars, 32mm stabilizer bar

Rear: 5-link with coil springs, 32mm stabilizer bar Traction control: all-speed traction control Steering type: power electronic, recirculating ball Steering ratio: 12.7:1 Steering wheel turns, lock-to-lock: 3 Turning circle, curb-to-curb(ft/m): 39.3/11.9

Brakes Type: four-wheel ABS with hydroboost

Wheels/Tires Wheel size: 17-inch x 7.5-inch Tires: P265/70/R17 all-season Goodyear steel-belted radials

Dimensions (in/mm) Exterior Wheelbase 116/2946.4 Overall length: 198.9/5052 Overall width: 78.9/2004 Overall height: 74.2/1884.6 Track: front: 65/1651 rear: 66/1676.4 Minimum ground clearance: 10.7/271.7 Step-in height: 30/762 Curb weight (lbs/kg): 5809/2534.9 Weight distribution (%front/rear): 52/48

Interior Front Middle Rear Seating capacity: 2 3 3 Head room: 40.7/1033.7 39.4/1000.8 37.4/950 Leg room: 41.3/1049 38.6/980.4 27.3/693.4 Shoulder room: 65.2/1656 65.1/1653 64.4/1635.8 Hip room: 61.4/1559.6 61.3/1557 49.2/1249.7

Capacities Cargo volume (cu ft/liters): 16.3/461 (behind 3rd row seats) 63.6/1801 (3rd row seats removed) 108.2/3064 (maximum w/ 2nd row seat down) Towing maximum (lbs/kg): 7800/3538 Fuel tank (gals/liters): 26/98.4