Is there really a reason for vehicles like the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator to exist? Especially in this day of ever-rising fuel prices and the collective greening of our societal values?
In many quarters, this type of uber-lux SUV is seen as way over-the-top – the last vestige of the mindset that spawned the unlamented Hummer. It's become vehicle non-grata – no longer the symbol of success it once proclaimed.
But there are still people who really do need to haul a lot of people and stuff, or tow a big boat or trailer, or all of the above. And why shouldn't they do so in sybaritic spendlour if they so choose. In which case, these big bruisers are just the ticket.
So, as a service to those who have such needs, or just want to bask in their their bling factor, let's see how these big dogs from the American SUV kennel compare.
2012 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid
Ideally, to compare with the Navigator that was available, I’d have had the $80,210 base Escalade (with 403-hp 6.2-litre V-8) for this test. But press fleets being what they are, I got an AWD Hybrid (with 6.0-litre 332-hp V-8) and a starting price of ... wait for it... $95,110!
There’s no question the ‘Sclade’s celebrity status eclipses that of the Navi’s. This big black brute riding on 22-inch chrome wheels looked like it just rolled off the set of a music video.
The Caddy's cabin is more modern than the Lincoln's, but it feels dark and claustrophobic whereas the Lincoln is at least airy, if unapologetically retro.
Other Caddy demerits include a non-reclining back seat that doesn't fold flat into the floor, severely compromising the utility of the load space. Plus, Cadillac charges $1425 for the power-retracting step that is standard issue with the Navigator.
But I have yet to address the elephant in the room. That would be the ‘Slade’s massive chrome and green hybrid badge on its flanks and the 15 grand that buys you its associated hardware (plus some extra standard features).
The two-mode hybrid system powering the Escalade was developed in conjunction with Chrysler, BMW and to a small extent, Mercedes-Benz (Back when Daimler and Chrysler were still an item).
Developing hybrid propulsion for big utes was probably a good idea at the time, but now this highly complex transmission with its integrated electric motors is now found only in the Escalade, Yukon Hybrid and BMW X6 Active Hybrid – vehicles that sell in miniscule numbers.
In mode one, the Caddy runs like most full hybrids, operating on battery power, engine power, or a combination of both. Mode two is designed for towing, where under higher loads the V-8 engine does most of the work and the transmission locks into its four planetary gears, largely bypassing the electric motors. It will tow up to 2630 kgs.
Helping out in the fuel-saving department is Active Fuel Management, wherein half the cylinders go on vacation when cruising under light loads. The batteries occasionally kick in to take up the slack, keeping the Escalade in V-4 mode for longer periods.
And of course, like all hybrids, the engine shuts off in stop-and-go driving. Official fuel consumption numbers are 10.4 L/100 km city and 8.5 L/100 km highway. I got 13.8 L/100 km overall.
The Caddy certainly has more get-up-and-go than the only slightly-less powerful (nominally) Lincoln, although as with many hybrids, the driving experience is uneven.
Occasional hesitancy and non-linear braking aside, it feels like a sports car compared to its cross town rival. The steering is nicely weighted and the magnetic dampers do a decent job of keeping body motions in check.
On a particularly twisty back road, the ‘Sclade’s power and poise make the Navi look like a geriatric Ford truck… Duh!
Lincoln Navigator Limited 4x4
Lincoln is currently (still?) in the process of an image makeover. Ford is trying hard to re-establish the brand’s mojo and ditch its longstanding rep as a maker of gussied-up-Fords-for-old-folks. And glorified airport taxis.
After living with the 2012 Navigator, I’m pretty certain it's not part of Lincoln’s way forward.
This big SUV saw its last refresh in 2007, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was 1987 by the interior. I have nothing against nostalgia, but if blocky retro-80s are cool again, I didn’t get the memo. Don’t get me started on the faux wood.
Still, once I had driven the Caddy, I tended to appreciate the Navi’s cabin a bit more, granting that, in comparison, it's not totally unappealing. And, it is bright and airy, with a low belt line and good sight lines.
The Navigator rides on 20-inch wheels and cuts a conservative, yet elegant profile. The only option on my tester was its lovely White Platinum Metallic Tri-coat paint ($500).
Lincoln is letting the body-on-frame Navi live out its golden years unencumbered with many of the modern features and safety tech you’d expect in a luxury vehicle listing at $73,500. Things like proximity key and push-button start, adaptive cruise control and blind spot detection. Okay, it has little convex inserts in the side mirrors that perform more-or-less the same function.
The fact that the steering wheel only tilts and doesn’t telescope is a bit of a shocker, however, even if the pedals are power adjustable.
Power comes from Ford’s venerable 3-valve 5.4-litre V-8, rated at 310 horsepower and 365 lb-ft of torque. This is a proven engine, abeit dated, underpowered relative to the competition and not particularly efficient. You won’t find this bent-eight anymore in the Ford F-150 pickup, but it soldiers on here.
Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the 5.4 makes for smooth progress and a lusty exhaust note. Official fuel mileage is 16.4 L/100 km city and 11.4 L/100 km highway. I averaged 17 L/100 km for the week. Oh, by the way, the Navi gets hit with a $2000 Green Levy gas-guzzler tax.
Speaking of smooth, this SUV glides down the road in the finest of Lincoln traditions. It’s like a big comfy couch. The standard heated and ventilated front seats are trimmed in buttery leather and coddle your backside over the long haul. The ride is cushy, the interior quiet and the standard THX audio makes good sound.
Of course the Navigator comes with standard navigation. How could it not?
Despite its heft and girth, the Navigator is reasonably easy to maneuver thanks to standard back up camera and a tight turning circle.
That said, you certainly couldn’t call it a sharp handler – it lazily floats along, discouraging abrupt inputs or enthusiastic cornering. But neither does it wallow excessively or list like a torpedoed freighter.
Most will be buying the Navi for its utility, not its agility, and here is shines.
With standard self-leveling suspension and heavy-duty tow package, it will pull up to 3946 kg, although on-line reports say the V-8 works hard for its keep. That's one thing I didn't evaluate.
My tester was fitted with a no-charge three-seat 60/40 split rear bench that makes it an eight passenger vehicle in a pinch. Both the second and third row chairs recline, and access to the rear is reasonably painless. The power-folding third row and easily-dropped manual second row opened up a huge, flat cargo area.
So what's the bottom line?
The 2012 Navigator is all about utility and passenger comfort, the Escalade more powerful and better handling... using that term in a very relative context.
If you want the blingy Escalade, get the regular 403-hp model. You’ll save a whack of dough and have more fun behind the wheel. The Navigator wins for comfort and utility although its engine is weaker and the package is dated.
As for me? If I really had to choose between these two I’d pick the Navigator for its useful interior layout, passenger comfort and value. The Escalade Hybrid is a technologically fascinating rig but its staggering price tag puts it out of contention.
And I’m not the only ones who think this. In 2011, GM Canada moved 1092 6.2L gas Escalades versus only 94 Hybrids. Lincoln sold 609 Navigators.
If I were really in the market for this type of vehicle, I would plunk down $81,350 for the comprehensively equipped Infiniti QX56 ($73,200 plus $8,150 Technology package) or the luxurious and efficient Mercedes-Benz GL 350 BlueTec diesel ($73,700).
Or perhaps the redesigned 2012 Dodge Durango. With a starting price of $47,295, the 360-hp AWD 5.7L Hemi R/T is a steal when compared to any of the Caddy, Lincoln, Infiniti or Merc.
And its from the Amurrican kennel too!