Few vehicles in recent memory have had as significant of an impact on American automotive culture than the Cadillac Escalade. Whether you're a fan of its in-your-face style or not, there's no disputing that it has made its mark in the fullsize truck and SUV scene. Almost single-handedly, this vehicle is responsible for the beginnings of Cadillac's image makeover from a stale, stodgy luxury brand coveted by Florida retirees to something that people younger than 70 might actually want. Yes, you could say the groundwork was laid with the '92 STS, but without question, it's the 'Slade that indisputably put Caddy on the coolness map again.

So, taking a hint from the thousands of Escalade buyers who opted to crank the bling knob to 11, the '07 model comes pre-blinged with plenty of goodies from the factory. Most noteworthy are the availability of 22-inch wheels from the factory. Whereas few of the earlier owners bothered with corresponding suspension and brake upgrades when they put the giant wheels on their vehicle, Cadillac engineers went to great pains to make sure the big wheels wouldn't unduly compromise performance or ride quality on the new model. As such, during the third-generation model's development, they had to incorporate suspension and braking system changes to accommodate the massive factory rolling stock. But, try as they might, the suspension wonks could not completely overcome the laws of physics. Whenever going over a speed bump or hitting a pothole, you can literally feel and hear the unsprung weight of the double-deuces protest with a pronounced "ker-thunk." Swapping out the heavy factory-cast rims for some lighter forged hoops would be the first item on our mod list. Also noted on our tester were external wheel weights, an eyesore on the otherwise stylish 22s, and likely something most style-conscious buyers will take care of quickly.

In refining the Escalade's formula for the '07 model, Cadillac was relatively conservative with the changes to the basic concept. Though Cadillac wanted the vehicle to be instantly identifiable as new, it also wanted it to be instantly recognizable as an Escalade. The snout is unmistakably Cadillac but with a smoother, trimmer look that makes it look more at home with the CTS and STS it shares the showroom with. The narrower headlamps give it a strong family resemblance to the SRX crossover, the other quasi-SUV in the Cadillac stable. Look closely, and you can see the Cadillac logo on one of the headlamp reflectors. The LED taillights also add a bright and distinctive look to the rear. The one notable element absent from the exterior that most of the other Cadillac models have are the polished dual exhausts. Just an unpolished, gray pipe tucked beneath the rear bumper handles the spent gas duties. C'mon, when you're sporting more than 400 horses, you need some nice twin or quad polished tips sticking out the back. Heck, even the last-generation 'Slade had a polished single tip. Hopefully, we'll see this with the '09 re-fresh. Also noticeably absent from the exterior were integrated power retractable running boards, an elegant and practical touch that Lincoln offers on the Navigator, which would do a lot to clean up the lines of the vehicle by eliminating the clunky-looking running boards.

The new Escalade's interior is surprisingly understated, compared with the chrome-laden exterior. But, this is the one area where Cadillac could have learned something from its cross-town rival, Lincoln. Whereas the Expedition and Navigator have vastly different interior styling, the Escalade's interior could be a little more distinctive as compared to its more plebeian brethren. That said, the brushed aluminum accents and faux wood give it a unique look. Yes, even at $60K plus, the wood is still fake, which is disappointing but probably not a deal-killer for most buyers. The blue-needle gauges are a nice touch and certainly lend an upscale, exclusive feel to the interior. Thank goodness, Cadillac addressed our main gripe with the other 900-series SUVs. The dash material is soft-touch padded plastic. It goes a long way toward reducing the cheapness factor in the interior, and we have to wonder how cost-prohibitive it is that it's not used in the other models as well.

Likewise, whereas most of its European and Japanese rivals offer a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with memory, the Caddy makes do with a tried-and-true manually adjustable tilt column-no telescoping adjustment. Then again, a lot of those lofty nameplates have been plagued with quality issues of late, so maybe Cadillac decided to forego the complexity of an electrical adjustment for reliability reasons. However, it does offer adjustable pedals. Between the memory seats and adjustable pedals, most drivers should be able to find the ideal driving position or pretty close to it. And we'd be remiss, if we neglected to tell you about the heated steering wheel. It's maybe not of much use in temperate Southern California but likely appreciated by a lot of buyers in St. Paul or Boston.

When it comes to the power department, however, the Caddy unequivocally puts the smackdown on the Lincoln and most of its other competitors. Short of a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, or a GL 63 AMG, there aren't many other fullsize luxo-utes that can run with this big dog. The 403-horse 6.2L aluminum-block Vortec pulls strongly at higher revs, making for effortless highway passing. But, for whatever reason, the seat-of-the-pants sensation doesn't feel quite like the claimed 403 hp, unless you really stomp on it. Below 3,000 rpm, the engine feels a little lazy, ironic for a 376ci engine. Chalk that up to the sumo-like 5,818-pound curb weight it's forced to contend with, as well as a tall 3.42 axle ratio trying to spin the boat-anchor 22s. We wonder how much more responsive it would be with the standard 18s. The porky weight took its toll on fuel economy. The 6.2 is also not yet equipped with GM's Active Fuel Management system. These two factors conspired to give the Escalade a thirsty observed average fuel economy of just 12.0 mpg.

Though we're always fans of a good ol' American V-8 rumble, for a vehicle that's ostensibly competing with the likes of Lexus and Range Rover, we thought the engine noise and exhaust note were a bit on the loud side. Perhaps Cadillac looked at the hundreds of customers of the last-generation 'Slade who opted for aftermarket exhaust systems before they even tore off the window sticker and decided to meet them halfway with the rumbly pipe. All the more surprising then, it doesn't offer the aforementioned dual polished exhaust outlets.

With any vehicle, there's always room for improvement. As good as it is, the new 'Slade is no exception. For all of its superficial stylistic gingerbread, it falls short in the "Wow, that's really cool" department. Here are a few suggestions that would really get us custom truck enthusiasts talking and smiling. Although we appreciate the subtle use of the traditional cursive Cadillac script on the doorsills and dashboard, backlighting them with a soft, indigo blue at night would be a really unique, classy touch. Secondly, the absence of retractable running boards on a vehicle that otherwise prides itself on gadgetry and style, especially at this price point, is embarrassing. For its mid-cycle interior re-fresh, we'd suggest a console shifter and the three-spoke steering wheel from the Cadillac car models to give it a truly distinctive, exclusive look that would unmistakably position it among the premium European and Japanese luxury SUVs. And at this level, genuine wood trim should at least be an option. Finally, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, give us the dual polished exhaust tips. The reduced backpressure might quiet down the exhaust, as well. And although impressive on paper, the 6.2 Vortec could use an extra helping of low-end torque. The 400-plus hp is likely a strong selling point, but a beefier bottom-end would make a bigger seat-of-the-pants impression.

But, at the end of the day, what matters is moving metal off the showroom floor, and by all indications, the new Escalade is off to a strong start. Sales are far outpacing last year's model, and incentives and rebates are nearly nonexistent on the new model. So, who are we to tell Cadillac what to do? But, once the initial buzz and novelty wears off, Caddy needs a few other tricks up its sleeve to keep its big baller ride at the top of its game. There's nothing inherently wrong with the overall package. Just the details need a little refinement. By sweating the details, Cadillac will be able to prove it can play in the major leagues with its king of the SUV hill.

The 411:
Vehicle: '07 Cadillac Escalade
Base Price/As Tested: $56,405 / $66,110
Engine: 6.2L V-8
Transmission: 6L80-E six-speed automatic
Horsepower: 403 hp at 5,700 rpm
Torque: 417 lb-ft at 4,300 rpm
EPA Fuel Economy: 13 city / 19 highway
Observed Fuel Economy: 12 mpg

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