Whether from buff books, financial shows or blogs, militant greens, you name it, the talk of the time is about fuel prices and energy independence. But it's moved beyond mere symbolism. Just look at the sales figures for the past few months. For the first time in history, the humble Honda Civic edged past the Ford F-series in overall monthly sales in May. And mind you, that lumps the F-150 and all the Super Duty derivatives together. There's no denying it...the times they are a-changin'.
Which got me to thinking about one of the icons of the custom truck and SUV scene, the Cadillac Escalade. For just shy of a decade, this vehicle has been the standard-bearer for in-your-face style in the custom truck scene. Just look at how many Escalade front-end conversions you see from the mail-order retailers, not to mention just about any custom truck show from coast-to-coast.
But under increasing scrutiny and pressure from public opinion, can this icon of conspicuous consumption survive the era of conservation and thrift? I believe it can, if it adjusts its current trajectory by a few degrees. Cadillac is already taking incremental steps in that direction, but it needs to take it a step further. Here are my suggestions for the next 'Slade:
1) Smaller and Lighter: The fact that the Escalade is built atop what's basically a Chevy Tahoe chassis is probably more a matter of convenience than necessity. Although the Escalade boasts more than a 7,000 lb. towing capacity, how many of its owners regularly utilize it? Now I'm not suggesting Caddy's Alpha Male be completely emasculated to the point it can't carry a bike rack, but a towing capacity of 6,000 lbs. should be sufficient. Secondly, put it on a unibody chassis. I know, heresy. I'm probably going to get hate mail from truck loyalists at the mere suggestion. But let's take a look at the Escalade's main competitors. Apart from the Lincoln Navigator, every single one of its competitors is unibody: Range Rover, Porsche Cayenne, Mercedes GL, all unibody. This could probably cut the overall weight in the neighborhood of 1,000 pounds.
2) Hybrid and Diesel Drivetrains: For '09, a hybrid 'Slade is going to hit the streets. A good start. But with 1,000 fewer pounds to carry, acceleration, responsiveness and efficiency would be that much better. Also, GM's revolutionary new light-duty Duramax 4500 diesel is right around the corner, with power figures of "at least" 310 horsepower and 520 lb./ft. of torque. That sounds like plenty of pep for 4,800 lbs. Heck, why not marry the 2-Mode hybrid system with the diesel? 30-mpg, 6-second 0-60 Escalade, anyone?
While I'm by no means suggesting that the current-generation Escalade is not distinctive and unique, it doesn't carry the shock or "wow" factor that the original '01 model had. While the grille is unmistakably Cadillac, it's obvious upon closer inspection that it's a relative of its blue-collar cousin, the Tahoe. The next 'Slade needs to share more in common with models such as the CTS, and less with the Chevy. A re-styled interior inspired by the CTS would be a good start, along with some distinctive exterior touches that accentuates Cadillac's design language, such as sharply angular vertical taillights, a deep, prominent five-point grille, and twin polished tailpipes.
GM has already shown they're moving in that direction. Just look at the Zeta-based Denali XT concept truck. Clearly, the trend for lighter-duty trucks is toward unibody. The SRX crossover, by all indications, is going to be significantly downsized for the next model cycle. Which would make an SRX-sized next-generation Escalade make perfect sense. But keep it longitudinal powertrain, rear/all-wheel drive. I'm not suggesting the 'Slade should go on the Enclave/Acadia chassis.
So...would the prospect of a unibody, hybrid Escalade ruin this American icon, or make it better than ever?