For years, GMC held its own in the General Motors lineup by offering trucks that were nicer than those at Chevy. It was even known as “The Cadillac of Trucks” before the SUV boom came and threw the pecking order into disarray. Today, GMC’s well-optioned models from across its lineup regularly come into competition with Cadillac, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the top of the lineup. Yes, the GMC Yukon Denali is more luxurious than even the top-spec Chevy Suburban, but how does it compare to its other platform-mate, the Cadillac Escalade?
For the 11th generation of GM’s big SUVs, there’s more stylistic daylight between the Yukon and the Suburban’s styling than ever before. But the gap between Cadillac and GMC is closing fast. Hell, the Yukon even has cascading headlights that would look right at home in the Cadillac lineup. So how well does “The Cadillac of Trucks” stand up against, um, the Cadillac of automobiles?
Tale of the tape
Starting at over $68K, the Denali comes standard with the 420-horsepower 6.2-liter V8, a major improvement over the 355-horsepower 5.3-liter mill found in lower-spec Yukons. Aside from the unique front and rear fascia, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a Chevy Suburban, and that confusion might carry over to the inside, too. The dashboard, steering wheel, and controls are shared with Chevy, but here, they’re trimmed in better leather, wood, and aluminum accents. Still, the interior retains its rugged truck-like feel. It may be luxurious, but it feels durable enough to take you and six of your closest friends to a job site — or to withstand the wrath of a brood of kids.
As nice as it may look and feel, the price climbs pretty fast. If you wanted a rear-wheel drive, low-spec Chevy Suburban fighter with the smaller engine, a Yukon would set you back around $48K — not terrible for a full-size, rear-wheel drive V8-powered SUV. But in Denali trim, if you’re not careful, you could be looking at $80K with taxes and fees before you drive off the lot. That’s Escalade territory, and for the past 17 years, nobody has done full-size luxury better than Cadillac.
In many ways, the Escalade is Cadillac’s albatross that lays the golden egg. The Cadillac of today is a well-curated, studiously tasteful luxury brand that’s hell-bent on competing with the German and Japanese marques that have dominated the luxury game for the past three decades. The Escalade isn’t lithe, tasteful, or even all that current. It’s a massive, bechromed club room on wheels that sticks out in its lineup like a sore thumb: a 17-foot long, 3-ton sore thumb.
And yet, customers can’t get enough of them. Last year, GM had to boost production on the Escalade as buyers took home 21,230 of them — nearly 10% of the brand’s total sales. That may be down from the nearly 40,000 it sold a decade ago, but for a model that starts at $72K, and comes close to breaking the six-figure mark, those are respectable numbers.
Outside, there isn’t much Cadillac can do to differentiate itself from its Suburban and Yukon platform-mates, but with tall fin-like brake lights and an imposing crest grille with cascading headlights, it’s easily the most unique of GM’s full-size trio. For good or ill, it projects wealth and opulence. Inside, there’s nothing truck-like about it; the Escalade is as spacious and opulent as Grandma’s old Fleetwood.
Only now, instead of plasticky leather and fake wood, you’ll find hand-cut Turin leather, and open pore wood trim. Cadillac’s fickle CUE infotainment system has been upgraded for 2016, and nearly every luxury and convenience feature in the GM stable is likely to be offered here. In many ways, the Escalade proves that the old-school comfort and luxury of Cadillac’s heyday never completely went away; they are alive and well in the brand’s flagship SUV.
The GMC may be “The Cadillac of Trucks,” but it’s no Cadillac. For $70K-plus, switchgear from Chevy, a dashboard shared with the Sierra pickup, and understated looks are no match for the SUV that’s had the luxury market cornered in America for nearly two decades. While it may seem silly to spend almost six-figures on a truck that can be had in a different guise for nearly half that, the Escalade manages to feel special in a way that the Denali doesn’t.
Both trucks have the same frame, same body, same engine (though it’s optional on lower-spec Yukons), and most of the same safety features, but the Escalade has the clear advantage when it comes to interiors, tech features, ride, and handling. The big V8 is standard, and with the eight-speed automatic transmission found in the Corvette (also in the Denali), the Caddy drives better at low speeds, and even returns solidly double-digit fuel economy (15/21) that just beats the Yukon’s (14/21).
At the end of the day, the Denali is a big, luxurious truck, and it’s priced accordingly. But the Escalade is almost ridiculous in its level of truck denial; it’s a self-hating truck. Cadillac’s engineers have gone so far out of their way — to the point of adding the brand’s signature Magnetic Ride Control suspension — to ensure that their massive body-on-frame SUV doesn’t feel truck-like, that the Escalade really feels different from its platform-mates. Love it or hate it (and there’s ample reason for both), the Escalade is a unique, wholly American creation, and it’s priced accordingly. In the space where the GMC and the Cadillac overlap, you’d be crazy to buy a truck over a Caddy.