How the Escalade Out-Maneuvered the Navigator at the Dawn of the SUV Age


In the early 2000s, I was working as general counsel for an auto transport company.  We had a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals to move the players’ cars the hell out of St. Louis at the end of the season—mostly to South Florida. Back then, the dominant whip among major league ballers was not what you’d expect. Corvettes, Benzes, Bentleys and Ferraris barely registered. Neither did the thinly disguised Yukon Denali that was the first generation Cadillac Escalade. No, what everyone from juiced sluggers to ballboys wanted was the Lincoln Navigator. But that quickly changed as soon as Cadillac introduced the second-generation Escalade, the one made famous by everyone’s favorite North Jersey sanitation executive, Tony Soprano. The next-level swagger of the new 2002 Escalade turned the Navigator into the MySpace of luxury SUVs—going from first to market to also-ran, in record time.

As the first-mover in the segment, the battle was Lincoln’s to lose. The original 1998 Navigator was a supremely nice rig that was generally well-reviewed by the magazines of the day. Motor Trend was particularly effusive in its praise: “This Lincoln goes almost anywhere the biggest, ugliest, member of the current crop of beastly off-roaders goes with impressive levels of mechanical refinement and interior comfort, yet it still looks smart parked in front of The Ritz.” What really set the Navigator apart was the fact that unlike the 1999 Escalade with its uninspired badge engineering, the Navigator looked the part. Although it was based on the Ford Expedition, the only body panels that it shared with that vehicle were the roof and doors.

Uncharacteristically, GM learned from its mistakes quickly, and the now iconic, Ed Welburn-supervised design of the second-generation Escalade was an instant classic. Car and Driver in its initial test said that the Escalade went from worst to first in one fell swoop. But even more importantly, the magazine made this particularly prescient observation: “Someday, when—and if—Cadillac has successfully completed its renaissance, we may look back on this vehicle as the beginning of the comeback, the vehicle that marked the restoration of America’s one-time standard for the world to the first rank of prestigious transportation providers. Wow, huh?”

Wow, indeed.  In response, the refreshed 2003 Navigator was pretty meh. Car and Driver noted that even owners of the original Navigator would be hard-pressed to recognize this as a new model. That, sports fans, is a serious foul for a new vehicle in a hotly competitive segment. So was giving up about 50 hp to the 6.0-liter Escalade, and even though acceleration isn’t the point of an SUV, taking almost 2 seconds longer than the Caddy to get to 60 was also hard to ignore. An incalculable number of style points went to the Cadillac as well.

An overly conservative refresh with no gains in power, and only modest gains in performance effectively squandered the lead established by the first Navigator. By the time the second-generation Escalade came out, the Navigator was also getting trounced in the ever-important pro ballplayer market. Lincolns had all but disappeared from the fleet of that annual Cardinal exodus to South Florida. And in perhaps the ultimate addition of insult to injury, when a Navigator appeared in The Sopranos, it was owned by a rat, Fabian (Febby) Petrulio whom Tony finds hiding out in Maine. The game had been Ford’s to lose, and they had truly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Escalade, on the other hand, has done what several generations of super-sedans couldn’t do for Cadillac—make the badge relevant again and get younger people into Cadillacs in large numbers. Car and Driver’s prediction had come true; the 2002 Escalade really was the cornerstone of the revival of the brand, which in the coming years saw more exciting models like the CTS-V, ATS, and CT5-V join the lineup. Conversely, you could argue that the second-gen Navigator, introduced for 2003, was the opposite. It preceded the general neglect that the Lincoln brand still suffers from.

1st Generation Lincoln Navigator SUV front three quarter towing

There are many instances of Ford Motor Company putting out a hit new car or opening up a whole new segment, leaving General Motors to play catch up. The Mustang and the Bronco are two of the most famous. In the case of luxury SUVs, though, GM’s upstart challenger got it just right and has continued to be more culturally relevant and desirable than its FoMoCo rival.

With the Sopranos-era Escalade already approaching some form of collectibility, it’s just something to ponder when you light a cigar, cue up Alabama 3’s “Woke up this Morning” and transit the toll booths on the Jersey Turnpike, while pondering whether Tony got whacked or not in the finale.


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    Cadillac at first was just a Cadillac Denali. It was nice but it was not what it needed to be. Cadillac is about excess and that is what had been missing for years.

    They discovered that more is better and people would pay for it. So even if it is a Tahoe under the bling there is enough to change the image of the vehicle. More leather, More wood, more power and more price work.

    Ford has lost their way with Lincoln. They just fight internally too much over it and too many times their cars are more Ford than Lincoln. That is not good. You can cheap your way to luxury GM tried that too as their Cadillacs were more Chevy than Cadillac and they have fixed that with the present cars and to a degree in the SUV models.

    The other thing is GM has always had the better large SUV models. Be it Ford or Chevy or what ever.

    These are not my kind of vehicle but if you get it right they make money and that is why they build vehicles.

    I called Hagerty yesterday to see if my ‘Sopranos era’ v good shape 05 Denali was eligible for Hagerty insurance. I was told no. Now this article teasing collector insurance for my vehicles’ sibling? What is your stance on the 99-06 GM big SUV’s? Collector or not? Frankly I was surprised and disappointed at Hagerty’s answer. Please revisit–especially after an article like this.

    From the cutaway drawings in the article, it looks like the Navigator had independent rear suspension and the Escalade did not. These types of vehicles are not something I would ever buy, but wouldn’t the fact that the Navigator had IRS mean it had either better ride or handling or both vs the Escalade? If so, wouldn’t that give it a significant advantage, or do buyers of these buy them purely for looks / extravagant consumption / the lemming factor?

    The second generation Navigator did indeed have an IRS, and it rode a little better than the Escalade. The big perk was the fold flat rear seat. None of that matters because people gravitate to Cadillacs more in general over Lincolns, and the Navigator was no different in that trend. Once the 2002 Escalade model came out and production scaled up at the Arlington GM Plant, the Navigator didn’t stand a chance.

    I just never understood why EITHER of these appealed to the clientele that they did – or at least the ones who wore big bling chains and some kind of flash “grill” in their smile, whether rappers or wide-receivers. But for whatever reason, I can’t believe that those folks were worried too much about suspension type.

    Lincoln went with full air suspension too, which meant when failure occured, the thing sank down onto its bumpstops and looked ghetto. Caddies don’t. Independent rear suspension only mattered to magazine writers, not real world drivers.

    Who would ever have dreamed, back in their heyday as coveted luxury cars, that one day the Cadillac/Lincoln war would come down to a battle of overpriced trucks?

    Those of us who followed the auto industry in the 90s may recall that Cadillac was developing their luxury suv at about the same time as Lincoln’s Navigator. Then at the 11th hour Cadillac decided they didn’t need a truck and it became the GMC Denali. Note the original Denali’s 1997-up Deville-style grille. With the immediate success of the Navigator, Cadillac quickly reconsidered and reinstated the Cadillac badges on the Denali and got the Escalade to dealers a few months later.

    I remember in 2004 people wanted these things badly and put 24 inch wheels on them to impress somebody. I hated them but that didn’t stop anyone from buying them and trading Corvette’s, etc. for them.

    Although baseball players aren’t necessarily the tallest athletes, I’ve read that these vehicles are popular with the pros because of the tremendous amount of front seat leg room.

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