Happy birthday, Cadillac Escalade

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Cadillac Escalade debuted 20 years ago with all the subtlety of Shaq O’Neal jumping out of a birthday cake.

The Cadillac Escalade has grown little in its 20 years - keeping its general 17-foot long by 6-foot-tall dimensions. But its big V-8 is 65 percent more powerful with 52 percent better fuel economy.

Introduced at the prim-and-proper Pebble Beach Concours d’ Elegance in California, the pickup-based, three-row land yacht shocked polite society as the most outrageous SUV the world had ever seen. It was a throwback to the tail-finned behemoths of Cadillac’s 1950s glory days, yet became an icon for a new, 21st-century generation of wealthy rappers, actors, and athletes — including Shaq himself.

Cadillac is celebrating the Escalade’s 20th birthday this summer with a series of prints and a video commemorating four generations of Escalade.

With its imposing grille and stacked lighting, the Cadillac Escalade cuts an iconic figure.

Bigger than a New York apartment and bejeweled with enough chrome to be seen from outer space, the Escalade has been a segment champion for a brand that has struggled to establish itself as an athletic maker of smaller sedans and crossovers like Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.

The best-seller in its segment for 15 of its 20 years, the bling-tastic Escalade delivers about $3 billion a year to Caddy's bottom line. Sales have topped more than three-quarters of a million in the United States and over 800,000 world-wide. Since 1999, its customers have been the Cadillac's richest and youngest (average age 52) — bringing new generations to an 116-year-old brand.

The Caddy that put the OMG into SUV debuted in 1998 as little more than a GMC Yukon in a tuxedo. Based on a pickup truck chassis, it was rushed to market to counter the similarly super-sized Lincoln Navigator.

The Caddy's stature and palatial interior room wowed a world warming to SUVs. 

The Cadillac Escalade has interior amenities that would make a New York penthouse proud.

“That combination immediately struck a chord,” says Cadillac president Steve Carlisle. “It introduced Cadillac to an entirely new generation of luxury customers via popular culture and changed perceptions of what the brand could offer.”

By 2003 musicians from Kanye West to Ludacris to Jennifer Lopez were writing about the Escalade. Sang Lopez in her hit "Love Don't Cost a Thing":

"When you rolled up in the Escalade
Saw that truck you gave to the valet
Knew that it was game when you looked at me"

Escalade became synonymous with Hollywood celebrity, helping to grow sales by 90 percent with the second-generation model in 2003. By its fifth birthday Escalade sales had ballooned 230 percent. Though it pioneered the mega-ute, Lincoln's Navigator couldn't match the Caddy's celebrity status.

Blinged-out Escalades from urban-ride trend-setter DUB magazine became a staple at auto shows. The ute starred in The Sopranos and Entourage TV shows. Even Tiger Woods was attacked by his golf club-wielding wife in an Escalade.

Not everyone wanted the big Caddy.

The Cadillac Escalade has evolved over the years from celebrity accessory to a steady seller in the large, family SUV segment with 20,000 in annual sales.

It was scorned by media who labeled Escalade a threat to safety and the planet. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher skewered the beast in his 2002 book "High and Mighty SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way," writing that "it looked like a very large shark traveling down the road with its jaws gaping."

As Escalade sales approached 40,000 a year in North America, not every model was a success as attempts to expand the badge with pickup and hybrid versions were met with yawns.

The Escalade hybrid might have been single-handedly slain by Paris Hilton's 2008 "Paris for President" campaign song which included the lyrics:

"Incentivize nuclear nonproliferation and ratify Kyoto today
You can ride in the motorcade in my hybrid pink Escalade
Paris for President!"

Even as sales leveled off at 20k a year, the big Caddy has survived gasoline price spikes and proved that the full-size SUV segment is here to stay. Last year it inspired an all-new, widely-acclaimed Navigator — the first Lincoln to go to-to-toe against the legend in years.

Mainstream models based on the same architecture — the Yukon and Chevy Suburban — have also become profit-rich mainstays unrivaled by foreign makers. 

Celebrity fads come and go. As Tinseltown has moved on to other status symbols like the Tesla Model S and Bugatti Veyron, the Escalade has touted technological and stylistic advances.

The latest-gen, 2014-2018 Cadillac Escalade was introduced to media in Georgia surrounded by Spanish Moss-draped live oak trees.

Escalade introduced an adaptive shock system, Magnetic Ride Control, to full-size utes in 2009, and was the standard bearer for Cadillac's Art & Science design philosophy in 2014. The majestic ute has been featured prominently in brand advertising and has a large female buying demographic.

At 17-feet long and 6-feet tall, the $75,990 Escalade's (loaded models can approach six figures) outsized proportions have changed little in 20 years. But the King of Bling, winner of 16 JD Power reliability awards, gets 65 percent more horsepower from its 6.2-liter V-8 and 52 percent better fuel economy (15 mpg vs. 23 mpg) than the '99 model.

Some things just get fitter with age.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.