What's New – Cadillac debuts a hybrid version of its Escalade based on its two-mode hybrid system. This is the first hybrid in the full-size luxury suv market and it makes significant fuel-economy gains over the base Escalade.
What We Think – Once one gets past the slightly strange notion of a Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, the numbers start to make sense and the experience compromises little of what one has come to expect from a regular Escalade.
Cadillac Escalade Hybrid – 2009 First Drive: As we were shooting video footage on the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid for this review, a woman in a regular Escalade rolled down her window and asked me, "What is that?" She had a large yellow diamond, surrounded by other large diamonds, sitting on her finger. She had a Blackberry in her hand and Chanel sunglasses resting on her nose. Given that this was Beverly Hills, I had little doubt that her display of wealth was legit. After letting her know it was a hybrid Escalade, she said "I need to get rid of my Escalade as soon as possible, it uses so much gas; when can I buy that hybrid version?" Whether she wanted to spend less on fuel because money was tight (I kind of doubt it) or she just wanted to exhibit a less fuel-hungry lifestyle (it was L.A.), this woman was providing anecdotal evidence to something Cadillac has been saying since they first revealed their Escalade Hybrid: There are consumers out there that want better fuel economy without having to compromise on utility and luxury. With an Escalade that gets an estimated 50-percent better gas mileage in the city over the one belonging to our Chanel-wearing friend, Cadillac just might have what it takes to reach these consumers.
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2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid – How It All Works
The regular rear-wheel-drive Escalade gets an EPA rating of 12 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway. Compare this to the hybrid version which gets an EPA estimated 20 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. Say what you will about the notion of a hybrid Escalade, it's difficult to argue with the significance of its fuel economy improvement figures. For reference, a 2008 Toyota Camry with a V6 engine (and roughly 2,400 lbs. less mass than the Escalade Hybrid) gets an EPA rating of 19 mpg in the city.
Superficially, the Escalade Hybrid is almost identical to the regular Escalade. Mechanically they are two very different beasts. At the heart of the Escalade Hybrid is General Motors' two-mode hybrid system. When you are driving at low speeds through the parking lot at Barney's, "mode one" allows the Escalade to operate on battery alone with the engine shut off (releasing zero emissions). When you are towing your Chris-Craft to the lake house, "mode two" allows for a combination of battery and engine at the same time, which achieves greater fuel efficiency than if the engine was running unassisted. The hybrid system also allows the engine to shut off altogether when the vehicle is stopped at a light or just sitting in traffic. Wave at the girl in the Range Rover next to you: She's burning gas, you aren't.
In addition to the hybrid system, Cadillac has engineered the Escalade Hybrid's 6.0-liter V-8 engine with a technology called Active Fuel Management. This allows the engine to deactivate cylinders when they aren't needed, so if you're on the highway and you lift your foot off the gas pedal, the vehicle might only use four cylinders instead of eight, which contributes to higher fuel economy. Think of it as a system that allows the Escalade's engine to temporarily transform from hauling machine to Honda Civic without you ever noticing…except when you spend more time between fill-ups.
Finally, the vehicle uses regenerative braking to convert energy into electricity when the brakes are applied or the vehicle is coasting, like a squirrel burying acorns to consume at a later date. This electricity is stored in the battery for use when the vehicle starts moving again. In total, the hybrid battery system adds roughly 400-lbs of mass over the base Escalade, yet it hardly intrudes at all into the vehicle's cabin.
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2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid – Driving Impressions
The Cadillac Escalade Hybrid drives like, well, a regular Cadillac Escalade—and that's the point. Cadillac aimed to compromise as little as possible when creating this vehicle, and unless you actively watch the real-time hybrid information readout on the in-dash screen while driving (which is inadvisable anyways), you really won't notice the vehicle switching between its various modes. It's all quite seamless. And while the Escalade Hybrid is working with 71 fewer horsepower, it's plenty quick when you need it (like outrunning camera-wielding paparazzi), and if you're looking for better gas mileage, you probably aren't trying to Dale Earnhardt around town anyways.
The regular Escalade handles smoothly and confidently for a vehicle of its size, and even with the extra weight, the Escalade Hybrid is no different here. Cadillac claims you can go up to 30 mph on the battery alone, but in the rolling terrain and steep inclines of Beverly Hills where we tested the vehicle we had no such luck. That said, it was nice seeing the vehicle's engine shut off completely when we were sitting in traffic, which happens quite frequently in an area like Los Angeles. For those who live outside the confines of a state that only sees snow on movie sets, four-wheel drive is available on the Escalade Hybrid as well.
Both inside and outside the vehicle, the hybrid version is almost identical to the luxurious regular Escalade (interior pictured above) with leather covering the seats, door trim and center console (so while you might get a hesitant nod from the people at the Sierra Club, the folks at PETA will still hate you). Some of the packaging is slightly different (DVD-Navigation comes standard on the Hybrid), but just about anything you can get on the regular Escalade is available on its gas/battery-powered brother. This means a Bose 5.1 surround sound system, High Intensity Discharge headlamps, and a power-assisted rear liftgate that opens and closes with the touch of a button like a mechanical monster waiting to consume your Whole Foods grocery bags. And with 108.9 cubic feet of cargo space, that's a lot of grocery bags.
Superficially, one of the only things distinguishing the Escalade Hybrid from the regular Escalade is badging. And speaking of which, the hybrid decals all over the exterior of the vehicle need to go. They're as tacky as leaving the price tag on a birthday gift.
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2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid – Conclusion
There are those who will say the Escalade Hybrid is the answer to a question no one asked. Our anecdotal experience aside, only sales will tell if this is notion is correct or not. As to the question of whether you can achieve sizeable improvements in gas mileage without compromising utility and luxury? Cadillac has demonstrated it's a possibility and has delivered on that promise.
While prices haven't been released yet for the Escalade Hybrid, there will be an inevitable premium over the regular Escalade's base price of $59,805 (Cadillac says roughly 10 percent over a nicely equipped Escalade). So even with rapidly rising gasoline prices, image ultimately factors heavily into the near-term decision to go with the hybrid version. That said, in the world of Chanel sunglasses, sometimes image is justification enough for purchase. Unlike a pair of Chanel sunglasses, which do no more to block the sun over the Wal-Mart variety, the Escalade Hybrid offers significant improvements in both fuel economy and emissions reduction over the base Escalade. Now go Blackberry Messenger your friends that you've got an Escalade for sale before the hybrid version hits the streets in August.
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2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid – Specifications
Test Vehicle: 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid 2WD
Base Price: $70,000 (estimate)
Engine Size and Type: Hybrid Vortec 6.0-liter V-8 with 300-volt battery
Engine Horsepower: 332 at 5,100 rpm
Engine Torque: 367 lb.-ft. at 4,100 rpm
Transmission: Two-mode continuous electric ratio hybrid transmission
Curb Weight: 5,727 lbs.
Estimated EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 20/21 mpg
Length: 202.5 in.
Width: 79.0 in.
Wheelbase: 116.0 in.
Height: 74.3 in.
Legroom (front/rear/third): 41.3/39.0/25.4 in.
Headroom (front/rear/third): 40.4/38.5/38.2 in.
Max. Seating Capacity: Eight
Max. Cargo Volume: 108.9 cu. ft.
Max. Payload: 1,573 lbs.
Max. Towing Capacity: 5,800 lbs.
Ground Clearance: 9.0 in.
By Elliot Darvick
Photo credit: Cadillac