It’s hard to believe, but General Motors’ luxury giant has been irritating environmentalists for more than two decades. Yet it shows no signs of aging and is unlikely to join the retired army soon. The Escalade remains one of the most popular and controversial cars, a symbol of the explosive growth of the premium SUV segment. The used car specialists from Indy Auto Man offer to take a few steps back into the history of the model and find out what made the original Caddy Escalade the forerunner of the luxury SUV market.

First generation (1999-2000)

Even though more than eight hundred thousand Escalades have been sold since 1998, by now, few motorists remember what its first generation looked like.

Escalade is a term that refers to the use of ladders to climb the ramparts during an assault. A fitting name for Cadillac’s first SUV, given that the Escalade was General Motors’ hasty answer to Ford’s premium Lincoln Navigator, which had appeared a year earlier, and to a lesser extent, the Lexus LX 450, which had been on sale since 1996. GM had to respond somehow, and the Cadillac design department made an urgent rebranding of the already-produced GMC Yukon Denali, changing the front doors, steering wheel, wheel covers, and emblems on the grille. The Escalade came in only one trim, with leather upholstery, OnStar (the proprietary emergency alert system), power seats, Bose audio system, heated side mirrors, keyless entry, and separate second-row climate control.

The only engine available was Yukon’s 5.7-liter Vortec V8, which developed 255 hp and 447 Nm of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission sent that power either to the rear wheels or to all four wheels. This is the only generation of Escalade that was produced exclusively with a five-seat interior layout. The first generation was sold from 1999 to 2000 model year, and during this, a little less than fifty thousand cars found their owners. Not so little, considering that, from the beginning, the model was designed to fill a gap in the Cadillac line. In 2000, the GMT820 platform appeared, which formed the basis of the new Suburban and Yukon, but adaptation for the Escalade did not even begin.

Second generation (2002-2006)

The second-generation Escalade is the one that immediately comes to mind when someone mentions the “Old Escalade”. Since the development of Escalade on the GMT820 platform began late (which in particular explains the absence of the 2001 model year), it did not debut until 2002. The new Escalade had a bold, angular design, in line with the then-current concept of “Art and Science”, and was not much different from the Suburban and Yukon SUVs. Only the trim was more luxurious than the Chevrolet and GMC cousins and included plenty of multicolored leather and zebrano wood paneling. Bulgari analog clocks were standard equipment.

During this generation, Escalade began to develop that glitz and glamor that would later make it a hip-hop video star. The top versions were equipped with a powerful 6.0-liter Vortec 6000 V8 engine with a capacity of 345 hp and a torque of 515 Nm. A beefed-up four-speed automatic transmission (professional series) tamed the increased power and complemented the permanent all-wheel drive system. An adaptive suspension was developed for the Escalade, thanks to which the handling of the SUV became less like a cruise ship.

For those who wanted to be in the spotlight of luxury real estate sellers, the Platinum Edition was introduced in 2004, which included such nice touches as heated and cooled cup holders, a chrome grille, and sunroof.

Third generation (2007-2014)

The Escalade evolved from a clumsy behemoth to a true luxury cruiser. The stem was even more chromed, though the profile and platform couldn’t hide the GMC Yukon’s roots. Cadillac went out of its way to introduce its new creation to the premium market with its world debut at Rodeo Drive (2005), attended by celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Adrien Brody, and Regina King.

When the third generation first hit dealers, gas prices weren’t as high as at the end of the decade, so it was still a good old Caddy, with an all-aluminum Vortec 6.2-litre V8 producing 403 horsepower and 565 Nm of torque under the control of the new six-speed automatic transmission 6L80. For environmental activists, from 2009 to 2013, there was a sluggishly sold hybrid option, with a 6.0-liter V8 supplemented by a pair of 60 kW electric motors and a nickel-metal hydride battery. In addition, the “green Escalade” used a complex transmission design, which included two electric motors, three planetary gears, and four additional clutches. The total power was quite reasonable 379 hp. It wasn’t perfect, but for a three-tonne Leviathan, 10.2 liters per 60 miles, compared to the 14 liters of a conventional rear-wheel drive Escalade, seemed like a significant improvement.

Inside, it was cooler than ever and relied on the famous American “the more the better” formula that underpinned the second-generation Escalade. There were leather, wood, and soft-touch plastics throughout, as well as screens, heated and cooled seats, and a premium sound system.

Fourth generation (2015-2020)

If the second generation made the Escalade the center of attention, and the third cemented its status as a luxury car, then the fourth turned it into a royal ultra-luxury flying carpet that absorbed the fullness of General Motors technology and design. In essence, it continued to be an evolution of the Suburban / Yukon but took a decisive step away from its brothers, actively using the proprietary Cadillac CUE infotainment system and high-quality materials.

Whatever generation, the Cadillac Escalade remains the symbol of luxury and reliability. And given a high depreciation, in the secondary market, it can be purchased at a very attractive price.