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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • May 6, 2002, 12:00 AM EDT
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What does it say about our times that the Cadillac Escalade is the hip car of the moment?

Huge and theatrically brutish, the leather-lined, gizmo-filled Escalade has quickly become the Tommy Hilfiger of sport utility vehicles, much esteemed by the urban flash crowd that is the fount of so much mainstream fashion. This year the behemoth SUV was joined in the Cadillac lineup by the even edgier Escalade EXT, a sport utility truck that has the original's teeth-baring, bulked-up look up front, combined with the bizarre SUV-trunk-to-truck-bed rear end of a Chevy Avalanche.

Sure enough, an EXT is currently being auctioned on a Hollywood charity Web site by none other than Tommy H. himself. Not bad for a Johnny-come-lately luxury SUV that was initially dismissed by critics as a tarted-up Chevy Tahoe.

All this street cred doesn't come for nothing. Cadillac has gone to considerable lengths to put celebrity butts into the Escalade's high, cushy leather seats. For the EXT launch, the General Motors division rented an under-renovation Los Angeles hotel, put out a sushi spread and lured the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs to watch go-go dancers gyrate in the vehicle's cargo bed. According to knowledgeable Beverly Hills car dealers, the Escalade is now crossing over to the mainstream (from Whitney Houston to Goldie Hawn) to become the car to been seen in on Rodeo Drive.

All this must be very welcome at Cadillac, which hasn't heard its brand associated with the word cool in over 30 years. Once the standard-bearer of automotive excess, Cadillac pretty much missed out on the free-spending '90s, when more money was spent on more cubic feet of vehicle than in any time in history. Many in the automotive press have declared it do-or-die time for the much-diminished luxury brand. So, while the contribution the Escalade makes to Cadillac's bottom line is limited—how big a market can there be for a $50,000 truck?—the buzz it provides is priceless.

Moreover, Caddy has done it even while playing catch-up to the Lincoln Navigator, which pioneered the supersized, leather-clad luxury SUV category. The Escalade EXT now seems to be succeeding where the Blackwood, Lincoln's ill-fated Navigator-based luxury truck, failed. SUV buyers love the many capabilities of their vehicles, even though they rarely use them. But the Blackwood made the mistake of offering a feature that was actually unusable: a carpet-lined truck bed with a cover that made it impossible to carry tall or long cargo. Little matter that Goldie Hawn doesn't haul hay; at least in an EXT she knows that she could.

Some autopsies on the Blackwood also suggested that, unlike the Escalade, the Lincoln didn't look "bold" enough—"bold" being, as far as I can tell, a car-design euphemism for ugly. "Bold" is also used to describe the CTS, Cadillac's new entry-level luxury model, whose blunt front end resembles that of a wall-eyed bulldog. Like the Escalade, it is square, chunky and macho.

Yet ugly—I mean, bold—is selling. Perhaps after 10 years of being mass-educated in the principles of design by Pottery Barn, Target and the like, some consumers now crave a little ugliness. The CTS has sold briskly out of the box to a considerably younger buyer than the marque's typical 62-year-old customer, surpassing expectations. It has something no Cadillac has had in many years: instant recognizability on the street.

For far too long, the folks at Cadillac labored under the mistaken idea that an SUV would violate the spirit of the brand. Now it is clear that the opposite is true. After all, Caddies were known as "land cruisers" long before SUVs hit the drawing board. According to an account I once read by someone who took the fabled '59 model out on the highway, the vast barge was terrifying to drive as it bobbed and sashayed on its sloppy suspension. No vehicle more perfectly reflects the DNA of such a car than a behemoth SUV that has a high center of gravity and is so maladapted to real-life driveways, streets and parking lots that the driver requires computer assistance to back it up without crushing bicycles or Ford Neons.

As for ugliness, let's face it: In its heyday in the '50s, the Cadillac brand stood for a lot of things, but good taste in design was not one of them. As different as the beefy Escalade looks from a tail-finned '50s sedan, it is a vehicle squarely in its predecessor's tradition. The trick is in being ugly and excessive in just the way the times demand.

In its new exuberantly inelegant, bull-nosed lineup, Cadillac may have found a future that links to the glories of its past.