Matching a Cadillac Escalade with a hybrid power train seems ridiculous, but the Cadillac brand is made for taking cars over the top, then finding another top to go over. The Cadillac Escalade, in particular, serves as an example of American excess, a big luxury SUV cruiser never meant to be taken off paved surfaces. Although adding a hybrid power train mitigates the generally poor fuel economy of the gas-only version, its more important function is to highlight the popular green trend. And the Escalade Hybrid makes no secret of its greenness, sporting hybrid signs and badges from every angle.
The hybrid power train in the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is shared with that in the GMC Yukon Hybrid and Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, the latter model voted the 2008 Green Car of the Year by the Green Car Journal. With this system, the Escalade Hybrid delivers similar economy, whether it's creeping through downtown traffic or sailing along the interstate. As standard, it comes packed with useful cabin tech, such as navigation, Bose audio, and Bluetooth support.
On the road
We had the opportunity to take the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid on a road trip and were treated to its luxuries from the get-go. The power lift gate blinked the taillights in warning as it opened access to the cargo bay, and the running boards folded down automatically, making it easy to step into the truck. The third row seats weren't quite as kind, requiring some muscle to get them out of the way.
The Escalade Hybrid is a good road tripper, with its large cabin, comfortable seating, and reasonable mileage.
Our gear safely packed away, we guided the Escalade Hybrid out through downtown traffic. The hybrid power train can carry the heavy truck forward under electric power alone, but that involves a light touch on the accelerator for which we generally didn't have patience. If you don't want cars honking behind you, give it some gas. That said, the transition from electric-only to its engine running is smooth.
In narrow lanes, the big truck is unwieldy at best, but the steering responds well enough to keep it in its lane. Of particular benefit is the blind-spot detection system, which lights up a signal in the side mirror if a smaller car in the next lane slips below the Escalade's high sight lines. Also helpful is the XM NavTraffic overlaid on the navigation screen's maps, which warned us of an incident 5 miles ahead on our route. It was easy enough to hit the Avoid button and have a new route automatically programmed into the navigation system.
Finally out on the freeway, the Escalade was cruising at speed. Heated and cooled front seats with 14-way adjustment, leather, wood trim--yes, this is definitely a Cadillac. But wait, what sort of ride quality is this? The jolts and bumps from the road were palpable in the cabin, not something we would expect from a brand that used to produce big, long sedans that floated down the long, open roads. Platform-sharing has the Escalade Hybrid built on the same GMT900 platform as other big GM SUVs and pick-up trucks, which aren't known for smoothing out the road.
To save gas, the engine shuts off half its cylinders when cruising on the highway.
70 mph on the freeway isn't optimal driving for most hybrids, as you can't take best advantage of all that instant torque from the electric motor. But the Escalade Hybrid has another trick up its sleeve: cylinder deactivation. Its big 6.2-liter V-8 stops sending fuel to half its cylinders while cruising at speed. But the engine mode indicator showed that this feature is kind of sensitive. In low, rolling hills, a little gas applied intended to keep the car's speed up inevitably resulted in those four extra cylinders kicking in. Just like the electric mode, it would take a very gentle touch on the accelerator to use the truck's fuel-saving features to their fullest.
In the cabin
The dashboard of the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is familiar territory with GM's standard navigation and audio system controlled by a touch-screen LCD. The interface is well-thought-out, using tabs across the top to make selections for things such as audio sources. The tabs also let you choose to display a full-screen map or a split between the map and current audio source.
The traffic integration with the navigation system is excellent, letting you easily avoid jams.
Although the navigation system is DVD-based, it responds well, refreshing the map quickly enough and keeping good track of the Escalade Hybrid's position. It offers the usual categories for points of interest, but doesn't go really deep with individual retail locations.
Destination entry is intuitive and easy with a large onscreen keyboard. Route guidance is also decent, but doesn't have text-to-speech, so it won't read out the names of streets.
The only really remarkable feature of the navigation system is XM NavTraffic, which GM integrates really well. Not only will the system warn you about slow traffic on a programmed route, giving you a detour button right on the warning, it will also raise a warning if it finds a traffic incident within 10 miles on the current road. For example, if you jump on the freeway and there's an accident 5 miles down the road, the system will proactively warn you.
These RCA jacks on the rear of the console are the only means of plugging in an MP3 player.
The stereo uses the same interface, but is lacking in audio sources. It comes with a six-disc changer right below the LCD, along with XM satellite radio. But the only option for an external MP3 player is a set of RCA jacks set into the back of the center console, a placement intended for the rear-seat passengers to take advantage of the entertainment package in the back. The rear-seat entertainment includes an LCD hanging from the ceiling, which can show DVDs or input from a composite video jack next to the RCA jacks.
Music and DVDs play through a Bose 5.1 channel audio system, broadcasting good-quality sound. We would classify it as above-average, not as good as really high-end systems, but better than the six-speaker audio found in many cars as a base system. This Bose system has a lot of power, but separation is poor, leading to muddled frequencies.
Cadillac enhances the navigation system with OnStar, which lets you ask an operator to find a local business, the directions for which will be downloaded to the Escalade Hybrid's navigation system. OnStar provides other services such as emergency response and phone calls.
But where OnStar used to be the only option for phone calls in GM vehicles, the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid gets Bluetooth support. It's a basic system, with no onscreen feedback, but it serves well for receiving calls. There is phone book, but it won't download contacts from your cell phone.
This icon in the side mirror lights up when a car is in the Escalade's blind spot.
The rear-view camera in the Escalade Hybrid uses GM's latest technology, which puts a hazard icon on the screen over any objects that are particularly close to the car. There is also sonar, which sounds a warning as you get closer to objects. Given the size of the truck, the parking system is a welcome addition.
As a new feature for GM, the Escalade Hybrid features the blind-spot detection system we mentioned above. With this system, the warning will only light up if a car is actually in your blind spot--if you can see the car in your side-view mirror, it won't light up. We prefer systems that show a warning even when a car is visible in the next lane, as it's a useful visual cue to keep from cutting other people off.
Under the hood
At 5,726 pounds, the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is a beast, which is why its gas engine is a 6.2-liter V-8 assisted by a 300 volt hybrid system. The engine itself puts out 332 horsepower at 5,100 rpm and 367 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm, resulting in ready acceleration with the Escalade Hybrid.
Hybrid power flow is shown by this animation on the car's LCD.
Two electric motors are built into the transmission and powered by a 300 volt nickel metal hydride battery pack. These motors can run the truck at low speeds under electric power only, and do a good job of assisting the engine when acceleration is needed at speed. As with most hybrids, regenerative brakes recharge the battery pack, which also provides energy to run the air conditioning compressor and power steering.
This hybrid system is called two-mode by GM because the transmission can operate in an electronically variable mode, useful for most driving conditions, or use its four fixed gears, intended for hauling trailers or driving up hills with a full load of cargo. The fixed gears aren't as efficient as the variable mode, but can handle tougher conditions. To use the fixed gears, you have to put the transmission selector in M and shift using the plus-minus button on the selector.
The tuning on the electric power steering is good, not too light, and the overall response is good. However, the truck body sways and wallows in turns, so you don't want to push it too hard. On one trip we ended up with a carload of nauseous passengers after driving over winding mountain roads.
Traction control helps the Escalade Hybrid out in the wet, and four-wheel drive is available.
The sheer weight of the Escalade Hybrid aids in its traction, but it also includes GM's StabiliTrak system, combining traction control and electronic stability. Our vehicle was two-wheel drive, but you can also get the car in a four-wheel drive version.
Fuel economy is given by the EPA as 20 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, impressive figures for a big SUV like this and 50 percent better in the city than the gas-only version, according to GM. We came in with an average of 18.4 mpg, which included lots of highway and mountain driving. For emissions, the Escalade Hybrid merely meets California's minimum LEV II requirement.
The 2009 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid costs a whopping base price of $73,475. Fortunately, that comes fully equipped with navigation, OnStar, Bluetooth, and blind-spot detection. In fact, the only option on our vehicle was the powered running boards, adding $1,095 to the total, which came in at $75,520 with the $950 destination charge.
Although its cabin tech is a bit dated, and it doesn't include third row seating, the Lexus RX 400h also features a hybrid power train and comes in for about $25,000 less than the Escalade Hybrid, but doesn't make quite the statement. A nonhybrid option in the luxury SUV segment is the Mercedes-Benz GL450, which comes in at about the same price as the Escalade Hybrid.
We were impressed with the Escalade Hybrid all around, giving it excellent ratings for performance, cabin tech, and design. The main things that let it down were a rough, trucklike ride and lack of audio sources.