On a recent family road trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles, I discovered something sort of unusual. The new Cadillac Escalade is a lot like California. Both have hard-working, agricultural-based roots, both encompass great diversity and both are covered with an almost unbelievable sheen that leads you to believe you're really looking at a one-trick pony.
California's one trick seems to be the shallow fakery of a Kardashian-like Hollywood, both on and off screen, and the Escalade's one trick appears to fit within that smoke and mirrors lifestyle thanks to an ostentatious, almost gaudy exterior. People see the Escalade as a showpiece and not much more. Both California and the Cadillac Escalade are much deeper than the average middle-American knows.
It's true, many actors and celebrities live in California so it's easy to assume that's all there is. However, according to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), California "is the nation's top agricultural state, and has been for more than 50 years." Agriculture generates approximately $37.5 billion a year, more than any other state. The truth is that the "Hollywood" portion of California is not as dominant as many Americans assume, especially if you actually live there. Residents know the state's population, economy, terrain and even housing prices are about as varied as the population of Times Square at 11:59 p.m. on New Year's Eve.
Similarly, the recently updated 2015 Escalade might appear to be all about show, but it has more function and purpose than the average smartphone. Yes, there's the flashy exterior and it, rightfully so, attracts the lion's share of attention. But like the mechanically similar Chevy Tahoe, the big Cadillac truck also works really well as a luxurious family car.
The interior is about as luxurious as you'd expect given the $72,000 base price, but it falls slightly short of really knocking your socks off like a Range Rover or Jaguar might. But the real beauty with the Escalade isn't in its aesthetics, it's in how easily it just works. Power-folding third row seats make family trips easy -- the 60/40 split means it's easy to accommodate various combination of kids and cargo, and the second row seats are almost as easy to fold forward allowing quick access to that third row when the seats are fully in place.
Easy is the New Luxury
No proper luxury SUV would be complete without a rear-seat entertainment system, and the Escalade has one available. The real luxury here is not the fact that the Escalade has a flip-down DVD screen -- even minivans now have that option. Rather, it's the fact that its operation is very straightforward -- ease of use is a luxury all its own. On that family road trip through the heart of California, we used it extensively and the operation is effortless -- my 9-year-old daughter was able to figure it out within minutes. Both kids instantly said "The video screen is really big." At 9-inches, it is sizable for an in-car system.
I sometimes dread these types of road trips when kids are involved. My fear is that I'm going to have to spend an hour at each I-5 rest stop trying to figure out how to get The Regular Show on DVD to play through headphones in the back seat and my wife's Pandora channel to play through the normal car speakers sans headphones.
I've heard a lot of criticism about Cadillac's CUE system, but I think it works well. The list of favorite phone numbers, radio stations, navigation destinations, favorite artists and songs all stored in one place and on one list is brilliant. My one issue with CUE is that the touch screen doesn't always respond to the first push of any given button -- occasionally two or three taps are required.
Luxury, image and functionality aside, both California and the Escalade wield considerable power in a purely Hollywood kind of way. As recently as 2012, California held just more than half of all film and television jobs and many of those jobs are focused in one 30-mile radius in a single county, according to a report by California's Legislative Analyst Office (LAO). All that production generates about $4.3 billion in economic activity according to a report from the Southern California Association of Governments.
While the film and television industry add considerably to California's economic engine thanks to well-paying jobs, the Escalade is powered by something much more tangible. Under the Escalade's hood is a 6.0-liter, 420 horsepower V8. Around town and on the open highway, it never feels taxed. Even the infamous Grapevine is no match for the Caddy's power. And that power is delivered in a smooth and suitably refined manner.
One feature I now expect on anything, even near luxury cars, is adaptive cruise control. Adaptive cruise control is like regular cruise control only it "sees" other cars ahead and will slow down to match their speed, then speed back up to your set speed as the other car moves or you change lanes to go around it. Not all adaptive cruise control systems are the same -- some can be jerky or abrupt and others seem unnervingly slow to respond to traffic. Occasionally, as the Cadillac gets back up to speed with a little too much enthusiasm, but on the whole, it works well. I suggest getting it even if you take only occasional road trips.
You know how you can tell someone isn't from California or that they've spent no serious time there? They use terms like "Cali" and "Frisco" when referring to the state or cities within its borders. But the real point is that the state is so popular, the average person is eager to associate themselves with the Golden State with stories of friends from past trips, or even seemingly cool abbreviations implying familiarity.
In a way, the Escalade is similar. It has lots of fans, but not everyone can come up with the needed cash to buy one. As tested, the Escalade I drove was more than $85,000. That's not such a bad thing -- there is a certain level of exclusivity at that price, which can add to the allure. It turns out that's true whether you're talking about a new car or state to call home.