GM maintains its grip on high-end comfort and luxury for the SUV crowd

Gas prices aside, luxurious SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade ESV and the Hummer H2 remain highly popular aspirational vehicles. Recently General Motors sent an example of each over for week-long test drives, giving a lowly construction editor a taste of what it’s like to roll like a celebrity for a few days.

Mind-blowing comfort options
My Escalade loaner was a beautiful crimson color – a great choice here in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Equipment World‘s corporate offices are located, since Tuscaloosa is also home to the University of Alabama and its legendary Crimson Tide football program (impartiality is a journalistic trait this writer rejects completely when discussing college football). More than one friend commented how great a ride the Escalade would be to take to campus on a home game weekend in the fall.

The striking Cadillac grill, understated body cladding and big, factory-installed, 20-inch Goodyear all-season radials with glittering chrome rims helped boost the ESV’s head-turning power when rolling down the street. Because make no mistake about it, this is a truck that demands people’s attention. In 2002, when GM loaned me one of the first H2s in town, I spent a great deal of time answering questions at gas stations and returning waves in traffic. Last year, the same was true when Chevy brought over an SSR hot rod truck and asked me to evaluate it for a week. This year, an H2 is old news. But the ESV drew admiring looks and comments all week long — which rather surprised me since, at its core, the ESV shares a common frame and body with GM’s Suburban line.

But that’s the power attention to detail has when applied correctly in the automotive world. Because the ESV is all about getting the details right. The interior is where the full impact of these amenities hit home. From the plush leather seats to the polished walnut trim, there is no doubt Cadillac is taking its heritage as a top-end automobile manufacturer with renewed seriousness. Because my loaner truck was fully tricked out, the roster of optional equipment was mind-blowing: there were heated and cooled drink holders front and rear, heated and cooled leather seats, front and rear, two rows of rear passenger seats with two DVD screens, full sun/moon roof, Bose stereo with dash-mounted information screen with fingertip touch commands and GM’s new real-time, scalable navigation system (which is broadcast on the stereo screen so both driver and passenger can easily use it).

Cadillac put GM’s 345-horsepower, Vortec 6000 big-block gas engine under the ESV’s hood. But even with that big powerplant turning the wheels, the ESV isn’t a drag-racer. Its 5,933-pound curb weight means there’s a lot of truck for the Vortec to get moving, but it’s more than up to the task. Acceleration is smooth and steady, with plenty of reserve power to spare once the ESV is up to highway speeds. Ride and handling are superb as well, and the ESV maneuvers well even when pulling into tight supermarket parking places. Gas mileage is around 12 mpg in the city, and at $2 a gallon, filling up the SUV’s 31-gallon fuel tanks can be a costly affair. But if you’ve got the cash to afford the ESV’s $73,675 invoice price, then you probably don’t care what a gallon of gas costs anyway.

A new Stealth Gray paint color and onboard navigation system are among Hummer’s 2005 highlights for the veritable H2.

The King of all SUVs retains its title
I feel bad now for saying the Hummer H2 is old news. By any standard, the mighty H2 is the undisputed king of the SUV world. In my defense, let me note there are now a lot of H2s on the road in my hometown. And Hummer has gone three years now without any major changes to the basic H2’s exterior appearance. (I should note here that I didn’t have the new Sport Utility Truck version Hummer introduced this year. But I have fielded a lot of questions about that new body style, and would venture to guess that if I’d been given one instead of the standard SUV model, the interest level would have skyrocketed exponentially). But that’s not to say the standard-body H2 still doesn’t dominate any road it’s on, or draw admiring looks as it rolls down the boulevard. And my loaner’s new cool Stealth Gray color scheme certainly didn’t hurt its recognition factor, either.

Sport Truck version aside, all the standard Hummer H2 upgrades for 2005 are inside the truck. While the dashboard and vehicle control layouts remain essentially the same, this H2 shared a Bose stereo and dash-mounted control screen with the Cadillac ESV. And like the Caddy, this H2 was equipped with GM’s on-board navigational system.

The navigation system is pretty slick overall. It’s scalable, so you can zoom in and out at will. The map’s 1/8-scale resolution seemed to be best for basic navigation. In theory, the navigation system can also direct you along a pre-selected route. But in practice, I found this aspect of the system clunky and difficult to use. I think GM needs to come up with a more user-friendly interface: I’d just like to key in, say, “Belzoni, Miss.,” and have the computer calculate a route for me to get there. If I need to find a specific address once I’m there, I’ll do it then. Instead, this system insists on having a specific address to work with from the get-go. And worse, there’s no easy way to tell it you want to go to Mississippi instead of North Carolina — which was the state the Hummer’s navigation system perpetually wanted to steer me toward.

Despite its size, the H2 handles quite well on both city and country roads. It won high praise for its exceptionally smooth ride from passengers and friends I let behind the wheel. Acceleration is slow. That’s not surprising. With a curb weight of 6,400 pounds, the H2’s Vortec 6000 engine has to get a pretty significant amount of SUV moving. And even at highway cruising speeds, the H2 isn’t going to exactly jump if you tromp down on the accelerator.

Gas mileage for the H2 was 11.3 mpg for the week I drove it around. That was mostly city driving, but included a fair amount of highway mileage too. Mileage like that isn’t going garner rave reviews from the Sierra Club any time soon. But it’s not really that bad, relatively speaking. My buddy Brian noted that his Chevy 2500 Silverado gets comparable mileage. And my loaner this week — a much smaller, less-powerful GMC Envoy SUV — is so far only turning in 12.4 miles to the gallon. So, if you’re in the big truck business, you could argue that an H2 isn’t all that bad, considering you could probably haul an Envoy around in one if you needed to.