In the late 1990s, General Motors made a risky move by not only stuffing their full size SUV with copious amounts of luxury but by creating the worlds first, Cadillac truck. Given the name Escalade, the vehicle’s future was at first, uncertain as no one really knew if buyers would opt for the Cadillac rather than the GMC or Chevrolet it was based on. After a few months however, the truck’s fate seemed to seal right up as more than a decade later, the Escalade is the rock-and-roll star of the SUV world. With three variants to choice from and numerous trims to be had, there may be multiple versions of the vehicle but all of them bring a magnificent charm and awe that can only come from American luxury. Perhaps wrapped in similar amounts of controversy as it is chrome, the Cadillac trucks do have a list of haters but they also have a wealth of loyal owners and repeat buyers. To find out why these amalgamation of style and utility are so popular, we’ll explore two examples: the 2012 Cadillac Escalade Premium and ESV Platinum.

Just like the big-dog ESV we tested in California last year, all 2012 Escalades ride on General Motors’ GMT900 full size platform. This body-on-frame workhorse is shared by the Tahoe, Yukon, Suburban, Sierra, Silverado, Avalanche and the Hummer H2. The Cadillacs are offered in regular, extended wheel base ESV and half-truck EXT with the regular riding on a 116 inch wheelbase and the ESV/EXT duo use a longer, 130 inch wheelbase. All versions use an independent front suspension and solid rear axle with coil springs and each can be equipped with all wheel drive. Each example uses one engine and one transmission (with the exception of the hybrid) to motivate their mass down the road. Almost identical to the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, the Cadillac makes a case for its existence by way of its details.

In order to get a taste for what the Escalade has to offer, we got behind the wheel of two of the best-selling variants: the all wheel drive ESV and standard, rear wheel drive Premium. With a base MSRP of $71,675, our Premium tester came with no added options as it represents the second-to-best of the Escalade trims. Standard features include a set of magnetic ride control dampers, locking rear differential, transmission cooler, satellite navigation, Bose supplied surround sound, satellite radio, bluetooth connectivity, heated steering wheel, tri zone climate control, leather seating, heating for the front and second row, cooling for the front row, rear seat entertainment system, HID headlamps and a power lift gate.

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With the added wheelbase, the ESV offers an extra 28.9 cubic feet of cargo space and 20 inches of overall length. It also adds about $3 grand to the Escalade’s base price and since kited out as the top-level Platinum all wheel drive, our test truck rolled off the factory floor as the most expensive Cadillac SUV available. For $85,095, our ESV featured no added cost options because it came equipped with every single one; including wood trim, heated and cooled cup holders and blind spot monitoring. With the added size, the ESV’s rear seat entertainment center gains an extra, flip down screen to supplement the second row’s front headrest screens but other than that, the two trucks are remarkably similar. The biggest difference is that one is big while the other is borderline obnoxiously big.

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Both Escalades have to compete with some extremely tough competition. With heavy hitters from Infiniti, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln and Land Rover, the Cadillac definitely has its work cut out for it. Each offering in the full size, luxury SUV segment seems to have its ups and downs and the big dog from GM is no different. A major plus for the all-American is its looks. Big, bold, angular, cut, muscular and chiseled all describe the Escalade line up perfectly. Both our testers featured big, 22 inch chrome wheels that would make the aftermarket proud while beautiful metallic paints blend just right with the chrome trim. Somehow, Cadillac managed to riddle their truck with the shiny stuff without making it appear gaudy or tacked on. The profile of the Escalade is almost retro in how muscular it appears and with its wide fenders, the trucks look as if they’re quietly ready to brawl. Given the noise emitted from the tail pipe at idle, there might just be a bite to go along with the Escalade’s bark.

In regular form, the Escalade weighs 5,488 lbs. In ESV form, the Cadillac weighs in at 5,773 lbs. By no means light, our Premium test truck can still accomplish the hustle to 60 mph from a standstill in the mid 6 second range. The ESV can cover the sprint in a little over 7 seconds which means, both Escalades are by no means, slow. Faster than the Audi Q7 4.2, Lincoln Navigator and Lexus LX570, the Cadillac is powered by a GM great: the Vortec V8. Displacing 6.2 liters and using nothing more complex than variable valve timing, the high output engine pumps out a stout 403 horsepower and 417 lb-ft of torque. With one of the best transmissions in the game, the pairing of Vortec and HydraMatic is absolutely fantastic and there really was no instance where we were asking for more power and smoothness. Accompanying the surprising thrust is an ever so noticeable noise that could only come from inside America. The charm that erupts from the Escalade’s powertrain is almost enough justification for the vehicle’s entire existence.

Style and power are only a part of the equation that makes up a successful full size luxury SUV. To be truly great, an example must be able to pamper a driver and their passengers for miles on end. Both our trucks were fitted with Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control dampers which do a solid job of soaking up road imperfections and sharpening up steering feel. Without this system however, the Escalade might be lost as among all of the mobile living rooms out there, this is easily the most truckish in its manners. Taking turns in both versions is done leisurely while braking feel is a tad mushy. It is by no means an actual dinosaur like previous generations, but it falls behind from the likes of the Infiniti QX56 and Mercedes-Benz GL with regards to handling.

With so much chrome on the outside, one would think the inside would be just as posh. Wood grain and leather trimming find their way onto almost every nook and cranny and comfort does manage to rival the best. There is no denying the interior looks pretty but compared to others, it is starting to look dated. The current design, born in 2007, hasn’t changed much since then and it shows. Little pieces such as the buttons and switches look and feel old and clearly borrowed. And while easy to use, the navigation system and stereo displays look underclass and out-of-place compared to the rest of truck. If the Cadillac wants to continue to be one of the best of the best, it’s about time for a refresh for the interior gizmos.

Both the Escalade and Escalade ESV offerings honestly make no practical sense. But then again, neither do any of the vehicles they compete with but despite that opinion, luxury SUVs sell like ice cream in summer. The reasoning stems from what these things do to us emotionally. Yes, they serve a purpose for big families and are welcome for hauling heavy stuff, but so are minivans and pickup trucks. The Escalade sets out to warm, surprise, awe, shock and amaze its drivers to the point where they fall hopelessly in love. It’s laughably big, far too thursty (EPA estimates are as low as 13 mpg in the city) and riddled with so much chrome tha it can can almost illuminate the street. But even still, we couldn’t help but like both versions as they truly are well-engineered creatures. Their thumping V8s, smooth automatics, quiet interiors and supple seating add up to a level of luxury that can only come from America. The Escalade is U.S. pride and planting one in your driveway will bring miles upon miles of solid operation. It may have its faults but none are so major that a the truck should be scratched out off from your luxury SUV shopping list. Afterall, the 2012 Cadillac Escalade and Escalade ESV are still some of the best in the business.

Photos: © Copyright 2011 Ossamah Shabbir