2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV
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by Greg Wilson
Photos by Russell Purcell

Less intimidating to drive than it looks

The Cadillac Escalade sport-utility vehicle was first introduced in 1999, and at that time, many people, including myself, wondered whether a traditional North American manufacturer of luxury cars should add a truck to their lineup. No matter that Lincoln, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW already had their luxury SUVs – Cadillac represented the last bastion of American luxury car design, where big, wide, comfy sedans ruled the roads. A Cadillac truck? It just seemed impossible.

Well, doubters like myself were soon silenced. The Escalade has become one of Cadillac’s best-selling vehicles. Sales really took off last year when it was restyled and a new 345 horsepower 6.0 litre V8 replaced the previous 5.7 litre V8.

This year, there are three Escalade models: the standard full-size Escalade SUV with a 2946 mm/116 inch wheelbase; the Escalade EXT SUV-with-a-pickup-bed with a 3302 mm/130 inch wheelbase; and the new-for-2003 Escalade ESV with a 3302 mm/130 inch wheelbase and three rows of seats.

Escalades are essentially fancier versions of GM’s Tahoe/Yukon, Avalanche and Suburban/Envoy XL with a bigger standard engine and more luxury features and options. Escalade prices seem rather steep when compared with these other GM trucks: the 2003 Escalade starts at $75,580; the Escalade EXT at $68,965; and the new Escalade ESV (AWD) at $78,150. My Escalade ESV test truck came to $84,765 with options and Freight charges. Believe it or not though, this is in line with prices for other luxury SUV’s. While the Lincoln Navigator is a bit cheaper, the Lexus LX470 is $98,000 and the Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz G500 are over $100,000.

New for 2003

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV
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The new long wheelbase Escalade ESV is 560 mm (22 inches) longer than the standard Escalade, and has three rows of seats which seat 7 or 8 people depending on whether you order the second row bench seat or the optional second row bucket seats. The standard Escalade also has three rows of seats, but there is considerably less legroom in the second and third rows, and less cargo space. However, the regular Escalade is offers a 50/50 split third bench seat while the ESV comes with a single third row bench seat.

For 2003, all Escalades come with some new safety features and interior upgrades. Safety upgrades include new front seat dual stage air bags, an upgraded four-channel Stabilitrak anti-skid system, and a new Borg-Warner one-speed full-time open differential transfer case that allows each of the four brakes to be applied independently for more stable and controlled stops.

Also new are power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals, changes to the instrument panel, gauge cluster and floor console, a three-zone automatic climate control system, optional second row bucket seats, a Driver Information display, and nine control buttons on the steering wheel for audio, information centre, and OnStar.

The Escalade also offers a premium Bose sound system, and a rear seat entertainment system including a DVD player with flip-down screen for rear-seat passengers viewing, wireless headphones and a remote control.

Interior roomy, comfortable

The Escalade’s interior is very roomy and it’s finished in an attractive combination of wood trim, leather, shades of plastic, and glare-free black plastic – the grab bar on the front passenger-side dashboard is unusual though. The Escalade’s tall roof, wide cabin, big windows, and high seating position give the feeling of spaciousness. There are two front bucket seats, a three-person centre bench and a three-person rear bench for a total passenger capacity of eight. Optional centre buckets reduce that to seven passengers. The Escalade ESV is currently the biggest luxury SUV on the market.

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV
Click image to enlarge

The two front leather-covered bucket seats are wide enough to accomodate bigger frames, and have comfortable seat cushions, supportive side bolsters, and folding armrests. The driver’s seat includes power lumber, rake, and seat height adjustment, and the front seats have seat heaters with three temperature settings and separate heaters for the cushions and backrests.

The instrument cluster, revised for 2003, has a classy look with metallic rings around the gauges, and an extensive selection of gauges including a transmission oil cooler gauge. The centre instrument panel protrudes outwards for easier reach – at the top is the optional navigation screen which also includes controls for the radio and CD player. I found that operating the stereo using the small buttons surrounding the screen is more complicated than using standard stereo controls – it takes some practice.

The navigation controls also require a learning curve, so a thorough read of the owners manual is a good idea. The colour screen is easy to read and destinations can be inputted with an address or by scrolling across the map to where you want to go, and pressing Enter. On-screen instructions accompanied by a pleasant female voice will guide you to where you want to go. One thing I like about the invisible navigator is that if you make a few wrong turns, she’ll never get angry with you.

Just below the navigation screen is a tri-zone temperature control for the automatic climate control – driver, passenger and rear passengers can have their own temperature environments. There’s also a CD changer, and a round Bvlgari clock which I found hard to read because it’s not angled towards the driver. Under the clock is a covered storage bin and two cupholders under walnut-trimmed lids.

The wood and leather trimmed steering wheel has a tilt function, and includes buttons for the radio, the trip computer, and OnStar. Between the front seats is a large storage bin that opens sideways towards the passenger, making it easier for the driver to access.

My test vehicle had the optional second row bucket seats which enable passengers to walk between them to the third row. As well, second row buckets are great for keeping younger children apart and in “their own space”. I tried out the second row buckets and found them very comfortable – they have inboard folding armrests and seat heaters with two temperature settings. On the roof are separate fan, temperature, and ventilation controls, and roof-mounted vents and map lights.

My test vehicle also had the optional second-row DVD player and video screen with wireless headphones. This unit is controlled from the rear rather than from the front, which is probably better since kids know how to operate these devices better than adults anyway..

To get in to the third row, you fold and tumble the second row seat which slides forwards, providing enough room to get into the third seat. The third row bench seat has adequate head and legroom for adults, but it’s a bit narrow for three adults even though it has three seatbelts. Third row passengers also get cupholders and storage bins.

Rear seats tumble, remove

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV
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Behind the third row is 1294 litres (45.7 cu. ft.) of cargo space, but that doubles if you remove the third row bench and almost triples if you fold down the second row seats. The third row bench seat tumbles forwards or removes entirely, but it’s very heavy and requires two people to get it out. The second row seatbacks can be folded flat by pulling up the seat cushions and folding the backrest down flat, or they can be removed.

At the rear, the large rear hatch door lifts up overhead, revealing a large cargo opening. As well, the rear window can be opened separately. The load floor height of 787 mm/31 inches is rather high when compared to a car or minivan. The roomy cargo area is over 1219 mm/four feet between the wheelhousings, and 838 mm/33 inches to back of third row seat. With the third row bench tumbled over, the cargo floor length increases to 1371 mm/54 inches.


Driving impressions

The Escalade has big doors with big pull-type door handles that make it easier to open them. The 558 mm/22 inch step-up height is rather high though – my test truck had the optional running boards which helped. There are also big grab handles inside the doors to pull yourself in.

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV
Click image to enlarge

Once in the driver’s seat, the view out is high and panoramic. The windows are large making it easy to see forwards, to the side and to the rear. A rear intermittent wiper keeps the rear window clear when it gets dirty or foggy. With a multi-adjustable power driver’s seat, power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals, and a tilt steering wheel, it’s not difficult to find a suitable driving position. Controls are generally well laid-out, with as I mentioned the exception of the unusual stereo/navigation controls and the hard-to-see Bvlgari clock.

I drove the Escalade for five days, and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to drive around town. Logically, a vehicle that is 5570 mm (219.3 in.) in length with a 3302 mm (130.0 in.) wheelbase should be awkward to park and cumbersome to drive. But I found that its power-assisted recirculating ball steering system was easy to steer when parking and manouevering, and was very responsive at higher speeds. The Escalade ESV’s turning circle is surprisingly tight for such a long vehicle (13.4 m/43 ft.). And the Escalade’s optional rear back-up warning sensors really help the driver make the maximum use of a parking space without putting a dent in the bumper (or someone elses). As well, the Escalade’s large windows make it easier to see when lane-changing, backing up or just driving.

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV
Click image to enlarge

Despite its substantial 2662 kg (5869 lb.) curb weight, the Escalade ESV leaps off the line and roars ahead when required to pass or change lanes on the freeway. Its overhead valve 6.0 litre V8 has plenty of torque – 380 foot pounds at 4000 rpm – and 345 horsepower at 5200 rpm. Performance is really surprising for such a big vehicle. There’s a muffled roar as you accelerate, but the engine is very quiet on the freeway and around town. At a steady 100 km/h on the freeway, the engine revs at just 1,800 rpm, and at 120 km/h it revs at only 2,200 rpm.

If you have to ask, fuel consumption is rated at 18.9 litres per 100 km (15 mpg) in the city, and 12.9 litres per 100 km (22 mpg) on the highway. Premium fuel is recommended, but it will use Regular gas with a small loss of horsepower. The Escalade ESV’s 117 litre fuel tank will get you between gas stations.

A standard four-speed automatic transmission is controlled by a column shift lever rather than a floor lever, and it incorporates a button for the Tow/haul mode which alters gearshift timing to account for heavier trailer loads. The Escalade ESV has a towing capacity of 3500 kg (7700 lb.). I found the automatic transmission smooth and responsive with one exception: when coming to a stop, it shifts into First with a bit of a ‘thunk’.

The Escalade’s standard all-wheel-drive system needs no driver intervention, and normally sends 60% of the engine’s power to the rear wheels and 40% to the front. This can vary depending on which wheels are slipping. To the driver and passengers, the AWD system is basically invisible. There is no additional drivetrain vibration, or binding when turning. And it never has to be engaged or disengaged.

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV
Click image to enlarge

There is no Low Range gear or engine control system for steep descents. This, combined with its long wheelbase, makes the Escalade unsuitable for serious off-road driving. However, its enormous engine torque, fairly high ground clearance, and sturdy suspension enable it to handle 95% of the roads most people will ever travel on.

The Escalade ESV has a great highway ride, and its strong frame and suspension soak up bumps very well. The ESV includes a computerized Road Sensing Suspension which adjusts shock settings to better handle the particular road surface. As well, the ESV has an automatic load-levelling rear air shocks to keep the vehicle level if towing a trailer or carrying a heavy load.

The brakes are big four-wheel discs with a four-wheel anti-lock braking system with dual-piston calipers, “Dynamic Rear Proportioning” to stabilize braking forces, and the computerized StabiliTrak system which brakes individual wheels and reduces the throttle if the vehicle begins to slide. Goodyear Wrangler HP 265/70R-17 inch tires on alloy wheels are standard.

The Escalade ESV is manufactured in Silao, Mexico.

Competitor overview

2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV
Click image to enlarge

Perhaps the closest competitor to the Escalade ESV is the seven passenger 300 horsepower Lincoln Navigator, however it’s about 368 mm/14.5 inches shorter and $8,000 cheaper than the ESV. The Navigator ($69,995) is more comparable with the standard wheelbase Escalade ($75,580). Other seven passenger competitors may include the Lexus LX470 ($98,200), Toyota Sequoia Limited V8 ($62,155), and fully loaded versions of the GMC Yukon 1500 XL LT 4X4 ($56,775) or Chevrolet Suburban LT 1500 4X4 ($56,480). The Escalade ESV may also compete with the five passenger Range Rover 4.4 ($104,000), Mercedes-Benz G500 ($107,400), and Hummer H2 ($74,745).

None of the Escalade ESV’s competitors have as much standard horsepower or torque, but it’s worth mentioning that the Suburban and Yukon XL are available with an optional 340 horsepower 8.1 litre V8 with 455 foot pounds of torque. The Escalade isn’t available with that engine.


A full-size luxury SUV with genuine legroom and headroom for 7 or 8 people, the Escalade ESV is loaded with luxury features and has plenty of power and towing capacity. It’s also surprisingly quiet and easy to drive. The price seems high until you look at what most other luxury SUV makers charge.

Technical Data: 2003 Cadillac Escalade ESV

Base price $78,150
Freight $1,050
A/C tax $100
Options $5,465 (DVD navigation $3,095; Rear seat DVD entertainment system $2,095; Trailering kit $275)
Price as tested $84,765
Type 4-door, 7 or 8 passenger full-size SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 6.0 litre V8, OHV
Horsepower 345 @ 5200 rpm
Torque 380 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic with tow/haul mode
Tires P265/70R-17
Curb weight 2662 kg (5869 lb.)
Payload (max.) 604 kg (1331 lb.)
Towing capacity (max.) 3500 kg (7700 lb.)
Wheelbase 3302 mm (130.0 in.)
Length 5570 mm (219.3 in.)
Width 2019 mm (79.5 in.)
Height 1923 mm (75.7 in.)
Cargo capacity 1294 litres (45.7 cu. ft.) behind 3rd row
  2549 litres (90.0 cu. ft.) behind 2nd row
  3737 litres (131.6 cu. ft.) behind 3rd row
Fuel consumption City: 18.9 l/100 km (15 mpg)
  Hwy: 12.9 l/100 km (22 mpg)
Fuel type Premium unleaded recommended
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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