The Cadillac Escalade, the full-size sport utility vehicle with the reputation as the "king of bling" on America's roads, won't be losing its crown anytime soon.
An early introduction 2007 model that's in showrooms now, the new Escalade is even more bold and expressive than its predecessor. It's a tad longer and wider and a good deal heavier than the 2006 model, though new, streamlined styling doesn't make the new Escalade appear any larger.
But the headlights are more striking now, the grille is larger and there's considerably more power under the hood. Horsepower goes from 345 in the 2006 Escalade to 403 now, thanks to a new, 6.2-liter overhead valve V-8.
Huge 22-inch wheels - chrome, of course - that are the largest ever offered from the factory add the kind of flair that formerly was reserved for Escalades owned by celebrities who customized their wheels after their vehicle purchase.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2007 model is $54,725 for a two-wheel-drive model. A new Escalade with all-wheel drive starts at $57,280.
Competitors include the first full-size Mercedes-Benz SUV, the 2007 GL-Class, which starts at $55,675 and has standard four-wheel drive, and the 2006 Lincoln Navigator, which starts at $50,145 for a two-wheel-drive model.
Introduced in 1999 as Cadillac's first SUV, the Escalade quickly became an iconic SUV in America. Featured in numerous music videos, Escalades are driven by professional athletes, Hollywood elite and other celebrities.
But you don't have to be a celebrity to enjoy the newly improved ride, luxurious appointments and new features.
The test vehicle, with all-wheel drive and the 22-inch wheels, rode and handled with impressive composure, especially considering it weighed more than 5,500 pounds and stretched nearly 17 feet long.
With a new, stronger frame and chassis underneath and a revamped suspension, the Escalade kept many road bumps away from passengers. The ride was well-managed and rather refined for an SUV, with less jostling and bobbing for passengers.
And there was no rude reminder of the big, heavy wheel and tire at each corner, though I expected to feel and hear that unpleasant sensation of "unsprung weight" there. Instead, the Escalade suspension handled that weight admirably and kept the ride smooth.
There was good on-center feel from the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and the Escalade held its line surprisingly well in curves and twists. There's still some body sway in these maneuvers, of course, but the body lean isn't as pronounced as it was in earlier models.
Passenger safety in large, heavy SUVs traditionally is a hallmark, and the 2007 Escalade earned the top, five-star rating in federal government frontal crash tests. Side tests haven't been reported yet, but standard safety items include frontal and curtain air bags, traction control and stability control.
The Escalade is one of several new full-size SUV siblings from parent company General Motors Corp. The others include the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon. But the Escalade is the only one to get the 403-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8.
This engine, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that for the first time allows drivers to shift forward gears on their own without a clutch pedal, delivers power strongly and smoothly.
Peak torque is improved to 417 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm, so when the accelerator went to the floor, the test Escalade wasted no time in racing forward to pass other vehicles on the highway.
Cadillac officials tout this Escalade as the most fuel efficient ever. With a rating of 19 miles a gallon on the highway, the 2007 Escalade with all-wheel drive is better than the 2006 Escalade's 17-mpg rating.
But city mileage rated at 13 mpg is the same as for the comparable, earlier vehicle, and filling the 26-gallon tank with the Escalade's recommended fuel of premium gasoline could lead to a bill of at least $80 at today's prices.
Engine sounds are hale and hearty during acceleration but don't intrude much otherwise. Indeed, the interior of the Escalade tester was impressively quiet.
That is, unless the Escalade's stereo, a Bose 5.1 surround system, is on. Cranked up some, this system's clear tones and strong sounds were so awesome, I found I was in a musical reverie in no time.
But I had to keep alert for driving and, most especially, for staying within the speed limit. This Escalade's power just comes on so smoothly, it's easy to get going faster than you know.
Seats have a special, Nuance leather trim, which feels smooth and rich - not at all like some of the cheaper leather grains.
One optional feature that's not to be missed is the power release for second-row seats. With the touch of a button, each of the outer seats folds and flips out of the way to make it easy for people to climb into the third-row seats.
THE VEHICLE: 2007 Cadillac Escalade, a front-engine, all-wheel-drive, seven-passenger, full-size sport utility vehicle
BASE PRICE: $53,850 for 2WD model; $56,405 for AWD model
DESTINATION CHARGE: $875
PRICE AS TESTED: $67,105
ENGINE: 6.2-liter, overhead valve V-8 producing 403 horsepower
EPA MILEAGE: 13 mpg city, 19 mpg highway
LENGTH: 202.5 inches
WHEELBASE: 116 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 5,818 pounds.
BUILT IN: Arlington, Texas
OPTIONS: 22-inch chrome wheels, $2,995; information packages (includes rearview camera and navigation system), $2,495; rear-seat entertainment system, $1,295; power sliding sunroof, $995; premium paint, $995; climate package (includes heated and cooled front seats and heated steering wheel), $625; second-row seat power release, $425